News: A Mosaic Called 'Community'

Art gives O-T-R neighborhood more than beauty

Dec 8, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Sean Hughes/

Lisa Haynes already knew the value of volunteering; now she has learned the power of art.

Over-the-Rhine residents are taking pieces of the neighborhood's tainted history and reconstructing it into mosaic panels that convey a message of peace and unity.

Residents from grade school kids to senior citizens spent two years constructing a mosaic archway for Imagination Alley, until now a small park on Vine Street between 13th and 14th streets.

Imagination Alley doesn't require as much creativity to make it beautiful anymore — an 18-ton mosaic archway has turned it into an inviting space. The Peaslee Neighborhood Center, on East 14th Street, will continue to provide volunteers the opportunity to beautify and unify the neighborhood; plans to create more mosaics for Imagination Alley are underway, according to Brenda Zechmeister, arts program coordinator at Peaslee.

Broken and put back together
The Over-the-Rhine community is benefiting from the presence of the archway just as it benefited from the two-year process of creating it, Zechmeister says.

"The community-building that happened during the process of building the archway was amazing," she says.

Getting the community to work together to promote the message of peace will show people that involvement and dedication will help the neighborhood strive, according to Lisa Haynes, a volunteer and staff member at Peaslee since 2001.

"If I want to make difference in this community, it's got to come from within me," she says.

Haynes, 35, started volunteering as a result of personal experience. She quit her full-time job to help her daughter, who was struggling in school, get back on pace. Now her 17-year-old daughter goes to a private school.

"I took away from myself in order to get my daughter (to improve her grades) and I realized I wanted to continue to do that for another child whose mother is working a full-time job," Haynes says.

After volunteering at Peaslee for a few years, she became interim coordinator in the Homework Room and then became an artist apprentice for the Over-the-Rhine Community Art Project, constructing the mosaic archway.

The pieces on the archway reflect the theme of peace and unity. Zechmeister was inspired to use this theme after the 2001 uprising in Over-the-Rhine.

"Peaslee's mission is to serve Over-the-Rhine and low-income families," she says. "Since the riots, we reworked the mission statement to include peace."

Funding came from many sources, including the Nelly-Leiman Taft Foundation, the Greater Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund and the Art Academy of Cincinnati.

"Since the Art Academy is moving downtown soon, my boss said we should establish a relationship with the neighborhood," says Michelle Markert, director of community education at the academy.

A mosaic was a beautiful way of presenting the theme of peace and unity through art, according to lead artist Suzanne Fisher.

"You take something that has a history, it is broken and then put back together into something stronger and more beautiful," she says. "Mosaics don't fade, they glisten in the rain and snow and are textural so you can touch them."

Mosaics are also less intimidating to work on, she says. Fisher often had to coax adults working on the project to express their creativity.

'So much is beautiful about Over-the-Rhine'
A full-time mosaic artist, Fisher worked with several hundred drawings with the theme of peace and unity submitted by kids from Washington Park School, Memorial Community Center and other schools and centers. Community involvement and group effort in this project was very important, something Fisher kept in mind from the first sketches to the final construction and celebration of the archway.

"We like to honor the original intent of the drawings," Zechmeister says.

"Mosaics are a great way to get a lot of people involved on some level," Fisher says. "And the theme was open enough to interpretation to work with. It's not just a peace sign."

The completed archway is a testament to the two years that more than 200 Over-the-Rhine residents spent working together, Markert says.

"You can see their self-confidence growing while they were doing something that they've never done before, that they didn't think they could do," Zechmeister says.

That change is visible through Haynes' smile. She says she also felt that her self-esteem is better after working and volunteering at Peaslee.

"Lisa was great to work with," Fisher says. "She was always willing to learn and always available to help."

The archway is located in what Markert describes as "an ugly-looking alley nicknamed Imagination Alley."

"It's great to see a place that used to be a drug-dealer hangout becoming a place for kids and adults to hang out," Fisher says. "Everyone working on the archway was thrilled that they were doing something that would become part of the community."

Zechmeister hopes to make the park a safe and beautiful place by adding planters and benches. More work on the plan requires a master plan for Imagination Alley, which is in motion.

"Someone even had the idea of putting a barbecue grill there," Zechmeister says.

"There is so much that is beautiful about Over-the-Rhine," Markert says. "We want to celebrate and encourage that to make it even more beautiful."

The more people get involved, the more they want to do, Zechmeister says. This virtue is marked through Haynes' efforts with Peaslee. Haynes has been doing volunteer work for more than 15 years and says she plans to continue her community involvement.

"Since we're going through the war and all, I would like to continue with the peace and unity theme," she says. "It seems like the more we push for it, the more we pull in."

For more information about Over-the-Rhine Community Art Projects and the Peaslee Neighborhood Center, call 513-621-5514.