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An Organization's First Public Sculpture, Made By High School Students, Rises In Oak Cliff

On an Oak Cliff boulevard near the iconic Texas Theatre stands a colorful tree-trunk-like structure with a hand on top. The 17-and-a-half-foot sculpture’s only been there a few weeks and was officially dedicated in December. 

The tall mosaic art work peers out over West Jefferson Boulevard, thanks to an eye in the palm of its hand. At the base of the sculpture, tiles spell “My hands respect the things you have made,” and it all grew from ideas by two dozen high schoolers from Adamson, Sunset, and Booker T. Washington, among others.

“The hand, we got together as a group and tried to incorporate everyone’s idea into one totem pole,” Hope Trevino says.

She’s a 19-year-old graduate of Dallas Can Academy. She helped design and construct the work.

“It came from ‘Let me walk in beauty.’ Everything comes from this Indian prayer,” Trevino says.

The Indian prayer idea came from Karen Blessen, who, with Dr. Barbara Miller, co-founded of the nonprofit “29 Pieces.” Blessen’s a former artist for The Dallas Morning News. She helped create the group built on a philosophy of non-violence. The organization’s designed to inspire, teach and at times, employ kids to create public art for the city Blessen loves. 

“And so the vision of this organization is to turn Dallas into a city of sculpture,” Blessen explains. “The ‘29 pieces’ refers to 29 pieces of sculpture that are inspired by phrases from the world’s visionaries and mystics and poets. And they’re all about, really they’re all about love.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Close-up of the eye in the hand.

This Oak Cliff totem, called “Piece 24,” is the organization’s first finished work and was more than a year in the making. The teens first heard about "29 Pieces" in school, where their teachers recommended they get involved. And in the case of then-senior Richard Rodriguez, that did not necessarily mean an art teacher.

“It was actually in my algebra class,” Rodriguez says, as he sorts through mosaic tile in the group’s Oak Cliff studio.  

“They had seen that I was drawing in my folder,” Rodriguez says. “And one of my teachers signed me up and said you would like this program. So I gave it a shot.”

Rodriguez and his young colleagues drew preliminary sketches and with help from visiting artists and teachers, landed on a final design. Veteran mosaic sculptor Julie Richey worked with them and says they’ve learned more than just artistic techniques.

“They get to see a project from conception to realization,” Richey says. “That’s a rare thing for a student of this age to participate in and walk through and see how much work it is to get engineering drawings, fund raise, thank the sponsors…”   

One of those sponsors is real estate investor Craig Schenkel, who helped raise money for the effort. The project appealed to him because it brought together  kids from neighborhood schools who share his love of community.

“I always say the only thing I knew about art was that it was easy to spell,” Schenkel says. “Other than that I knew nothing. I’ve learned so much through these kids. It’s been pretty cool.”

The students working on this project thought the eye on top of the sculpture was pretty cool. too. That idea came from a collage by 18 year-old Maria Patino.

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Maria Patino holds an early collage depicting the eye. "Instead of it crying sadness, it's crying beautiful, colorful tears and there there are plants growing up and spreading."

“Well,” Patino explains, “I like really colorful things, and eyes. So instead of it crying sadness, it’s crying beautiful colorful tears, and then there’s plants growing up and spreading.”

In the sculpture, that eye’s planted in the palm of a hand.

Maria’s since graduated from Adamson High and is now a college art major.

“I love art,” she says. “It’s very calming to me. It’s like, I’m at peace when I’m creating things with my hands.”

Maria and her young public sculpture colleagues are barely out of high school, but they’ve already created a lasting legacy. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.