Original tile mosaics—with designs ranging from a bus blasting into outer space to fish swimming in a spiral—are adding pizzazz to more than a dozen bus shelters along Rockville Pike. Installed by Montgomery County to mark the opening of the Ride On extRa express bus route running between the Lakeforest Transit Center and the Medical Center Metro, the colorful mosaics nestled in the shelter sidewalks were designed by local teens to reflect local neighborhoods and the zippy route.
“As part of the new express service, we wanted art that reflected the locales of the shelters or the fast movement of buses,” said Stacy Coletta, Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) manager of passenger services. “These art pieces fulfill those goals. The medallion at the Strathmore shelter, for example, includes a guitar shape and the letter ‘S.’”
Coletta knew where to turn for the colorful mosaics—Arts on the Block (AOB), a Kensington-based program that provides creative high school students with a real-world experience in making public art. “We’ve commissioned mosaics from Arts on the Block previously, and they have a proven track record with us,” she said.
During the summer, a half dozen MCDOT officials met twice with the 21 Montgomery County high school students working in teams as AOB “apprentice artists.” While MCDOT had a clear idea of what they wanted in the roughly $20,000 commission, the teens’ creativity made for a better end-result.
“The kids listened and asked a lot of questions about what we wanted. They’re so creative, and after a little tweaking of their final designs, we have wonderful mosaics that look great,” Coletta said.
Kristine Aono, who leads the nonprofit’s Pour Your ART Out apprentice program, said that in addition to learning art theory and techniques, the students gain real-world experiences by working directly with clients. The process included each artist presenting their own design to County officials.
“The kids learn the business end of creating artwork, from chairing the meetings with clients, to learning how to conduct themselves and figuring out how to present their design ideas,” Aono said. “These are basic job training skills that will serve them well even if they don’t enter the art world as a career.”
As only 13 medallions were needed, the 21students from eight different schools knew that not all the designs would make the cut. “Learning to be flexible is often the greatest lesson these kids take away,” Aono said. “The apprentices had to realize that if their design was not selected, they still need to work together to realize the winning designs.”
Atiqa, a high school senior, was thrilled when her proposal made the cut. (Note: At the behest of the non-profit, only first names of students are used.) She plans a career in interior design, so working with MCDOT officials helped her see the project through the customer’s eyes, Atiqa said.
“My design grew out of the client’s discussion of what they wanted. You have to really listen,” she said of her design of black roads looping against a background of green and blue.
The design further evolved as Atiqa’s team worked with a tile cutter to craft the 30-ince wide medallion out of unglazed porcelain tile. “Translating a design into a mosaic often requires changes to make it work, and these teams really rose to the challenge,” Aono said. “They have to stretch and reassess the design each step of the way. There are lots of adults who never achieve that skill.”
Compromise led to something beautiful, Atiqa said. “You have to allow other ideas to be considered. But in the end, (the medallion) turned out amazing.”
In addition to a six-week summer program, AOB apprentice sessions run after-school and on weekends from November through March. Students apply for the program online, need a teacher’s reference, are interviewed and provide samples of artwork.
The program is proving popular among artistic students determined to make their mark, Aono said. “We have kids that take two buses and walk to get to our studio,” she added.
To learn more about Arts on the Block, visit http://artsontheblock.com. Learn more about this organization on CultureSpotMC here.