“We have millions of young minds bored, looking for things to do,” said Tsipi Ben-Haim, executive and creative director of CITYarts. “We must get them active in positive activities so they won’t be looking for something wrong to do, but be involved in building. When kids create they do not destroy, and its our responsibility at all times to engage our youth in constructive, creative projects that help them become creative, productive individuals.”
Such is the mission of CITYarts, originally established as Cityarts Workshop in New York City in 1968, but shuttered some 21 years later due to a lack of funding. The non-profit re-opened soon after as CITYarts under new stewardship, and has gone on to orchestrate nearly 300 public art pieces throughout the city.
Ben-Haim said that CITYarts was initially approached by the Flatbush community to revitalize the crumbling black wall that ran through Umma Park, a shadowy eyesore that Ben-Haim was told brought down the aesthetic of the park, even attracting drug dealers on occasion.
“It was criminal to have a black wall bringing so much heat and tension to in a playground,” she said. “The community kind of cried out to us to see if we could do something about it.”
After getting a vote of approval from Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Kevin Jeffrey, CITYarts chose Brooklyn artist and Australian native Damien Mitchell, a veteran muralist and street artist, to shepherd the project, which began with a 10-week brainstorming workshop at Ditmas Junior High.
“Each week we focused on a different theme,” said Mitchell. “One week was superheroes, while another was transportation of the future, designing futuristic cars, for example. So out of the 15 drawings of futuristic cars that week, I would take a few I thought were the best, or one element from a drawing, and then integrate that into what ended up on the wall. Everything, down to small flowers, was taken from sketches the students had produced during the workshops and then compiled into one big scene.”
Culling from weeks of students’ sketches, Michell eventually produced the final design for the wall, and just as school ended for summer, began work scratching away flaking paint and transforming the nondescript wall into a piece of art. Overall, some 600 students aged 9-18 from area schools and summer programs ended up collaborating on the wall.
After last week’s unveiling, Mitchell said the months of hard work paid off.
“Having the kids come back and see their own work up on the wall, seeing those ideas realized, was pretty special,” he said.
Ben-Haim stressed that in addition to the positive impact the project had for participating students, the new mural would serve to better the community as a whole.
“The students had such a sense of ownership and pride,” she said. “And the mural isn’t just beautifying, but it creates a place of meeting, a place where the community can come play, celebrate their birthdays, whatever events they want to celebrate. That’s very important.”