If you are a stranger to Covington and happen to drive through today, you will know if you are in Austinburg, Wallace Woods, Eastside or the Mutter Gottes neighborhood by the 2’ x 4’ glass mosaic signs placed at the gateway to each neighborhood. You will also probably get a pretty good sense of the neighborhood because the signs are a product of a community arts project conceptualized and designed by the residents of those neighborhoods, with the assistance of community artists Rosemary Topie and Jackie Slone. Currently in the works are signs for Peaselburg, Mainstrasse, Old Seminary Square and Historic West 15th.
According to whom you talk to, the gateway signs have very different meanings. Mark Rottinghaus of Stewart Ironworks looks at the mosaic signs that they bracket and post as one of many different products featured in their catalog. They are accustomed to making signs, as well as park benches and other municipal items. “When I get callers interested in the mosaics, I refer them to Jean St. John at the Covington Community Center, because I know they are part of a program, not something produced by a single sign designer,” say Rottinghaus. “We’re glad to be a part of this project. Anytime you can get the community involved, they can take back pride in their neighborhoods.”
Jean St. John, director of community arts initiatives of the Covington Community Center says that Stewart Ironworks has been a great community partner in the project, by holding to their original low price in spite of rising steel costs and understanding that the each gateway mosaic is not just another sign. “The beauty of this project,” says St. John “is that it fosters pride in Covington neighborhoods by announcing to visitors that its neighborhoods are cared for and well loved.”
How can a sign do all this? Let’s look at the process. The Mosaic Gateway Project begins with the Covington Neighborhood Collaborative (CNC), a network of neighborhood associations facilitated by the Covington Community Center. CNC identified the need for neighborhood welcome signs. Individual neighborhood organizations then agree to sponsor a sign — host design meetings, approve the final design before assemblage starts, choose a site, obtain permission for installation, install the signs, and host the dedication ceremony.
The “art” in the community arts process mostly takes place between design meetings and final approval of design. Once a neighborhood organization has made a commitment to the project, artists Topie and Slone hold meetings open to residents of the neighborhood. In the first meeting they ask for words or phrases that reflect the resident’s feeling about their neighborhood. A dialogue takes place about those associations and about how they help to identify the neighborhood. Then residents are asked to do drawings as visual aspects of the neighborhood, its history or things that might have a special meaning to them. At that point Topie and Slone take the ideas back to their studio and try to assimilate the thoughts into 3 or 4 designs that will work in the mosaic medium, to present back to the neighborhood group. The neighborhoods usually try to incorporate all different elements into one design, but generally can come to agreement on the most important parts. Again, the artists go back, assimilate and revise to one design that can accommodate the medium as much as possible. They then present Xerox copies of the agreed upon design back to the residents along with colored pencils. “It’s always fun to see adults coloring,” says artist Topie. “That’s the neatest experience.” Once everyone has colored their mock-ups, they look at them together and try to come to a consensus on what colors should be used. At that point, the artists make an actual size blow-up of the sign and match the color selection as close as possible to colors available in glass tiles. The neighbors give the final go ahead to do the mosaic.
Now Topie and Slone go back and make the signs, right? Wrong. Now the artist go back and work with the 13-17 year-old Covington youths, given a stipend by the Covington Community Center to work on the project, as well as the volunteers that attend community workshops every Wednesday evening. Youth are recruited through the Mosaic Arts Program and work for four hours a week for ten weeks at $6 per hour. The youth come to the Center and make trivets first as a way of learning the craft of glass tile mosaics. The youth, the volunteers at the workshops and the artists work together to produce the signs that mark each neighborhood. “We’ve seen great things happen with Covington’s young people through this project,” says St. John. “One youth, Lamar Rice, really took it beyond what the job was. He got so involved in the project that he would work many hours beyond his stipend on a volunteer basis. This year he is mentoring students at Thomas Edison Elementary and became a role model for what kids can do with their time in a positive way.”
Rosemary Topie, who is now the Education Director of Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center in Covington says, “I first got involved in public art through the Covington Millennium Mosaic benches project with Olivia Gude. This was the first time in my career as an artist and teacher that I have been so involved in community arts and it really has become ‘a thing’ for me. I am now known as one of the artists associated with the signs and it has been a big boost to my career. I don’t live in Covington; I live in Union and work in Covington. I’ve lived in Kentucky for 28 years and Covington was always kind of a mystery to me. Through this work, I have gained a better understanding of the neighborhoods and a real appreciation for the history and the people of Covington.”
Kentucky Arts Council funding for all grants require matching funds from other sources. The Mosaic Gateway Project is funded through the Kentucky Arts Council, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cincinnati Fine Arts Fund and Cinergy.
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EDITORS NOTE: Photos available upon request. Contact Ed.Lawrence@ky.gov
The Kentucky Arts Council is a state agency in the Commerce Cabinet. Working in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Arts Council invests in programs that develop vibrant communities, provide lifelong education in the arts and support arts participation. Every $1 in grant funds awarded by the Kentucky Arts Council helps grantees secure $15 in earned income and matching funds from individuals, philanthropic sources and other levels of government.