Creating Public Art Through Intergenerational Collaboration

Mel Alexenberg and Miriam Benjamin

Art Education: Journal of the National Art Education Association. Volume 57, No. 5, September 2004

The collaboration of young people and elders in creating monumental works of public art is an exemplary model of postmodern art education. Elders representing different ethnic communities, high school and college art students, and artists collaborated in creating works of public art that enrich their shared environment.  Through aesthetic dialogue between young people and elders from the Hispanic, African-American, and Jewish communities of Miami, valued traditions of the past were transformed into artistic statements of enduring significance.  Together, young and old hands shaped wet clay into colorful ceramic relief elements collaged onto three towering thrones constructed from steel, aluminum, and concrete.  Installed in a park facing Biscayne Bay, each twenty-foot high, two-ton throne visually conveys the stories of the three largest ethnic communities of elders who had settled in Miami.

Participatory Art

The authors, the principal artists in this participatory artwork, arranged for African-American elders from the Greater Bethel AME Church, Hispanic elders from Southwest Social Services Program, and Jewish elders from the Miami Jewish Home for the Aged to come to New World School of the Arts1 to collaborate with art students of even broader cultural diversity in creating “Legacy Thrones.”  Based upon our presentation at their senior centers, twenty women between 70 and 85 years old volunteered to participate in this intergenerational art project.  No men volunteered for the project.  We explained that this art project exemplifies a new paradigm based on the notion of participation in which art will begin to redefine itself in terms of social relatedness. The Legacy Thrones project represents the emergence of a more participatory, socially interactive framework for art that moves beyond the art-for-art’s-sake assumptions of late modernism (Gablik, 1991).  In postmodern feminist theory, participation and collaboration are considered prototypic expressions of women’s creative energies intrinsically linked to feminist pedagogy (Mayberry and Rose, 1997). 

Creative teams of one elder and two art students, worked together one day each week for a full academic year.  The students worked on this project within the framework of a college course in environmental public art.  All sixty participants worked simultaneously in one huge studio space. At their first meeting, each pair of students listened to an elder tell about her life experiences and cultural roots.  Life review methodologies developed by Susan Perlstein (1994) facilitated elders looking back and reaching inward to trigger reminiscences of events and images of personal and communal significance. The challenge at the next meetings was to explore ways of transforming reminiscences that reveal cultural values into visual images that can be expressed through clay.  The eminent psychologist Erik Erikson (1986) emphasizes: “For the ageing, participation in expressions of artistic form can be a welcome source of vital involvement and exhilaration….  When young people are also involved, the change in the mood of elders can be unmistakably vitalizing” (p. 318).   

Multicultural Expressions

“In a postmodern framework, art is once again about something beyond itself; it defines a particular narrative or world view” (Anderson, 1997, p. 71). Postmodern art education is based upon personal and emotional metaphors and the acknowledgement of the importance of narrative and personal myth (Jones, 1997).  It is based upon collecting “little narratives,” each presenting an alternative way of experiencing the world.  “The function of little narratives is to show that each cultural story is but one among many” (Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr, 1996, p. 96.) 

With the assistance of art students experienced in ceramics, the elders worked with clay to make relief sculptural statements of images from their personal and collective past.  A Jewish woman who was a dancer in her youth with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow formed women dancing the horah, a traditional Jewish folkdance.  An African-American woman made a mule-drawn wagon on which she rode to church as a child in rural Florida.  A Cuban woman made high-heeled shoes and an elegant pocketbook, the only valued possessions she took with her while escaping on a rickety boat that sailed across the Florida straits.  Although nearly all of the elders had no prior experience in art production or working with clay, their technical skills and aesthetic judgment developed during their year of participation.     

Complimenting their personal images, the elders made images representing communal experiences and shared cultural values.  Jewish elders formed Hebrew letters, a Hanukah menorah, the biblical dove of peace, and symbols of ten sephirot representing stages in the parallel processes of human creativity and divine creation.  African-Americans elders created images of black slaves in agony, cotton fields of the rural south, the keyboard of their church organ, African-like masks and geometric motifs.   Hispanic elders made a guitar and maracas, a cup of Cuban coffee, baseball players, fighting cocks, an Aztec bird, a rainforest frog, Jesus with outstretched arms, and Mary with a sunburst halo.

