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NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) — On a Saturday morning at Bates Woods Park, New London High School senior Harry Georges told Connecticut College art professor Andrea Wollensak that he had figured it out. He had decided on the quote he wanted to paint onto the mural he and other students were creating at the park.
It was this: "You can be powerful beyond measure."
Wollensak responded enthusiastically, and they both walked to the sprawling exterior wall of the park's concession stand to figure out where the quote should be placed.
Georges told Wollensak, "I want my voice on that wall."
She said, "That's great— that's what it's all about."
Indeed, this mural project is about community and inspiration and collaboration. Its central image is a tree, with roots reaching down to the ground and branches wending their way toward the sky. Around the tree weave positive messages from New London High School students— messages influenced by what they are thinking about, what they want to be, what they might want for their future.
This program, dubbed "Project Grow," unites two groups of students, from Connecticut College and from Higher Edge. Wollensak approached Higher Edge head Chris Soto with the idea, and a happy association was born.
The Conn "Public Practice" class is about striving to create social change through community engagement and design strategies.
Higher Edge is a nonprofit, New London-based organization that helps guide through the college process high school juniors and seniors from low-income households and those who would be the first in their families to attend college.
Soto, the Coast Guard Academy alumnus who established Higher Edge in 2011, said of Project Grow, "We want Conn College students and Higher Edge students to be a part of this together. It's definitely about that cross-pollenization."
He added, "We realize we have to do things outside the walls of Higher Edge that are going to, one, provide awareness but, two, help slowly and step-by-step create this college-going mentality. I think the mural is just the thing— it's about awareness. Students go to Bates Woods, they're going to ask questions, they're going to see quotes from students they may or may not know. It's one more impression on them about going to college."
And the dozen participating students benefited from having an illustrious leader. Guiding them through the mural process was SUEWORKS, a prominent New York-based graffiti/urban artist. SUEWORKS is known for his 3D perspective, and his clients have included ESPN and VH1.
He has worked with students often, too, recently traveling to Norway and Israel to do just that. Soto, who had worked with SUEWORKS before, suggested him as a collaborator for the New London program. (The "SUE" in SUEWORKS, by the way, stands for "Styles Under Evolution.")
Inspired by it all, SUEWORKS created his own mural at Bates Woods to complement the one that students devised. He did his on Friday, on the back of one of the baseball dugouts. The piece is joyfully abstract, with colors that pop and with angles and a composition that suggest a rush of movement.
On Friday, too, SUEWORKS talked to the kids about how murals like this are done and showed them the process— sizing the wall, drawing the image, painting the final product.
On Saturday, the students took on the responsibilities themselves. As a softball game was running in the adjacent field, they hunkered down over stencils laid out on the pavement, taping letters together to create a particular quote. They taped the words to the wall and spray painted the messages.
Georges said of the mural's positive messages (his own quote was one he's heard from his brothers), "It's good inspiration ... and it's an ideal spot because a lot of kids come out here to play games and watch softball and baseball."
The Bates Woods location, which was suggested by New London Parks and Recreation Department, is next to the high school.
Damoya Nelson, a New London High School senior, offered as her mural quote one of her favorites: "It's not where you're from. It's where you're going."
"People look at New London kids— 'Oh, they're this, they're that, they can't make it anywhere.' But a lot of us are living examples that's not true," said Nelson, who will study business when she attends Ithaca College this fall.
Nelson is the first in her family to go to college, and she said that consequently, "We don't know a lot about the process. Having (Higher Edge) by my side to lead me and show me what I'm supposed to do really helped. ... Having your own team of cheerleaders rooting you on— you feel good and they help you and you're not all by yourself."
Nelson spoke positively, too, about how the Conn College students are trying to help the community with a project like this.
The Conn class is involved in something else at New London High School— a large geometric mural where students write their dreams, passions or favorite course on a small, adhesive, bright-colored triangle.
Those are then placed on a board in the building. The Conn students post something next to those; if the student wrote that they love music, the new triangle might suggest what college would be good for them, what possible majors are or what related professions could be.
The Conn students have also gone to the Higher Edge offices a couple of times and talked to the high schoolers.
Wollensak said, "My students love it ... They're really connecting with these kids."
Neta Nakash, a Conn senior, has spent a lot of time volunteering in New London and the region during her time in college. But, she said, "This experience has been the most one-on-one conversations that I've had with students in New London. It's been great for me to hear from them and learn from them."
As for the Bates Woods mural session, Nakash said afterward that she enjoyed getting "to hear the students having fun and saying how awesome this was and how they want to keep doing it. I think this is something Higher Edge could definitely keep doing with the students. It's a great way for them to have their voices out there and be the role models for future generations at the high school."
Information from: The Day, http://www.theday.com
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