Progressive Playground is the latest area in the city of Lebanon to get a new look via public art. Installation of a mosaic mural at the playground located at 350 N. First St. was completed at the end of July.
The wall now sparkles with beautifully colored tiles, and the mural conveys the message of unity.
“The theme of ‘we’re all in this together’ reflects the time we’re in. It not only references the COVID-19 pandemic, but it also alludes to the community and unity,” said artist Michaelanne Helms. “The design also incorporates a basketball since there are basketball courts at the park.”
All photos by Will Trostel.
Although she continues to create more traditional artwork, Helms is also community artist. She said the spark for community art was lit when she took a workshop in the early 2000s with Philadelphia mural artist Isaiah Zagar.
“What I like about his style is that he has a way of involving many people in one project. As a community-based artist, I work with groups of people to design and create together,” she said.
“The concept of community art is that the public art gives voice to concerns, values and aesthetics of the community,” explained Sharon Zook, Lebanon Valley Council on the Arts president. “Public art exists to serve the public, improve the atmosphere of public space and provide enjoyment, inspiration, and hope for the public who uses the space. As time changes, and the public is no longer served by the art in their space, we see art being removed, and at some point, new voices rising through art. Art reflects life in the community, empowering the voices of those who contribute to the art.”
This marks Helms’ third playground project in Lebanon. Her first collaborative mosaic mural project in Lebanon can be seen at the playground at 6th and Elm streets, and she completed a collaborative mosaic mural in July 2019 at Beautex Park, 129 Van Buren St.
Zook explained that before each public mosaic mural was installed, content was gleaned through survey research. She said themes are gleaned from those responses, and imagery comes from the concepts in the surveys.
For the latest project at Progressive Playground, as with previous mosaic mural projects in Lebanon, Helms collaborated with participants in a two-week summer camp hosted by the council.
Zook said the wall selected for this year’s mosaic mural was suggested by Jandi Goshert, who grew up at the Progressive Playground.
“She mentioned that site to Michaelanne a year ago, so we explored the possibility of placing the mosaic there,” Zook said. “From time to time, people suggest walls throughout the city, so we keep a mental list identifying walls where people would like to see public art.”
Typically, during the first week of camp, the class canvases the neighborhood, gathering research and inviting neighbors to participate in the installation. Because some of the data is collected that week, the design can only be completed during the camp.
“That gives everyone — including the mayor — only a day of turn-around time for approvals so the installation can be completed in a week,” she said, “Mayor Capello has been very workable and cooperative with giving permission for the project, and handing over the keys — literally and figuratively — before the design is ready for approval.”
Helms added that during the first week, the class, which this year had seven teens, also learns the fundamentals of mosaics. Toward the end of the first week of camp, the design is completed and sent for approval. Meanwhile, the tiles are prepared based on the design being approved because there isn’t any time to lose.
Helms said tiles that are shiny and glossy are perfect for outdoor mosaics.
Zook related that they were running out of white tiles, so she visited the local “tile graveyard” at Weaver’s Carpet in Tile in Lebanon.
“It’s a treasure trove of all the misfits, overstock, discontinued, and rejects from decades of being in business,” she said. “Last year, in a frantic last-minute search calling around the area for blue tile, I hit the jackpot at Weaver’s.”
Zook was able to find array of skin tones for the mosaic.
“We wanted a pallet of skin tones so that anyone visiting the mural could identify themselves with one of the clasping hands.”
She said the council also accepts tile from local stores getting rid of sample boards or from people who have leftovers in their basement.
“The one color tone on the hands came from a couple in Hershey who recently moved to their new home, and their dishes no longer fit the color theme of the new kitchen,” Zook said. “The brown glazing on the bottom side of their old scratched stoneware plates was the perfect color.”
According to Zook, due to COVID-19 precautions, the indoor instruction time this year was reduced, so the class that trained did not create key pieces in the studio prior to the installation. All the technical elements were done right on the wall.
In addition to the seven teens from the class, several volunteers from the Progressive Playground neighborhood helped create the mosaic. Tiles were applied to the wall, and then grout was mixed and applied.
Helms said she used a special formula for the grout that she learned from Zagar. After letting the completed artwork weather for about a week, she returned and applied some of the lettering.
“Working with kids and community members is fulfilling to me,” Helms said. “Designing and creating the art is a collaborative process. It crosses generations, races and economic levels. Everyone can learn from one another and share ideas.”
Funding for the mosaic mural was provided by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts through Millersville University’s South Central PaARTners program and the Foundation for Enhancing Communities.
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