“Postmodern art media emphasizes collage, montage, and pastiche” (Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr, 1996, p. 112).  “Appropriation, collage, and juxtaposition of meanings are in” (Clark, 1996, p. 2).  The relief ceramic images painted with colorful glazes became collage elements that were cemented to the thrones until their surfaces were entirely clad in ceramics.  The Hispanic, Jewish, and African-American women interacted with each other discussing the significance of alternative relationships between the ceramic collage elements in their placement in the overall design of each of the thrones.  In “Beyond fragmentation: collage as feminist strategy in the arts,” Gwen Raaberg (1998) explores through feminist theory in art how women’s strength is realized in using collage to bring together diverse elements in an interplay of dynamic harmony.  

A mosaic of broken tiles filled the spaces between the collaged ceramic elements.  Hundreds of ceramic Hebrew letters were cut from slabs of clay, glazed, fired, and cemented into spaces between the ceramic images created by the elders.  The elders, however, did not participate in cementing the ceramics to the thrones.  It was too physically demanding and time consuming work.  Different groups of high school and college art students completed one throne at a time over a period of five years.

All three thrones were made the same size and basic shape.  However, the form of each throne’s crown and sides were different to make a semiotic statement that although all three cultures were equal in status, each was a unique expression of a different set of cultural values. The Hispanic throne has a sunburst crown and water waves cascading down the two sides.  The Jewish throne is topped by a Hanukah menorah that holds nine flaming torches with an aluminum enlargement of leather straps meandering down the sides from a box containing scriptural passages worn by Jews on their heads during morning prayers. On the head of the African-American throne is a huge composite African mask with its sides designed with a geometric pattern derived from an African motif. The framework for each of the three thrones was constructed by welding steel pipes connected to each other with rebar rods to reinforce the concrete that filled the spaces between the pipes.  One of the art students was a professional metal worker from Ecuador who supervised the other students in the construction of the thrones.2 In order to move them, wheels where welded onto the two-ton thrones as they rested horizontally on the studio floor at the New World School of the Arts.

The students moved the relief ceramic elements around on the throne in response to deliberations of their placement with the elders and the principal artists.  After hours of discussion about design principles, aesthetic judgment, and conceptual issues, the ceramic forms were cemented in place.  When the front and sides of the thrones where fully clad in ceramics, the two-ton thrones were transported to Margaret Pace Park for installation with a large tow truck and lifted up by a crane situating them in their permanent site on the shore of Biscayne Bay.  The supporting steel pipes inside each throne protruding from under the throne seat were deeply imbedded in a concrete underground base.  The thrones were designed to be strong enough to withstand Florida’s hurricanes.  After being installed, the wheels were cut off and the unfinished rear sides of the throne backs became accessible.  Two of the students who had worked on the thrones when they rested horizontally in the studio completed the rear on site after the thrones stood erect.  To forge a powerful link with the Jewish elders’ ancestral homeland, decorative Hebrew letters for the rear of the Jewish throne were made by art students at Emuna College in Jerusalem and shipped to Miami.   

Harold Pearse (1997) suggests, “in the future, what was heralded as multiculturalism will give way to polyculturalism” (p. 37).  Each throne honors the integrity of a single culture rather than being a multicultural mix.  “In a complex society such as ours which wishes to allow group differences to emerge, not submerge, we need to find ways for these groups to express themselves and be heard and valued.  One of the major purposes of participation is to allow diversity to be expressed”  (Halprin and Burns, 1974, p. 11).  While the elders were working on their separate thrones, not only did they learn to appreciate their differences, they also realized how much they shared.  They recognized a dynamic balance between diversity and unity.

Shared Values

In Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America, Lucy Lippard (1990) praises “an intercultural art that combines a pride in roots with an explorer’s view of the world as shared by others” and in “cultural dissimilarities and the light they shed on fundamental human similarities” (p. 4).  Working next to each other in one large studio, the three ethnically different groups of elders continually engaged in dialogue with each other, an opportunity that rarely exists outside of the studio.  African-American, Hispanic, and Jewish old people in their ethnically specific homes for the aged and senior centers seldom encounter each other.  Working alongside each other and learning about each other’s cultures, they came to realize how much they shared in experiences and in values.   The theme of the “Legacy Thrones” art project came from Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when we sit together.”

All three groups of elders shared their commitments to living in freedom and to biblical values. Freedom from slavery and the tyrannical regimes of Hitler and Castro shaped their reminiscences. Some women had heard first-hand accounts of slavery on Southern plantations from their grandmothers. One Holocaust survivor spoke about having to bite the umbilical cord of her child born in hiding in an underground pit.  Cuban exiles talked about escaping the brutal oppression on the island they loved.

The African-American elders were Protestant Christians, the Hispanics Catholics, and the Jews Jewish.  They shared appreciation for the Bible and the biblical roots of freedom in America as inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  A sculptured book with the relief words “Holy Bible” grace the African-American throne.  Embellished Hebrew ceramic letters from a biblical quotation made by art students in Jerusalem grace the Jewish throne.  Biblical figures shaped in clay create a spiritual presence on the Hispanic throne.

