By Beth Donze
The sound of breaking glass is no cause for alarm inside St. Michael Special School’s bustling creative arts studio.
Since September, St. Michael students have been carefully cutting plates of decorative glass into smaller shards to create the building blocks for two stunning mosaics: one depicting a white dove; the other a simple white cross.
Although the mosaics depict two different subjects, they were designed as companion pieces, both featuring the same gem-colored sunbeams radiating from their central images.
“Our students love to work with the glass because it’s a product you don’t usually let young people play with or work with or create with,” said Pam Strohmeyer, St. Michael’s creative arts teacher. “So just for them to cut glass and not be afraid of it is a great personal feeling. It empowers them.”
But it’s not just “playing with glass” that is causing excitement among the young artists. The mosaics they are making are headed for a sacred space: the interior of Resurrection Mausoleum at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.
The two works of art will be blessed Nov. 1 at the conclusion of the 10 a.m. All Saints’ Day Mass celebrated by Archbishop Gregory Aymond. St. Michael’s Bell Choir will perform and a handful of Strohmeyer’s student-artists will be on hand to see the fruits of their labors on permanent display on flanking walls, just inside the mausoleum’s entrance.
Ideas began to percolate
“I was so jazzed about the (mosaic) project over the whole summer,” said Strohmeyer, who was asked last May by Sherri Peppo, director of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries, if St. Michael’s creative arts students were interested in making two large works of art for Resurrection Mausoleum, then undergoing repairs.
“The minute we got back to school in August, the students and I started looking at all the different artworks that were in place in various mausoleums and churches,” Strohmeyer said. “They just kept coming back to the mosaics. They wanted a mosaic, I think, because the colors are bright and they wanted to work with the glass.”
Wanted to depict dove, cross
Once they settled on the medium for their project, Strohmeyer’s students began brainstorming artistic themes. Peppo’s only guidelines were that the future mausoleum pieces portray a religious subject and be as “colorful” as possible.
The rest was left up to St. Michael’s creative arts students.
“They knew that mausoleums are places where our bodies go to rest, so we talked about what they wanted to focus on,” Strohmeyer said. “Many of them said, ‘We want the bird,’ which I knew meant the dove of peace. So artistically, we’re (depicting) the peace of our bodies and our souls flying up to heaven.”
When Strohmeyer asked her students what they wanted mosaic No. 2 to portray, nearly everyone loudly answered, “The cross!”
“It was in my religion class,” Strohmeyer recalled. “It was a unanimous vote for the cross!”
Touched by many hands
More than 80 students from St. Michael’s Vocational Training Program, composed of students ages 16-21, and the school’s Joy Center, staffed by ages 21 and older, collaborated on the two mosaics.
In one recent mosaic-making session, the teenage artists took turns to score and cut glass using a special piece of table equipment, while others meticulously placed the resulting shards onto the pasty adhesive trawled onto the mosaics’ cement board bases.
Finer cuts to the glass puzzle pieces were made with a pair of hand-held tile nippers, with Strohmeyer only occasionally having to remind her students to alternate the glass colors to create maximum visual impact.
In the spirit of St. Michael’s multi-disciplinary approach to academics, the creative arts students used their math skills to plot angles, determine spacing and even figure out how much glass to order for the project: 80 pounds’ worth.
“Spread it like peanut butter,” advised Strohmeyer, using a visual to help her teenage artists perfect their technique for applying the mosaics’ glass-anchoring grout.
In addition to the decorative glass shards, the artists added visual punch to the mosaics by peppering them with glass buttons and bits of “fused glass” – speckled pieces made by the students by placing a mixture of different colored glasses in their studio’s kiln and superheating the contents to 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
The mosaics, each measuring 32-by-44 inches, were framed by Sterling Baldwin and his students in St. Michael’s Industrial Arts department. The young wood-workers also made a bench for the Resurrection Mausoleum as a surprise for the Cemeteries Office.
Peppo, whose office covered the cost of all materials and made a donation to St. Michael Special School in gratitude for the artworks, said the mosaics’ dedication will be a fitting conclusion to the overhaul of Resurrection Mausoleum, which was built in the 1970s. The 2,000-crypt space, the only two-story mausoleum in a New Orleans Catholic cemetery, had its ceilings painted, new caulking applied to its stone joints, and new terrazzo laid on the first floor, Peppo said.
The Cemeteries Office will install a plaque under each mosaic in recognition of St. Michael’s creation of the pieces. The plaques will also list the date of their dedication: Nov. 1, 2017.
“We were honored that the Catholic Cemeteries Office thought of us,” said Tish Sauerhoff, St. Michael’s principal. “We rely on the community for so much support, so we can help our students be all they can be. It’s really great for them to have the opportunity to give back to the community in such a meaningful way!”
The All Saints’ Day Mass will be celebrated Nov. 1 at 10 a.m. at St. Louis Cemetery No. 3, 3421 Esplanade Ave. Congregants are asked to enter the cemetery by car and be directed to Resurrection Mausoleum, located in the rear. Tented seating will be available for the Mass.
Beth Donze can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.