Legacy Thrones: Intergenerational Collaboration in Creating Multicultural Public Art

Mel Alexenberg and Miriam Benjamin

In Community Connections: Intergenerational Links in Art Education.  Angela M. La Porte, Editor. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association, 2004

The creation of “Legacy Thrones” is an exemplary model of intergenerational collaboration and postmodern art education. Elders representing different ethnic communities, high school and college art students, and artists collaborated in creating monumental 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 that had settled in Miami.

Creating public art through intergenerational collaboration enriched the lives of young people while adding vitality to the lives of elders. The more extensive life experience and wisdom of the elder offers a young person a sense of historical continuity and tried responses to the perennial questions of human existence. At the same time, the young person, having more vitality, rejuvenates and invigorates the elder with energy and an influx of fresh ideas. “Without this exchange, the elder may remain locked in the past. With their penchant for experimentation and their forward-looking mentality, young people give elders the gist of encountering the present and anticipating the future” (Schachter-Shalomi and Miller, 1995, p. 192).

The benefits of intergenerational experiences have been supported by numerous researchers. The eminent psychologist Erik Erikson (1986) emphasized: “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). Medical doctor and researcher Gene Cohen (2000), director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University and former president of the Gerontological Society of America, writes in the section “Intergenerational Collaborative Creativity: The Best of Both Worlds” in The Creative Age: “As we age, enormous potential lies in collaborative endeavors, especially of an interdisciplinary nature that brings the energy, experience, and vision of different ages together for problem solving or pure enjoyment” (p. 33).

Participatory Art

The Legacy Thrones project began as a dialog between two artists (the authors of this paper) and representatives of the downtown Miami community. We worked closely with Ana Gelabert Sanchez, who at the start of the project directed the Neighborhood Enhancement Team for downtown Miami and later became the Director of Planning for the entire city. The project was funded by a Federal grant to the City of Miami administered by the Downtown Development Authority. It was part of the revitalization of a rundown part of the city that included 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.

Through our dialog with people who lived, worked, and owned businesses in the downtown area it became clear that they desired a work of public art that honored different ethnic communities of Miami and invited their direct participation in creating the artwork. Alexenberg and Benjamin conceived of the idea of a magnificent throne as a metaphor for bestowing honor and explored throne designs with college art students from New World School of the Arts1 in their course in environmental public art.  Elders from the three largest ethnic communities of Miami were invited to join with these students in creating three thrones. 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 came to the New World School of the Arts to collaborate with art students of even broader cultural diversity in creating the three Legacy Thrones.  College art students collaborated with the elders in the first phases of the project and were joined later by high school students. Alexenberg and Benjamin made presentations about the throne project at the to African-American elders at their church, to Hispanic elders at their senior center, and to Jewish elders at their home for the aged. Twenty women between 70 and 85 year old volunteered to participate in this intergenerational art project. No men volunteered to participate.  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. Legacy Thrones represents the emergence of a more participatory, socially interactive framework for art supporting the transition from the art-for-art’s-sake assumptions of late modernism. (Gablik, 1991)

In the process of planning how to gather historical and cultural information from the elders, we discovered Perlstein’s (n.d.) methods of life review at Elders Share the Arts (ESTA) in New York City. Perlstein founded an arts organization that facilitated elders looking back and reaching inward to trigger reminiscences of events and images of personal and communal significance. She pioneered in developing uses of life review as a creative tool for working with elders in intergenerational groups. We flew to New York to meet with Perlstein and learned about her innovative work having elder’s life review process into the joint creation of intergenerational performance artworks. A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts enabled us to subsequently invite Perlstein to Miami to work with the elders and students at the beginning of their collaboration on the Legacy Thrones project.

Perlstein first met with the art students to expose their stereotyped views about older adults and to teach them ways to draw out reminiscences from their dialogues with their elder partners. She taught them how to develop and ask “questions to mine the riches of a person’s stories” (Perlstein and Bliss, 1994, p. 27). At the first meeting with students and elders together, she used a number of exercises to encourage each elder to begin telling about her life experiences and cultural roots. She invited all the participants to look at their hands, to examine them in detail, touch them, place one hand on another, and feel them fully. As this hand meditation was going on, she suggested that they consider what their hands have done, where they have been, what journeys they had taken. Focusing on their hands triggered memories of things that the elders had done in long eventful lives. This tactile experience was particularly relevant since they would work with their hands in transforming memories in into relief ceramic sculptures. A second exercise suggested that the elders look at their clothing or the clothing of their youthful partners and choose a color that they especially like. Looking at a particular color was a powerful stimulus to memory and creative thought. It opened up to recollections of images and experiences related to the color.

After the initial meeting with Perlstein, the elders continued to communicate their life experiences to the young people at each weekly session. At the second stage, three groups of elders arrived at New World School of the Arts, and were greeted at their buses by the students who escorted them into the studio and offered them coffee and cake. We worked with the students and elders to facilitate the transformation of their reminiscences into visual/tactile images that could be expressed through clay.

