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Some young artists in Blackwell are turning an eyesore into public art the whole community can enjoy.

Garden of Dreams

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Twenty-five young artists from the Blackwell District of South Side Richmond are changing their world. They're creating an inspiring, artistic environment for their community. And they're only in middle-school.

These students have been working on a multiphased public art and park design project for the past two summers. The program was started by Jeffrey Levine, a Richmond Redevelopment and Housing architect. It's run by Hope VI Revitalization Program, a HUD initiative meant to help troubled communities reclaim their neighborhoods by revitalizing declining properties, designing new family housing and giving residents the opportunity to earn college and trade degrees.

"Our particular idea was to demonstrate that creativity could be a powerful tool in the plan," Levine says.

His student art group is focusing its efforts on land in an existing park and school grounds surrounding the former Blackwell Elementary School. Thanks to the students' work, the land is about to become a garden of dreams and ideas.

Bound on two sides by a chain-link fence and on one side by a small stream, the neighborhood green space presents the Blackwell art group with an opportunity to transform the ordinary into art.

Take the chain-link fence, for example. It presents an unfriendly message, warning everyone that comes upon it to "stay out" or to "stay in." The young Blackwell artists have found a way to change that message, with professional guidance from Chuck Bleick of Virginia Commonwealth University's art education department and local artist/activists Heidi Trepanier and Jeff Dowdy. Their finalized design recycles the existing fencing into an artists' canvas. The Blackwell group plans to attach colorful aluminum cutouts to the chain-link mesh, recognizeable shapes that express a vital, close-knit community. Houses, sunbursts, airplanes, lollipop trees and cars in silhouette will repeat in a series along the length of this "art wall," wrapping around the corner and embracing one section of the park in a celebration of the importance of home. The fence's new message will be an invitation, something on the order of "Please come in and make yourself at home."

To create a garden from a lackluster piece of land and make the best of its storm-water management requirements, the Blackwell art crew transformed a containment pond into a landscaped feature and a runoff ditch into a stream. They drew in bike and walking trails, a playground, recreational courts and a gazebo, all sited along the view of their mural installation. Their design will function as an ideal from which to determine an inclusive new reality. Planning the art garden as a group has given the children an empowering experience that demonstrates the importance of using creative thinking in every undertaking.

On the day before the formal unveiling of their plan, the young artists are excited and the din in the room is profound. Jeff Dowdy's deep, clear voice focuses the participants. "All right everyone," he says, "divide up into three groups to complete the final presentation. Who's going to cut, who's going to color and who wants to paste?" He directs 20 kids' adrenaline toward the finale. While they settle down to work, Trepanier gives some background into the experience they have all been through. "It was a very positive opportunity for all of us," he says, "and, for me, a joining of two priorities: art and the environment."

"We had our own ideas about the project that we had to let go of." Trepanier admits. "Here, the visually oriented children really stood out. It was interesting to watch them getting involved, particularly as they learned to define their own opinions after we took them around the city to view and critique other public art."

The art wall and park redesign will not actually undergo installation until October, but much has been accomplished in time for the summer's end and the Aug. 22 reception at the Hope VI headquarters. Cut-out maquettes of the final mural, and a 3-D model of the landscaped park have just been completed. Two young Blackwell artists, Joshulyn Burnette and Derek Miles, helped the project gain national recognition when they spoke before the National Congress for Community Economic Development Conference in Washington, D.C. Fire Station No. 13 has raised $4,200 through a golf tournament to help purchase materials for the project. And Richmond Pressed Metal has committed to help provide the cut-out forms.

But on this day, as the concept presentation is being fine-tuned, Levine stands quietly on the sidelines, remembering the idea's beginnings. He's been watching it come to life in the electric air of the Hope VI work room. "We wanted the community's children to see their own work become a positive legacy for the city," he says softly. "We wanted something with permanence."

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