Chapel Hill fifth-graders design building facade

jalexander@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2014 

— Larry Short said when he and his business partner, Roy Piscitello, thought of building an apartment complex on Rosemary Street five years ago, they knew that they wanted young people from the Northside community to help with the outside design.

“It was what we wanted to do,” Short said.

So Short called Chapel Hill artist Michael Brown to help him find those students and make it happen.

Brown, known for his murals downtown, said the original idea was to get high school students to help, but only two showed up. The second plan was to go to the nearby Northside Elementary School and talk to fifth-graders.

“After all, fifth-graders are somewhat more of a captive audience than an 18-year-old,” Brown joked at a recent meeting of the Chapel Hill Public Arts Commission.

A former fifth-grade math teacher, Brown connected with art teacher Alder Keene, who was looking for ways her students could express their creativity outside school.

Keene and Brown came up with a monthlong program in which Brown would teach Keene’s students about public art and creativity. The students brainstormed ideas and put 300 different designs for the exterior of the Shortbread Lofts apartments on paper.

Some students drew monsters. Some drew giant erasers. Some drew crazy colors. Some drew emoticons. And one drew a paintbrush with red paint swooping in and out of the building’s windows.

Brown then refined a few of the top designs.

Short and students liked the design with the paintbrush, and it became official.

This is no mural.

The big 3-D brush and swoops of paint will be made with sheet metal painted red. Sheet metal is used for car bodies, airplane wings, medical tables and roofs for buildings.

As the sun goes down, Brown said, the metal will shine.

Some commissioners had concerns that the sheet metal would be too sharp on the sides of the swoops and that it could cut someone. Brown said he would talk to the architects to make sure the edges were smoothed out.

Keene said she’s excited for her students to see a design of their own.

The student apartment complex is expected to be finished in the summer.

“When they pass it on the street ... I think it will be very meaningful to them,” Keene said. “And not just this year or when they install it. It will remind them that they’re part of the community and can have a career in the arts.”

Brown agreed. “Creativity is a teachable skill, and it’s important and useful,” he said.

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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