Artist fuses spirit, history and vision of Armistead Gardens into school mural

WHEN LUKE A. SHAW was a year old, his brother, left home to care for his little sibling, secured him with a belt in a tiny rocking chair by the fire place. Shaw rocked and rocked, until he pitched forward into the fire's dying embers. He landed on his forehead and hands. His sister and brother retrieved him, and his mother came home in time to find the flesh melting from his fingers.

Three years later, Shaw remembers, there was a train ride and the consoling Baby Ruth candy bars his father plied him with as they traveled from their rural North Carolina home to the hospital in Gastonia. There he spent 18 months and endured many operations to repair his hands.


Shaw's fingers remained scarred and disfigured, but they never stopped the Coppin State art professor from becoming an accomplished painter and sculptor with an adventurous interest in other mediums, such as ceramics and stained glass.

When students and staff move into the new Armistead Gardens Elementary School this fall, a striking glass historical mural designed by Shaw will grace its main entrance. "I'm overwhelmed with the colossal idea of producing a work of this magnitude," says Shaw, who is in his early 60s.


The mural, 5 feet tall and 8 feet wide, tells the foreshortened history of Armistead Gardens, the privately incorporated World War II-vintage community near Erdman Avenue and Pulaski Highway originally built to house white defense workers.

The mural features in its first three sections Col. George Armistead, commander of Fort McHenry during its 1814 bombardment, the enterprising Erdman brothers, who built a road in their name to link their farms on Harford and Belair roads, and the Glenn L. Martin Airport State Airport, where Armistead Gardens residents toiled during World War II. The fourth section reflects the multi-racial student body at Armistead Gardens, a school that integrates handicapped children from throughout the city into its student population.

Shaw was the man for the job, says Joseph Wilson, the former principal of Armistead Gardens and central figure in forming and carrying out the school's mainstreaming philosophy. Wilson was persuaded after seeing a painting by Shaw of "what most people would see as weeds. He saw some beauty in those weeds, in [their] color, life, diversity, and it was a very lovely painting. What really caught me, he could see beauty anywhere.

"At Armistead, there were so many children that were handicapped," says Wilson, now principal of Mount Washington Elementary School. "Sometimes, people in general in society, don't see them as having beauty. This was a man that would be able to see the beauty that was there in the children and in the school. . . . That was my reason for wanting Dr. Shaw to do the work."

Shaw, originally selected by the new school's Washington-based architect to design a work of art for the building, collaborated with the Armistead Gardens community to develop a mural that would give students a sense of their neighborhood's history.

As part of a city program in which one percent of the total cost of the construction or renovation of a "suitable" public facility is dedicated toward a work of art, Shaw's concept endured a daunting gamut of committees, including the city's Civic Design Commission, which embraced the design, and the school system's Fine Arts Commission, where Shaw encountered rough passage. But the Armistead Gardens committee made up of school and community members prevailed in its support of Shaw.

Developing a concept for the mural "gave us a boost to see we have the heritage and something to be proud of, besides all the nTC negative things about the community," says Lynne Martin, an Armistead Gardens resident, referring to her neighborhood's reputation for racial intolerance. The mural "brings the past, the present and the future all together, makes for a beautiful piece of art," Martin says.

"An artist makes no difference how one feels about race, individuals or groups. His work [should be] worthy of him and the people he serves," Shaw says, in response. The Armistead Gardens community was "very warm and receptive," he says. Because he did not have the studio or the correct equipment for actually making the mural, Shaw became the artistic overseer for a group of stained glass artists who did.


By winning the bid to do Shaw's mural, Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz and Len Berkowitz of the Great Panes studio in Ellicott City say they and their craftsmen have completed what may be one the largest "fused glass" pieces in the world. Fused glass is a method of creating stained glass art that involves the annealing or fusing of specially made glass under intense heat in a kiln.

Using Shaw's scale model as a guide, the Great Panes staff cut thousands and thousands of pieces of glass from 47 different panes to match the colors of the mural, composed of 60 19-by-19-inch panels. The panels had to be fired in the kiln two at a time at a temperature of up to 1425 degrees for nearly 20 hours. The result is a dense, three-dimensional panorama with a ceramiclike quality quite different from and more durable than the translucent stained glass seen in church windows and on Baltimore transoms.

The mural required more than 600 hours of work, Sherry Fackler-Berkowitzes say. "I'm really proud of the project," Len Berkowitz says. "It was a project of immense preparations. . . . We learned an invaluable amount." It is Berkowitz's hope that the mural "will last longer than our lifetimes . . . [as a tribute] to what our studio has produced. . . . I'm just ecstatic with it."

It is the second major mural by Shaw, who created a stained glass mural honoring the African-American scientist Percy Julian for Coppin State in the early 1970s. The mural was later vandalized and removed from view.

A man who savors life, teaches, continues to paint his bright abstract and figurative works, study art history, play a mean trumpet, and pursue his fascination with artists such as Goya, Delacroix, Modigliani, Charles White -- "the black Michaelangelo" -- and Horace Pippin, Shaw is not one to let such disappointments deter him. And for him, the new mural is a tribute to his own spirit and that of the children and staff who form the special community of Armistead Gardens.