Laurel Arts Council creates projects people can live with

For Laurel Leader

As summer begins and people spill into city parks and pools, they’ll notice some new features: two original pieces of public art created by and for Laurel residents.

The two projects — a tiled bench at McCullough Field and a glass mosaic at the Municipal Pool – are the first works commissioned and completed by the Laurel Arts Council. The bench is installed near McCullough’s basketball court at the corner of Montgomery and 8th streets.

A ceremony to dedicate it will be held Saturday, June 8, at 10 a.m. Work on the mosaic is in its final stages and it is expected to be installed by the end of the month on a wall near the entrance of the pool at the bottom of Main Street.

“It was important to us to engage the community, especially the local schools,” said Kelsey Eustace, the chair of the arts council. “Both of these projects did so. Instead of the community just enjoying public art, they were actually able to help it come about.”

Longtime Laurel resident and sculpture artist Cheryl Dyer, who is a member of the arts council, spearheaded both projects.

The bench features 170 tiles that were created by residents at September workshops at the Laurel Museum and by fifth-grade students at Laurel Elementary School. Images were impressed in clay – some using molds that Dyer had made – then fired in a kiln. Then the tiles were glazed to add color and fired again.

“As a piece of public art, it’s definitely handmade,” Dyer said. “That’s part of its charm.”

The tiles tell stories of Laurel’s past and present. Some of the pieces feature historical buildings in the city, including the Laurel Mill, the Avondale Mill, the Laurel Museum and the train station. There are also tiles of three historic city churches: St. Philip’s, St. Mark’s and St. Mary of the Mills.

The Laurel Historical Society teamed up with the arts council to educate Laurel Elementary students about the city’s past so they could help create tiles informed by the city’s rich history. Other tiles highlight local organizations and businesses, or images like horses for Laurel Park or Black-Eyed Susans, the state flower.

About 165 people had a hand in creating the bench, Dyer said. Most of those were residents or students who created tiles. The city’s Department of Public Works donated the granite slab that provides the seat for the bench. Charles Hungerford dug and poured the footings and made the concrete wall that holds the tiles.

Another group spent several days applying and grouting the tiles, a difficult job since some had warped in firing. Dyer estimates she devoted nearly 300 hours to the project, many of those firing the tiles twice in her home kiln. The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation donated the space on city land and is charged with landscaping and maintenance of the bench.

“A piece of art that engages people and starts a conversation, is, in my view, a success,” Dyer said. “Many people have recognized their own work . . . and recognition is a powerful starting point for conversation. Plus, I think the message from the tiles is that all these people love Laurel, that it is a welcoming community and that we are lucky to live here with each other.”

The mosaic soon to be installed at the Municipal Pool also tells the story of Laurel, albeit in a different way.

The massive piece was created by students in the arts program at St. Vincent Pallotti High School. It is composed of thousands of pieces of colorful cut glass that together make a unified image of the Patuxent River, local wildlife, a mill wheel, mountain laurel bushes and a river goddess. The figures are meant to be evocative of the environment in which the piece will be displayed close to where the Laurel Mill once operated along the Patuxent River. The image of West African river goddess Oshun was included in homage to the enslaved people who picked the cotton the mill once processed.

A team of five Pallotti seniors – Olivia Blackwell, Nyah Doe, Nicole Panebianco, Alyssa Savard and Grace Wilkerson – working under the guidance of art teacher Alan Ernstein have devoted about 30 man-hours a week to the mosaic since February.

Dyer recruited them to the effort and has purchased materials for them on behalf of the arts council, which received a $2,000 grant from the Prince George’s County Council to pay for the mosaic. The students did everything from design the mosaic – which will be displayed around a bulletin board – to cut the glass, place the pieces and affix them. Soon they will help install it.

It was a learning experience for them all – none had done mosaic work before and they typically work on individual projects in class – but one they all valued.

“You had to be very patient because you were making the puzzle and solving the puzzle at the same time,” Wilkerson said. “But now seeing it all done, it’s pretty satisfying.”

Panebianco and Wilkerson both noted how special it was to be part of a permanent piece of art that will make its home in the place they grew up.

“It’s a sweet little memory we’ll have,” Wilkerson said. “It also really connected me to the environment of Laurel a little more and the history of Laurel. Hopefully that’s something other people will get out of it, too.”

The two pieces are supported by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which operates McCullough Field where the bench is installed and the Municipal Pool where the mosaic will reside. It provides administrative and staff support to the arts council as well. The department has made a push in recent years to promote functional art on city properties and through its programming, said Director Joanne Barr, a move that can help spur economic development.

“If we’re going to put a bench in the park anyway, let’s make it something interesting,” she said. “There’s such tremendous talent in the community, what a great way to make something beautiful.”

The department worked previously with Laurel High School students to paint benches located at Granville Gude Park and the department’s maintenance facility. It also installed a Free Little Library featuring recycled art at Discovery Park.

The Laurel Arts Council likewise has been promoting art in other ways. An exhibition of Laurel High student art was displayed at the Municipal Center from May 5 to June 5. The council is working with the city of Laurel’s 150th anniversary committee to incorporate artistic elements in the celebrations slated for next year. It increasing its efforts to promote the performing arts – theater, dance, music – as well as the visual arts.

For now, though, Eustace said one of the best ways residents can support art in Laurel is visiting the new public art pieces and attending the June 8 dedication of the bench at McCullough Field.

“The more the merrier,” Eustace said. “We hope the people who created the tiles would come and talk with each other and look at their tiles. It’s a community celebration of the work they did to make this project happen.”

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