Student billboards around Baltimore display message of tolerance

Amid all the glitzy advertisements vying to capture the motoring public's attention in the Baltimore area, the students who designed five billboards promoting tolerance hope their messages stand out.

Students at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in Dundalk worked with graphic designers last fall on Design Ignites Change, a nationwide initiative to place student images and messages on billboards. The young artists created slogans, logos and drawings for the project. Five designs from Patapsco students were eventually made into billboards that went up this month in and around Baltimore.


"I think our messages help to increase awareness and maybe make people more open-minded," said Bernadette Szrom, whose design occupies a billboard at North Calvert and East Federal streets near Penn Station.

Students were given several themes, such as crime and violence prevention or environmental issues, but most gravitated to messages of acceptance. The work, during four weeks last fall, helped the teens look beyond themselves and expand their talents, said Bernadine Zienkiewicz, an art teacher at Patapsco. She said the project helped three students who usually arrived for class with lavishly applied makeup find inspiration.


"Three girls who really rely on makeup as part of their persona showed artistically the changes from a heavily made-up face to one without it," she said of a design by Sarah Henry, Erika Shaddock and Samantha Panuska.

"Make Up Doesn't Make Me," with its two compelling sides of one face and its ornate lettering and background that fades from dark to bright, is on a billboard at Dundalk Avenue at Gusryan Street.

"What a great way to show your artwork and say what you think," said Zienkiewicz. "There are a lot of billboards out there, but these really show up with extremely clear messages of tolerance."

Students Emily Baum and Amy Louden wrote, "Don't Trash Baltimore" in bold letters over a white background that is shaped to resemble the city skyline. The three words come from the mouths of silhouettes etched at the sides of the drawing and dominate the smaller print in the background of the billboard at Eastern Avenue near Bethel Street.

"Welcome to Diversity Baltimore," at East Federal Street near Erdman Avenue, features rows of black and white buildings drawn from a photo of the harbor. A closer look reveals the lettering.

"All the buildings are actually made of words 'tolerance' and 'acceptance' in eight different languages," said Ryan Pachilis, 18, who designed the billboard with classmate Jessica Searfino. "We repeated our slogans on the buildings."

Szrom was the only student who worked alone. She called her colorful, computer-generated design "Tolerance, Imagine That." The most difficult aspect of the project was coming up with a message that she could match to an image, she said.

She placed four figures in a park setting. They appear to twirl umbrellas amid a shower of all the letters in "tolerance." The letters loom large in the foreground and fade to smaller type in a cloud-covered sky.


"As long as these messages are there for people to see, somebody will get it," said Jeremy Jirsa.

He worked on "Tone Up the Tolerance," a billboard at Curtis and East Patapsco avenues, with Ginger Corbett and Chance Moody. In their take-off on the American flag, the students made stripes of strong human arms linked by firmly grasped hands.

"We tossed around a lot of phrases and came up with the flag as a uniting symbol," Jirsa said. "Then we built in arms with different tones of skin color."

The students benefited "by playing off each others' ideas," he said. They found their mentors in the Baltimore chapter of AIGA, an association of graphic designers and artists, helpful but unobtrusive.

"I really liked the hands-on concept and the suggestions from our mentors," Pachilis said. "But they let us do it. That was great, because nobody goes to the kids for these ideas and projects."

Before the billboards went up, the designs were displayed for several weeks in the school lobby. Principal Ryan Imbriale said he could tell from the way students lingered before the images that the messages resonated. He hopes to have the designs imprinted on large banners that will hang permanently from the school rafters.