Violence affects people in different ways. Some become shut-ins, others are drawn to work with others to create social change. Fifteen years after a stranger was shot and killed in front of her home, artist and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Karen Blessen is still spreading peace through art with her non-profit organization, 29 Pieces. Blessen has just finished the summer sessions for Piece 24, a workshop for high school students to collaborate on model sculptures. Working with the themes of respect and compassion, Piece 24 is a public art project that will put a three-dimensional, 16-foot-tall mosaic sculpture in Oak Cliff.
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The senseless killing ultimately led to the creation of 29 Pieces. “It super-sensitized me to the violence in our culture,” says Blessen. After writing and illustrating a story about the incident for The Dallas Morning News in 2003, she received a huge response from others who have been affected by violence. She had essentially been working alone for three decades, but now she wanted to work with people.
“There are other ways to navigate life than to just get mad and shoot people,” Blessen says. 29 Pieces was founded in 2005 with the idea of using art for social change. The organization has now worked with thousands of kids with a curriculum that uses art to teach kids to take a stand against violence. 29 Pieces refers to the original idea of building 29 full-scale monuments, but working with kids became the priority. “We just kind of held that tiger by the tail,” says Blessen.
In March, 29 Pieces relocated from Deep Ellum to a spot in Oak Cliff between Sunset and Adamson High Schools. Working with high school students over the summer, Piece 24 revisited the original idea of creating a public monument for the 10-year anniversary. Partnering with Craig Schenkel Real Estate, Piece 24 is providing invaluable training for young artists. The students even earn scholarship funds provided by donations from individuals and foundations.
Will Richey, the founder of DaVerse Lounge, teaches literacy through spoken word and poetry, primarily to young people. He has been working with 29 Pieces on the Piece 24 project to help the students express the experience through words and describe their artwork. This creates a safe environment and develops camaraderie. He was particularly taken with Blessen’s decision to move 29 Pieces to Oak Cliff. Many talk about bringing different parts of Dallas together, but she actually set up her non-profit in a different area and started attracting many types of creative people. “That’s something incredibly authentic,” Richey says.
The young artists gathered ideas by doing paper collages and learning mosaic technique. Then the students worked in pairs, constructing totem sculptures with cardboard, plaster and acrylic paint. For inspiration and reference, they used the collages and a couple sculptures made by the adult staff. The imagery and words of a Native American poem were also a primary influence. “We took one step at a time and enriched the concept with each step,” says Blessen.
Working with Blessen, volunteers and paid mentors, the students created some startling imagery. The vertical sculptures are all brightly colored and imaginative. They have hands, wings, eyes, peace symbols and graffiti. Many include passages from the poem. “If there are other organizations doing what we do I don’t know of them,” says Blessen. “We’re teaching them job skills while they are fully participating in creating a public art project.”
Over the summer, students were coming in a few days a week for Piece 24. But with the school year beginning, they will start coming in on Saturdays. After completing the model sculptures, the students started working on small zines for the Dallas Zine Party. They are even creating videos with local filmmaker Wheeler Sparks to document the project. Jorge R. Gutierrez, the director of the animated film, The Book of Life, also gave a presentation for the students. “The kids are learning all kinds of skills,” says Blessen. “Everything from how to think about a public art project, how to conceptualize, how to document it, how to market it and how to film it.”
Combining the best ideas from the model sculptures, rough sketches for the full-size monument are being worked on now and funds are still being gathered to cover the costs of the installation. Blessen and Schenkel expect it to be constructed near Texas Theatre on Jefferson Boulevard and plan to unveil it in April. The monument will be somewhat of a totem pole, a colorful mosaic with a steel frame and a concrete mortar, 4 feet wide at the base.
“I use the example of The Beatles,” says Blessen. “When they came together and had their minds and creativity merging, they created something that was so far beyond what any one of them could have created individually.”