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Building castles in the city

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Rebecca Yenawine were queen for a day, she'd rid the world of racism, empower the children and hold art classes for all.

For now, she is standing in a vacant lot in Reservoir Hill doing what she can. All around her, children are busy: A tall, thin boy in neon green dabs black paint on a metal sculpture. A girl with wire frame glasses and braids sweeps away shards of glass. A very little boy, his feet wrapped in plastic bags to protect his shoes, paints the sidewalk blue.

These are the Kids on the Hill, members of an arts-based, after-school program founded and run by Yenawine. Together, the director, some assistants and the children are putting the finishing touches on a sculpture garden that will fill a vacant, city-owned lot.

The lot, at 2325 Madison Ave., stands out like a gap in a worn-out smile. There is no grass here. No tree. No bench. Tucked between tall, faded rowhouses, the cement-covered space offers no hint of what once stood here. Was there an elegant rowhouse? A store that made its owner a respectable living? Not a trace of that past remains.

Still, a little magic is at work. Two purple turrets and the tower of a pearly white castle are sprouting from the cracked concrete. A pale blue throne studded with seashells and colored glass perches nearby, its empty seat an invitation. Cast metal people -- their faces painted with reds, yellows and greens -- stand atop a sculpted steel base decorated with cutout designs. Etched into one sculpture are the wistful words of one program participant: "If I were king for a day, I'd make a type of skin lotion so everybody would have the same skin color so no one could be racist."

Little fanfare, big lessons

Over the past few months, in other parts of the city, a different kind of program has been underway: Officials are unveiling big fiberglass fish with great fanfare. Mayoral pronouncements have been made about them, press conferences held. Business leaders have turned out to lend support. By the Fourth of July, 200 fish, cast from the same mold but decorated by different artists commissioned for the occasion, will be on display.

That project, called "Fish Out of Water," is promoted by local development officials as a public art event that will build community, boost local morale and attract tourists. In the fall, the fish are to be auctioned off, the proceeds to be used for purchasing visual art supplies for the public schools.

There's nothing wrong with that.

But isn't it odd that when the Kids on the Hill sculpture garden is unveiled next Saturday, there will be far less fanfare? A celebration is planned, to which everyone is invited. There will be face painting, food and music by the Swingin' Swamis. And anyone who wishes may help complete the colorful mosaic that decorates the base of the throne.

But don't expect pronouncements from City Hall. Or press conferences. Or crowds of business leaders turning out.

To be sure, few tourists are likely to find their way to this particular block. And these sculptures will never be auctioned off. Instead they will stay where they are, adding a dash of color to a weary urban neighborhood and, possibly, boosting local morale.

There are lessons to be learned from Kids on the Hill. Under Yenawine's direction, the program's participants are learning about art -- how to make it and how to share it. And Yenawine herself is teaching the city about the power of individuals.

She is an artist -- a painter -- who lives in a rowhouse on Reservoir Hill's Madison Avenue, not far from the sculpture garden.

Teaching has always nourished her art, she says. "It felt like a very healing act." And so, in her first years as a Reservoir Hill resident, she invited neighborhood children into her home. She talked to them, offered them apple juice, gave them paper and paint.

Once, she saw two girls planning a spray paint graffiti campaign and coaxed them in for art lessons. Later, they transformed a row of boarded-up houses with painted murals.

By 1999, visits to Yenawine's house had become a five-day-a-week, after-school program augmented by a five-week summer camp. She has received a fellowship from the Open Society Institute and funding from the Family League of Baltimore and the Baltimore Community Foundation A-teams, among other places. Now there's a five-person staff and a $200,000 annual budget. The art lessons have expanded to include daily tutoring and nurturing for about 16 students (who are full participants in the program) and mentoring for nearly 40 more.

Every day at 2:30, Yenawine picks up the children from school and drives them to the nearby St. Francis Neighborhood Center, the Kids on the Hill gathering place. They spend an hour doing homework or being tutored. Then everyone makes art, plays games or takes field trips. They've had lessons in boxing and basketball. Swimming is a favorite activity.

Kings and queens

Since last summer, the children have been planning their sculpture garden and studying castles. They studied the architecture of castles and their history, lore and myths. They went to Washington to visit the Smithsonian. They pretended to be kings or queens for a day. With the help of artists hired by Kids on the Hill, the children took turns learning how to sculpt with steel or cement or stone.

"We learned about kings," says 7-year-old Renay Battle, who is in second grade at Westside Elementary School. "You see those towers? We painted them. We had cooking classes. We went swimming. We went to the Seven-11. We eat pizza. We painted those towers and we did the best that we could do. We try to be proud of ourselves."

Besides having fun learning about castles, says Yenawine, the children were learning about power structures in society. Through the sculpture garden, they are gaining a voice in their community. As they designed it, they debated the questions: Who has power in society? How is it used? What would you do if you had power?

"There are tons of great kids' books about castles and in most of them, the metaphors are about power and class. So we studied historically what power was and what it did. And we created our own castles."

Perhaps castles hold lessons for all of us.

The opening of the Kids on the Hill sculpture garden, 2325 Madison Ave., will be held from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday. For information, call 410-523-0212.

Portfolio, a column of observations and opinions on art and culture by Sun arts writer Holly Selby, appears every other week in Arts & Society.

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