The art students, experienced and skilled in ceramics, technically helped the elders work 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 most of the elders had no prior experience in art production or working with clay, their technical prowess and aesthetic judgment developed over a year of participation. They grew in self-confidence as they learned more about art and aesthetics and developed their skills working with clay. Their critiques of their own artworks and those of other elders became more sophisticated as their art vocabulary grew.          

Expressing Cultural Values

Complimenting their personal images, the elders made symbolic representations of communal experiences and shared cultural values. Jewish elders formed Hebrew letters, a Hanukah menorah, the biblical dove of peace, and symbols of the ten sephirot representing the 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’s organ, African masks, and African 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. The elders’ creations supports the postmodern definition of art as “a form of cultural production whose point and purpose is to construct symbols of shared reality” and the value of art as promoting “deeper understandings of the social and cultural landscape” (Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr, 1996, p. 72).

After the clay dried and was fired, the elders with the young people painted them with colorful glazes that would withstand the harsh environment facing the bay. These relief ceramic montage/pastiche forms became a collage cemented to the thrones until the sculptural surfaces were entirely clad in ceramics, a typical postmodern integration of art media (Efland, Freedman, & Stuhr, 1996), where  “appropriation, collage, and juxtaposition of meanings are in” (Clark, 1996, p. 2). A mosaic of broken tiles filled the spaces between the collaged ceramic elements made by the elders and students. On the Jewish throne, hundreds of ceramic Hebrew letters where randomly arranged in the spaces between the relief ceramic sculptures. The letters where cut from clay and glazed and fired by the students. The elders did not participate in cementing the ceramics to the thrones. It was physically demanding and time consuming work. Different 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. The common size and shape and variation in the design of the crowns and sides presented a semiotic statement that all three cultures were equal in status, yet, each was a unique expression of a different culture. 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 African mask with its sides designed with a geometric pattern derived from a composite 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 resting horizontally on the studio floor at the New World School of the Arts.

The students laid out the relief ceramic elements on the throne and experimented with arranging them in different relationships. The elders discussed the placement of the sculptures with each other, the students, and the principal artists. After 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. They designed the backs to incorporate the remaining sculptures that had been made by the Hispanic and African-American elders. Decorative Hebrew letters for the rear of the Jewish throne were made by art students at Emunah College in Jerusalem and shipped to Miami. Ceramic elements made by Jewish elders in Miami collaged together with those made in the Land of Israel forges a powerful link with the elders’ ancestral homeland.

Each throne honors the integrity of a monoculture rather than a multicultural mix. Harold Pearse (1997) suggests, “in the future, what was heralded as multiculturalism will give way to polyculturalism” (p. 37). Instead of being an expression of the outdated American concept of a “monotone meltdown pot,” the thrones are more like vegetables in a salad, each retaining its own form and flavor. “This model is fresher and healthier; the colors varied; the taste often unfamiliar” (Lippard, 1990, p. 5).

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.

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

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 parallel to each other in one large studio, the three culturally and 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 elders 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 became “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when we sit together” (Psalm 133). 

All three groups of elders shared their commitments to living in freedom and to biblical values. Freedom from slavery and from the tyrannical regimes of Hitler and Castro shaped their reminiscences. Some women had heard first-hand stories 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.

Although the African-Americans were Protestant Christians, the Hispanics, Catholics, and the Jews, Jewish, they all shared appreciation for the freedom in America that germinated from common values found in the Hebrew Bible (called the Old Testament by Christians) expressed the words inscribed on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”(Leviticus 25:10). The sculpted clay images showed their common appreciation for religious text. A sculptured book with the relief words “Holy Bible” grace the African-American throne. Embellished Hebrew ceramic letters from a biblical verse were made by art students from Emunah College in Jerusalem to grace the Jewish throne. And biblical figures shaped in clay create a spiritual presence on the Hispanic throne. In reading the biblical book of Exodus honored by both Jews and Christians, they learn about the Israelites escaping to freedom from Egyptian bondage as a universal symbol for the triumph of liberty over slavery. This biblical symbol informed the thoughts of America’s founding fathers. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress formed a high-powered committee, made up of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams, to propose a seal and motto for the newly independent United States of America. They proposed a seal depicting the Israelites escaping to freedom from bondage under Pharaoh through the divided waters of the Red Sea, with Moses standing on the shore extending his hand over the sea while the waters overwhelm the Egyptians. The proposed motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God” (Boyd, 1950).

We learn about the intimate connection between freedom of expression and artistic creation from the original Hebrew in the Exodus narrative. The prototypic artist-teacher is named the grandson of freedom. If we literally translate the full names of Bezalel and Oholiav, the principal artists in the collective creation of the Tabernacle in the desert, we see the modern sensibility of relating art to individual passion and free expression coupled with the postmodern collaborative enterprise of constructing a symbolic structure of an intergenerational reality shared by the entire community.  Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur means “In the Divine Shadow son of Fiery Light son of Freedom.” Oholiav ben Akhisamach means “My Tent of Reliance on Father, Son, and My Brother.” It connects my contemporary creation with those of past and future generations. Bezalel’s name represents the psychology of the creative artist and Oholiav’s name describes the sociology of collective creativity in a mutigenerational community. 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 1960s conceptualism onward” (p. x).

