Master artist Carolyn Elaine (right) and first-year apprentice Lauren Edwards handle the tesserae for the “Off the Wall” mosaic. | Alex Rogals/Staff Photographer

Whatever happened to the five mosaic columns that were supposed to go outside Longfellow Elementary School? For about two decades, nothing – until now. The ceramic creations will at long last be displayed openly and permanently, enhancing the façade of the Park District of Oak Park’s planned community recreation center.

“After 20-plus years, these mosaics are going to take a place in the community,” said Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council (OPAAC).

An act of community collaboration by OPAAC, the park district and the school’s parent teacher organization led to the ceramic creations being unearthed from storage and repurposed for the recreation center, for which funds are still being raised.

“We all had an epiphany one night,” said Jan Arnold, Park District of Oak Park executive director. 

The mosaics were created for Longfellow by artist Mirtes Zwierzynski back in 2000, with the help of students, the PTO and Chris Worley, the school’s art teacher at the time. Using shards of broken ceramic tiles, the five columns represent Oak Park’s history, from the prehistoric epoch up until the year of their creation, depicting its ever-evolving social and geographic landscape. The mosaic columns extend as wide as five feet and stand as high as 12-feet.

The Illinois Arts Council awarded Longfellow a grant to fund the outdoor art installation, which was titled, “Stories Of Our Neighborhood.” The school intended to mount the five pillars outside of the school, but that never came to fruition due to size and structural complications, according to Amanda Siegfried, spokesperson for Oak Park’s Elementary School District 97.

Last year, the park district requested OPAAC’s partnership in incorporating public art into the plans for the community recreation center. Meanwhile, the mosaics languished in the basement of a former Longfellow parent. Just as it takes time to arrange individual tile shards to create a final mural, the idea to display the mosaics outside the recreation center took a year to materialize. 

Things developed quickly from there, with the PTO donating the mosaics to the park district. OPAAC began repurposing the mosaics columns into a flat mural this summer as part of the council’s “Off the Wall” summer arts program under Carolyn Elaine, who has served as master artist every summer since the program’s 2005 formation. The reformatting will take about two summers.

While she played no role in the original Longfellow project, Elaine has her own special connection to the mosaics through Zwierzynski, under whom she apprenticed. 

“It’s her design; it’s her energy; it’s her interaction with the community,” Elaine said of her former mentor and the five mosaic columns created at the turn of the new millennium. 

The two artists have worked together over many years. Elaine asked Zwierzynski in reimagining the Longfellow mosaics as a mural to suit the community recreation center, which she agreed to under one condition.

“Mirtes, being the type of artist that she is, said, ‘I just have one request… that in some way all the students who worked on this are acknowledged,’” said Elaine.

Elaine gladly agreed. The original assembly of the five mosaic columns was documented through photography. Zwierzynski has suggested using the pictures taken of the students working be transformed into an exhibition to be shown alongside the unveiling of the mosaics and the community recreation center, which has accrued about 75 percent of its fundraising goal of $22 million. The students will be invited to the eventual unveiling.

Depending on the recreation center’s construction schedule, the mosaics will be installed in the fall of 2022 or spring of 2023, according to Arnold. The columns-turned-mural will adorn the east side of the building.

The benefits of repurposing the mosaics include cost savings. The park district had budgeted about $150,000 toward purchasing an original piece for the center. Beyond that, several materials used in the Longfellow project were saved and the mosaics themselves are also in wonderful condition. 

“It’s easily saved the project about $100,000,” said Arnold.

The value of the opportunity extends beyond the monetary. The mosaics were created to tell Oak Park’s history but have become a part of that history themselves. The brokenness of the journey from their creation, to reformation and their future installation is not unlike breaking whole tiles then assembling a new picture from the debris. 

“There’s beauty in the brokenness,” said Elaine.

Join the discussion on social media!