James Simon
James Simon Sculptures

Laurel Highlands Middle School unveils student-aided mosaic

Laurel Highlands Middle School unveils student-aided mosaic

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Visitors to Laurel Highlands Middle School will forever be greeted by an original work of art constructed with the help of many of its students.

About 150 Laurel Highlands students functioned as assistants to Pittsburgh-based artist and teaching artist-in-residence James Simon as the crew brought to life a work that Simon conceived and constructed during his residency at the school this year.

As part of the Rural Arts Collaborative (RAC) artist residency program, Simon spent the last eight months working with art teacher Aimee Vacanti’s seventh-grade students — as well as several of the district’s elementary gifted students — to construct a large mosaic that was recently completed and installed in the school’s lobby.

“My goal when I work with kids is to create high quality public art and have it be a lot of fun for the kids who work with me,” said Simon, who creates public art for cities regionally, nationally and internationally.

The mosaic, measuring roughly 27 feet by 14 feet and featuring scenes of nature, animals, farming equipment and individuals playing instruments and reading, was created using glass from Youghiogheny Glass and ceramic tile handmade by Simon and the students.

“I wanted to design something that would be appropriate for the community,” Simon said of the impetus for the piece. “I put my take on nature themes that I got from driving the roads around this area.”

Simon would design one aspect of the piece, which the students would then emulate under his guidance. Through the residency, he said, students get to experience the working process of a professional artist and become aware of the reality of creating works of art.

“They learn, on a project like this, that creating artwork is not just romantic and beautiful — it’s 80 percent hard sweat,” said Simon.

The RAC was founded in 2012 to enhance the arts in schools in Southwestern Pennsylvania and Northern West Virginia.

Carmelle Nickens, founder and manager of the program, said the objective of the RAC is to place teaching artists — professional, practicing artists with the sensibility of an educator — in rural school district classrooms in the hopes of enhancing their existing arts curriculum.

“We’re trying to put artists in classrooms to work with students and teachers to give them a unique experience,” Nickens said.

Vacanti said the project brought out the best in students who may not be the most artistically inclined, as the construction of the piece provided a job for everybody. It proved so popular at the school that even students who were not involved in its creation wished to be included.

“There were moments along the way that I knew this (project) was working because I had kids that asked me, ‘Why can’t I be part of this?’” said Vacanti. “They wanted to be part of something. It kept reassuring the process.”

With primary funding from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation and support from the Fayette County Cultural Trust, the RAC placed artists in other area schools this year, including Ben Franklin and Lafayette schools in Uniontown, and the Frazier School District.

Nickens said the RAC will move into four new school districts — including Brownsville and Connellsville — in the next two years.

Inside Laurel Highlands Middle School, the students who experienced the residency program this school year have left something for the school community of future students, staff and parents to admire.

“Working with this school has been one of my favorite experiences,” Simon said of his stay at Laurel Highlands. “To create art in a school that has the support of the principal, the teachers and the students is a great atmosphere to create something good.”