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 Bible, the roles of artist and teacher are integrated functions. The artists Bezalel and Oholiav are also gifted with the “ability to teach,” (Exodus 35:34). As artist-teachers, they channel passion and freedom into nurturing 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.

Participatory art changes the visual artist’s role to be more like a 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, high school and college students at New World School of the Arts3 and college students 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.

Benefits of Lifelong Creativity

In our initial discussions with the activity directors of the senior centers about the participation of elders, they suggested that two elders be teamed up with each student. They were of the opinion that the elders would not be able to participate regularly because of health problems—being too tired, not feeling well enough to go out for the day, or having to visit a doctor. Dr. Sandra Walsh, Director of Research at University of Miami School of Nursing, was invited to use the thrones project for a pilot study of how participating in creative activities influenced their health. Four of her graduate research students became participant observers in the project. They worked as part of the creative teams of art students and elders interviewing the elders about their attitudes towards working on the thrones, recording their attendance, and discussing the reasons for their absences. Video artist Shelly Gefter documented the interviews and the process of interaction between the elders and the art students, their verbal dialog with each other, and their creative encounter with clay and glazes. In fact, the elders were rarely absent.  One women who required surgery for cancer, was back at work on the project in two weeks.

Dr. Walsh and her students found that the enthusiasm for participating in the creation of a monumental work of public art had a profound effect not only on the elders’ mental health but also on their physical well-being. Their pilot study confirmed the hypothesis presented by Dr. Gene Cohen (2000): 

“Experimental studies indicate that creative activities and their consequent positive effect on mood and morale can lead to an increased production of protective immune cells. We don’t know why this is so. Perhaps, in the same way that sustained stress to insidious, then serious problems with overall health, the sustained experience of the positive, health-affirming nature of the creative process delivers a heightened, satisfying, positive health effect.” (p. 61-62) 

From High Touch to High Tech

The last day together was celebrated with a party in which the elders brought their different ethnic foods. We exhibited large photographs of the elders and students working on the Legacy Thrones. These photographs stimulated a lively discussion and insightful evaluation between elders and students. At a ceremony at the end of the day, we presented each of the elders with an elegant certificate of participation printed with her name. Each elder was honored and applauded.  The photographs of the creation of the thrones were framed and exhibited in branches of Citibank in Miami.

Their joy turned sour when they realized that their weekly creative activity had come to an end. They insisted that we find a new project for them so they could return to the New World School of the Arts next year. The following year, we developed a Legacy Scrolls project for the same elders. In contrast to the high touch Legacy Throne project that told the collective story of each ethnic group, the high tech Legacy Scroll project told the life stories of each individual elder. Each elder brought images that told about them—family photographs, diplomas, newspaper clippings, embroidery, treasured objects, etc. These documents and objects were digitized and became the elements for creating a composite collage using Photoshop. Initially, the computer graphics students did the work as the elders sat by their side in front of the monitor. The elders soon became impatient and pushed the students to teach them Photoshop so that they could actively participate in making the collages.  The final collages were printed out in full-color on rolls of canvas. Each 3 x 20 feet Legacy Scroll honored an individual elder.  Intergenerational collaboration in creating both Legacy Thrones and Legacy Scrolls is an expression of contemporary culture’s way of balancing high tech and high touch experiences (Naisbitt, 2001).                  


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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, current Dean of Visual Arts at New World School of the Arts 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 more than fifty 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 Emunah College director Amos Safrai and sculpture instructor Eva Avidar were instrumental in facilitating the participation of Israeli art students in the throne project

About the Authors

Mel Alexenberg is head of the School of the Arts at Emuna College in Jerusalem, was professor at Columbia University, Bar Ilan University, and Ariel University Center, head of the art department at Pratt Institute, research fellow at MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and dean at New World School of the Arts in Miami. As an artist, he explores the vital interface between participatory art, community dialog, digital technologies, and global systems.  His artworks are in the collections of more than forty museums worldwide. He is author of The Future of Art in a Digital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness and editor of Educating Artists for the Future: Learning at the Intersections of Art, Science, Technology, and Culture (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press).  He blogs at http://www.artiststory.com.

Miriam Benjamin is an artist and art educator who has taught in colleges in New York and Israel and was Artist-in-Residence at the South Florida Art Center.  She has exhibited her artwork in galleries and museums in New York, Washington, Miami Beach, and Honolulu, and collaborated with her husband, Mel Alexenberg, on creating collaborative artworks involving youth and elders from different ethnic communities. She studied art at Columbia University, Alfred University, Massachusetts College of Art, earned her MFA in ceramic sculpture at Pratt Institute, and taught in colleges in New York and Israel.  She is co-author of “Creating Public Art through Intergenerational Collaboration” in Art Education: Journal of the National Art Education Association.