“Sleeping on Tar Beach was magical. Only eight years old and I can fly. That means I am free to go wherever I want to for the rest of my life.”
– Cassie Louise Lightfoot (Tar Beach by Faith Ringold)
It’s been almost 30 years since Cassie Louise Lightfoot first flew over Harlem in her dreams in Faith Ringold’s classic children’s book Tar Beach. The tale of freedom and self-expression has inspired children the world over to believe in the power of imagination and creativity, especially in the face of adversity.
That message found an eager audience at Mt. Airy’s Eleanor C. Emlen School this year, where students with little access to art education and materials discovered their voices through a special collaboration: the Community of Pride Mural and Literacy Project.
Developed by the Mount Airy Art Garage (MAAG), the project offered a group of 4th and 5th graders a chance to unleash their imaginations and see their lives and communities through the lens of art. According to Arleen Olshan, co-founder of MAAG and its new executive director, the project relied on a Tar Beach “story quilt” by Ringold (one of about 20 she created, which are in display in museums around the world) as a way of “illustrating how the artist tells her story and to encourage the students to visualize what makes them proud about themselves, their families, and their community.”
The ultimate goal? A large mural comprised of panels, each a work of art by a student, that would be permanently fixed to a wall at Emlen. The frame of the mural, made of African materials, was created by a local African American artist. “It gives the mural the appearance of a quilt,” said Olshan.
To create the art for their mural panels, the students relied on the guidance of their MAAG teachers, guest artists, and literary resources to learn to observe, think, draw and speak like artists. One artist in particular, Mikel Elam of Artist and Craftsman Supply in Chestnut Hill, “opened up a whole new type of art to the kids when he brought in his collages,” said Arleen, “it really inspired them.” Elam later told Arleen he wanted to give back because he had a mentor when he was 10 and wanted to repay that gift.
Throughout the months of lessons in art vocabulary and technique, Faith Ringold’s book provided direction for the kids, challenging them to find their own voices and their own special place, a Tar Beach, beyond the daily routine.
For many, that special place included the Lovett Memorial library, where the group celebrated after their mural was complete with an exhibit of the works they created during their classes. More than just a school show, the work drew a score of neighbors and resulted in all of the works being sold. “It was a big treat for them.” said Arleen, “We told them now you’re a semi-professional. You’re still a student but you’re selling your artwork.” It must’ve made them feel like they were flying.
The Young Emlen Artists exhibit will remain on display at Lovett Memorial Library until August 15. (6945 Germantown Avenue. MAP LINK 215-685-2095.)
This summer, Arleen and the MAAG crew will begin planning a fall mural that will be affixed to an outdoor wall at Emlen. They’ll create works using parachute cloth inside the studio and then attach them to the wall outside. “We haven’t figured out what artist we’ll use for inspiration,” said Arleen. “We might use another Ringold book or maybe the work of a local artist.”
Whatever the idea, MAAG is looking for helping hands. They’ll be doubling the number of students in the project to 30. “We’re looking for all sorts of volunteers, not just artists or those with art backgrounds.” If you’ve worked with children or want to share literacy skills, or just want to know more about MAAG, Arleen would love to have your help. Please contact her at 215-242-5074.
6622 Germantown Ave. (MAP LINK)
MAAG would like to thank the sponsors of the Mural and Literacy Project