Artist as Teacher

Ron Neperud (1995) writes in his introduction to Context, Content, and Community in Art Education: Beyond Postmodernism, “Art in the postmodern sense is treated as not separate from the world, but as a vital part of human existence.  Postmodernism demands that the audience of art become involved in the discursive process of discerning meaning.  This postmodernist view of art means a very different approach to teaching about art” (p. 5).  In the biblical book of Exodus, we learn that the artists Betzalel and Oholiav are gifted with the “ability to teach.” As artist-teachers, they facilitated the collaboration of young and old in creating a shared environment of spiritual power.  Their roles as artists were to teach others to play their unique parts in a collaborative artistic creation, like players of different instruments working together to bring into being a great symphony.   One of the most venerated religious thinkers of the twentieth century, J. B. Soloveitchik (1983), proposes that the dream of creation is the central idea in biblical consciousness – “the idea of the importance of man as a partner of the Almighty in the act of creation, man as creator… a man who longs to create, to bring into being something new, something original” (p. 99).  This longing for creation and the renewal of the cosmos is embodied in all of its goals.

In The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, Green (2001) proposes “that collaboration was a crucial element in the transition from modernist to postmodernism art and that the trajectory consisting of a series of artistic collaboration emerges clearly from the late 1960’s conceptualism onward” (p. x).  Collaboration changes the visual artist’s role to resemble the creative leadership role in the performing arts and education.  Instead of a solitary role alone in one’s studio, the postmodern paradigm finds the visual artist acting more like a choreographer in dance, composer/conductor in music, playwright/producer/director in theater and film, and a teacher/mentor in education.  In the “Legacy Throne” art project, the two principal artists2 facilitated the collaboration of the young people and elders in Miami’s multicultural community in playing roles like those of dancers, musicians, actors, and art students.  Other faculty members, administrators, and high school and college students at New World School of the Arts3 and at Emunah College of Art4 in Jerusalem also became involved in different stages of the process of creating the thrones from its beginnings to its final installation at its permanent site six years later.5

In Postmodern Art Education: An Approach to Curriculum, Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr (1996) define art as “a form of cultural production whose point and purpose is to construct symbols of shared reality.”  They state that the value of art is “to promote deeper understandings of the social and cultural landscape” (p. 72).   The collaboration of young and old, Hispanics, Jews, and African-Americans in creating Legacy Thrones exemplifies this postmodern definition of the art experience.      


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1 New World School of the Arts in Miami is a joint venture of Miami-Dade Public Schools, Miami-Dade Community College, and the University of Florida.  It has four-year high school programs and B.F.A. and B.M. degree programs in the visual arts, dance, theater, and music.  NWSA is the first art school in U.S.A. to offer a B.F.A. degree with a major in Environmental Public Art.

Louise Romeo was involved with the project from the beginning and played a central role in the last phases of making and installing the thrones when Mel Alexenberg and Miriam Benjamin had left Miami to live and work in Israel.  NWSA art faculty Aramis O’Reilly, Robert Saxby, Susan Banks, and Wendy Wischer also participated in the throne project at different stages.

2 During their ten years in Miami, Mel Alexenberg (Ed.D. art education, New York University) was Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts.  Miriam Benjamin (M.F.A. ceramic sculpture, Pratt Institute) was Director of Intergenerational ArtLinks.  Alexenberg’s artwork is in the collections of museums worldwide.

3 Victor Arias, NWSA student and professional metalworker, supervised work with steel, aluminum, and concrete in making the three thrones.  Michele Ariemma, Gary Forseca, Miguel Luciano, and Jody Lyn-Kee-Chow were NWSA students who played major roles in creating the thrones.

4 Emuna College director Amos Safrai and sculpture instructor Eva Avidar were instrumental in facilitating the participation of Israeli art students in the throne project.

5 The throne project was funded by a Federal grant to the City of Miami administered by the Downtown Development Authority.  It is part of the revitalization of a rundown part of the city that includes the redevelopment of Margaret Pace Park facing the bay and the building of Miami’s Performing Arts Center designed by the renowned architect Cesar Pelli.  The project took six years from its beginning to the installation of the thrones.  The project had the strong support of Ana Gelabert Sanchez, who at the start of the project directed the Neighborhood Enhancement Team for downtown Miami and later become the Director of Planning for the entire city. 

Mel Alexenberg is Head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College and Professor Emeritus of Art and Jewish Thought at Ariel University Center of Samaria.

Miriam Benjamin is an artist living in Petah Tikva, Israel.