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Clay in Context at Hope High School

Clay in Context at Hope High School

In a collaboration that reflects RISD’s commitment to critical making and community engagement, students in Ceramics and TLAD worked with local teens to create new tile murals for Providence's Hope High School.

Installing the murals at Providence’s Hope High School

Next week when students return to Hope High School on the East Side of Providence, they’ll walk through an entrance hall that is anything but the ho-hum back-to-school norm. On glazed tile mosaics that cover four square columns in the main lobby, they will see gleaming fish scale patterns, Inca god designs and even an Art-Deco-inspired abstract staircase.

Installed in late May, the bold, imaginative Hope High murals represent the culmination of a unique spring semester collaboration between RISD’s Ceramics department, the department of Teaching + Learning in Art + Design (TLAD) and TLAD’s signature after-school studio program for local high school teens, Project Open Door. The project brought six Ceramics majors from RISD and six teens from Hope High School together for a highly complex, physically demanding, multi-phase collaboration—mixing, measuring, firing, sanding and testing colors for hundreds of intricately laid tiles.

“Everyone rose to the occasion for this project, and in some cases did that in a very emotional way,” says Associate Professor Katy Schimert, who heads the Ceramics department. “The process was incredibly important—coming up with the concept, following through with drawings, colors, the firing of the clay, the installation. But the permanence of the end result is important, too. These students can come back years from now and look at their work, because it will still be there for the community to enjoy.”

The mural collaboration began simply enough—when a well-established Ceramics course, Clay in Context, prompted a brand new question in Schimert, who had just arrived at RISD.

“It was kind of a traditional class where the students went out and did some kind of project. One thing they did for years was make dishes for restaurants,” says Schimert, who taught the course last spring. “But I don’t live in Providence, and I wasn’t sure what I was going to do at all in terms of a project we could do in a public space.”

Schimert turned to her faculty mentor, longtime TLAD Department Head Paul Sproll, who suggested a project that combined Schimert’s goals for the course with RISD’s commitment to community engagement. “Basically he said, ‘This is great! There’s this high school, and they have a lobby that could really use something like that,’” Schimert says. “And that was it. We had the project and started working with six teens from Hope High School.”

As the course began to take shape, the collaboration grew to involve more and more stakeholders at Hope High School, from the art faculty to its custodial staff and its principal, Robert DiMuccio, whose support was instrumental.

“I was totally blown away by how invested the Hope students got in the whole project,” says Ian Buchbiner 11 CR/MAT 12, a former student teacher at Hope who served as a liaison for the project. “It’s very difficult to get any high school student to sit down for three hours after school just ended, and these kids were so eager to do things like paint tiles or clean up seam lines. They had that sense of ownership, because it’s their school. And now it’s a huge point of pride knowing that Hope students were involved in that.”