One of artist Charlyn Griffith’s biggest accomplishments was being nicknamed “Ms. Strawberry Face.”
“I think that at the point where a young person feels like you belong to them, you’ve succeeded in making a connection,” Griffith said. “I think that at the point where they started calling me their own nickname, that made it real. Being known as Ms. Strawberry Face is the highlight.”
The nickname bestowed by her students comes from her face – shaped like a strawberry – and her sweet nature, according to Griffith, who works with young people in the Arts & Artists Outdoors (A2O) project at the Francisville Playground.
Launched in 2011 by the city’s Mural Arts Program, A2O aims to bring students and artists together for after-school programs, culminating in a final piece of art.
Griffith, a participating artist, and her partner, Sam Spetner, work with students ages 10 to 14 on a variety of topics. Any student is welcome to participate, said program coordinator Aislinn Pentecost-Farren.
“We hope that A2O provides young people with an opportunity to explore their neighborhood and recreation center with the environment in mind,” Lisa Murch, the director of art education at Mural Arts, said in an email. “In Francisville, their project will enliven a classroom and represent both students, the community and the enchanting ecosystem they create together.”
This project has a core group of about five students, she added, though additional children “come and go.” The students meet with Griffith and Spetner for 10 weeks in the fall and another 10 weeks in the spring. The group has been working on the mural in concept since the fall, Pentecost said, and began sketching and painting in early March.
“Sam’s work is largely centered around geometric patterns, and my own work is rooted in fractals and repetition of patterns as well,” Griffith said. “We incorporated the geometry element. Our particular program we’ve named ‘Community, Nature and Geometry,’ and we’re exploring the ways those things intersect.”
On a recent overcast afternoon, the children met with Griffith and Spetner in a white-walled room, crowding around a table to see the design for the final mural – a delicate looping of geometric patterns and shapes. The mural will be completed on parachute cloth and adhered to a wall inside inside the playground’s community center by late April.
Spetner carefully instructed two young girls through the painting process, demonstrating how to hold a paintbrush and fill in the white space with light yellow paint. But the two artists have taught their students much more than just painting.
“We’ve done everything from story circles to yoga to tag,” Griffith said. “The way we approach things is really that our young people have questions, and we are always looking at how we can answer them or point them towards finding more answers.”
And Griffith said learning comes from art – which is what makes art a “necessity.” Through art, the students can “experience a community design process” and recognize the importance of the playground’s history.
“Francisville has a strong community around it,” Pentecost said in an email. “Part of what Sam and Charlyn are doing in their art is celebrating those relationships and that history.”
“The place has history that’s important to a lot of people,” Griffith said. “This place is held up by people. So what I’ve wanted along the way has been for the young people to reflect on that and get to see how brilliant their community already is, and for them to decide what they want to add to it.”
– Text, images and video by Victoria Mier