Seniors engage local students, create mosiacs

By the end of the spring our community will be made brighter by the display of a creative public arts project conceived by two Williams seniors. Three colorfully creative mosaics which brightly tell the tale of two communities will soon be unveiled in Williamstown and North Adams. [photo element=1620]You will not be able to see the works in the Clark Art Institute or the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art but at the three outdoor locations chosen by the eight middle school participants in the CABeL Project. CABeL stands for Collaborative Art Building enduring Links and is the project for which seniors Sarah Cooper and Sarah Sweeney have dedicated most of their time since Winter Study. The student have mapped out their towns, finding the sites they feel represent themselves and their communities and have made the works of art to mark these special places.

Cooper and Sweeney, since February, have been meeting on Monday afternoons and Saturday mornings with eight students in sixth, seventh and eighth grades from Mt. Greylock and Conte Middle Schools and the Pine Cobble School. The central theme of the CABeL project has been for the students to build a literal and figurative trail, linking North Adams and Williamstown. The mosaics constructed with painted ceramic tile mounted onto thick wooden sign posts are to be erected at the North Adams YMCA, at Windsor Lake in North Adams and on Spring Street here in Williamstown.

The letters written by the students to various public officials asking them for permission to mark the sights describe the project best. “We chose some of the sites because we have fun there, some because they are naturally beautiful and some because they are connected to the history and character of our towns. Every site is one we all care about even though we come from different towns, schools and neighborhoods.”

Cooper explained that she and Sweeney handed over most decision making responsibilities to the kids. “We wanted them to be able to choose on their own the sights they felt close to in their towns. We thought it would be a good idea to mark them with flags.” Sweeney laughed and added, “But no, they wanted mosaics. We thought, ‘this is ridiculous, we can’t make mosaics.’” But along with their students Cooper and Sweeney have learned and from the looks of the photographs documenting their progress, they have learned well.

The inspiration and initial plans for the CABeL project came from one of Cooper’s fall semester classes. Non-Profit Organization and Community Change, taught by Professor Alex Willingham, required students to come up with a possible project for a non-profit. Students in Willingham’s class were not expected to follow through with their proposals, but Cooper felt too inspired to leave her plan as a mere idea. Cooper explained, “The focus of my project was to build a sense of community among kids from the different towns in the area. I became so excited by the project that I wanted to actually do it.”

She enlisted the excitement and help of Sweeney, her best friend, and the two founded the CABeL project. Together they put a scaled-down project plan into motion, dedicating all of Winter Study to putting CABeL together, finding funding and student participants. Both Cooper and Sweeney remarked of the tremendous amount organizational work required to find the money and logistical support needed to put everything into effect. “We spent all of Winter Study setting this all up. It was basically a 9-5 job every day.” Sweeney had a thesis to write and still she and Cooper spent all of January tackling the initial organization of CABeL.

Their first task was to find a meeting place; they chose the North Adams Y. Secondly, the two had to make sure that their enlisted students would have transportation. “The kids’ parents work during the day and we had to get them from their schools to the Y,” explained Cooper. She went on, “And then, of course, we needed money. Professor Willingham helped us out a lot with that. The Chaplain gave us a huge chunk and then we got a bit from many other sources like the MCC.” They found $1400 in total but will probably not need that much to finish the project.

Both agreed, however, that securing funds was not most difficult hurdle. “We had to find kids. We went to the schools and gave our pitch to the art teachers and the students. No kids, no project. But we finally found some. A few came at first because we gave them pizza. That’s our biggest budget item,” Sweeney laughs.

With Sweeney playing bus-driver in a College van, the kids began in February to find favorite places. The kids happily toured Cooper and Sweeney through their favorite parks, museums and hang-out spots. In seeing for the first time so many beautiful and fun places in the area, the two felt the effect of spending so long in the Williams bubble. “One of my favorite spots, and theirs too, was Natural Bridge State Park in North Adams. I’d never been there or most of the other places they showed us. This place is a glacial gorge where the Hoosic River has cut a hole in the rock making a natural bridge. It is beautiful.” Both said that they are grateful to have been introduced to their student’s favorite places. “It makes me feel like I have missed out. Now we do feel connected to the community. We know the people at the Y. The guy in the tile store always asks us how the project is going. We know people in the North Adams mayor’s office.”

The kids felt proud to show off their hometowns. “We have them keep journals which we read,” explained Sweeney. “After we went on a field trip the kids from North Adams wrote about how excited and happy they were to be able to show us around. And one of the kids from Williamstown was absent when we spent the day here and she was sad that she had missed the chance to show off her favorite places.” CABeL certainly seems to have served as a lesson in civic pride for all involved. “They all had stories about all of the places we visited,” said Cooper. “They got to teach us all about local history.” Mayor Barrett of North Adams has promised that the vertical mosaics, once erected, will remain on permanent display.

Of the fifteen sights that the participants initially chose, three will be marked; among these is the Y, because, as Sweeney said, “that is where we all meet and it is an important part of their community.” Also on their list is Windsor Lake. Cooper said that all of kids had been there over the summers to swim, barbecue, fish and play with their families. Some have even gone ice-fishing there. With the mosaics for these first two sites completed, they have begun work on a third, which will go up near Where’d You Get That? on Spring Street.

Both Cooper and Sweeney were filled with praise for their group’s artistic creativity. Sweeney is a studio art major; Cooper admits that all the students draw better than she does. CABeL has received a lot of artistic help from Peter Jones ’01. “He has been the biggest help,” praised Cooper. “Whenever the kids are hyper and need someone to goof off with, he’s there. He also helped us figure out just how we were going to do the mosaics. He has come whenever he can and all of the kids relate to him so well.” They both laughed at how much trouble they encountered when trying to figure out how to use the necessary grout for the painted tiles – but Jones provided the explanation. Their next technical feat will be learning how to use B&G’s hole digger. “These posts are eight feet long, for which go in the ground,” explained Cooper. And we don’t get to practice with the hole diggers – we cannot leave big holes everywhere.” A celebratory unveiling barbecue has been planned for May 1st. All of the kids and their parents and friends will convene at Windsor Lake to view the artistic addition. Cooper and Sweeney seemed excited about the near-completion of months of their dedication.

CABeL’s participants have also put in the time and feel thrilled to soon see their creations on display. They all have spent months working towards adding art to their communities. And along the way, eight near-teenagers from different backgrounds have become good friends, have found a new pride in where they are from, and have added their own touch of beauty whose artistic imagination we can all appreciate.

Cooper and Sweeney have only a few more weeks at Williams, but both are glad that they are not going to leave before having met the surrounding community. “I have heard so many times from people that there would not be a town with out Williams,” commented Sweeney. “That is self-centered absurdity. There is so much interesting culture and history around here. We went on a trip to Heritage State Park and learned all about the textile mills. North Adams used to be a booming town.” Cooper added, “the best was that we got to hear so many stories. I feel like I am a part of the community like I never would have without the project.”

And though they are leaving the two spoke optimistically of the possibility of bringing their ideas for more public arts projects with them. Cooper explained, “There are grants out there for this type of thing. We’ve been talking about getting some.” Sweeney noted that their project has been successful with a low budget. Cooper has always wanted to go into education and Sweeney is torn between that and a career in the arts. Both are thankful that CABeL has afforded them the chance to learn a little about how to teach.

Since this week is Community Service Week on campus, the CABeL Project could not be more relevant. Sweeney and Cooper have successfully fused the essence of community service and education.

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