Common ground

Sunday, March 2, 2003

New Yorker Stephanie Mendez figured teens in Holcomb, Mo., were simple folk with twangy drawls and closets full of overalls.

Dustin Broglin imagined New York kids sported snotty attitudes, fat wallets and Gucci suits.


Richard Gwin/Journal-World Photo

Lawrence artist Dave Loewenstein stands in his East Ninth Street studio among mural panels created by high school students in Holcomb, Mo., and New York City. A documentary about the project, which Loewenstein coordinated, will have its Lawrence premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.

Lawrence muralist Dave Loewenstein used art and the Internet to help the youngsters look past their perceptions. It didn't take long for them to realize kids are basically kids, whether they go to class in a Manhattan high-rise or a tiny school in the boot heel of Missouri.

"We're not really that much different," says Broglin, now a senior at Holcomb High School. "A lot of times we would actually have the same thoughts and the same feelings about certain things. We both liked friends, family. We all had goals we wanted to reach, accomplishments. This is just one thing that brought us all together."

Broglin is referring to a mural that he and 14 of his rural schoolmates designed and painted with 16 students from Baruch College Campus High School in New York City. Trick was the students never met until the mural was finished in 2000.

The story of the mural's incarnation and the young people who transcended distance and embraced difference to create it is documented in "Creating Counterparts," a film directed by Loewenstein and his partner on the mural project, Sandra Stein. The documentary's Lawrence premiere will be 7 p.m. Wednesday at Liberty Hall.

"It reaffirms the idea that if we have the opportunity to meet new people and learn about them, we can easily find how much we have in common," Loewenstein says.

"The thrill for me is that these relationships were facilitated or encouraged by the art-making process -- that there's something about the fluidity and openness of creating art, especially when you're making art about yourself or about something that's really important to you, that can lead to the development of really strong bonds."

Breaking barriers

The mural is a visual testament to the fact that the kids know where their counterparts are coming from -- geographically, culturally and emotionally. The half that depicts a farm and a patchwork of southern Missouri fields was painted by the New York students. Holcomb students were in charge of the side that includes towering buildings and portraits of teens from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Where the 10-panel, 8-by-40 foot mural meets in the middle, the students invented symbols of unity, such as a traxi -- a combination tractor/taxi. Computer mouses, monitors and binary code also cluster around the center, representing the electronic lifeline that linked strangers who eventually became friends.

What isn't apparent by looking at the mural are the barriers that stood in the way of its creation.

First on the list were stereotypes. If the students hadn't communicated via computer to learn more about each other, the Holcomb half of the mural might have looked a lot like an episode of "King of the Hill," and the New York half might have resembled a hip-hop music video merged with movie images of business types hurrying down Wall Street.

The documentary shows students at each school being very frank about their initial impressions, most of which came entirely from the media.

"We're sheltered here in this small town, and we have very small comprehension of what happens in the outside world," Holcomb student Terry Blue admits in the film.

Adds Kei Ling Wan of New York: "I'm like geography deficient. I hardly even know where Missouri is until they show me a map."

But, as Loewenstein tells the students in the documentary, "With perceptions, there's no wrong answer as long as you're honest."

It took that kind of candor to work past the fictions to the truths.

'It was amazing'

The artists' distance from each another was another barrier -- one that was overcome online. The students posted drawings of how they perceived their counterparts, as well as how they thought their counterparts might perceive them. They exchanged messages about their geography, economy, history and culture.

A few months into the project, they finally "met" by posting self-portraits. From there, the students drew up drafts of the mural. It was Loewenstein's job to combine the design studies into one piece of art, and then the students began painting their panels.

As the creative part of the project drew to a close, the mood grew a bit somber because there was no funding for the kids to meet in person. But the town of Holcomb banded together and by April 2000 had raised $18,000 -- $3,000 more than the students' needed to travel to New York for the mural's opening.

Then in August 2000, the New York students went to Holcomb, where they fished, sat around a campfire and attended a church service.

"It was amazing," recalls Mendez, now a sophomore at Columbia University in New York. "It was so mind-blowing because there are such beautiful people in the town. It felt like the whole town knew we were there. Local restaurants were just offering us free meals. Nothing's free in New York."

Loewenstein is awaiting word on whether the PBS program "Independent Lens" will feature "Creating Counterparts." He's also hoping the Ford Foundation, which funded the movie, will support the cost of distributing and promoting the film to schools and libraries across the country.

Several years have passed since the mural project ended, and the students haven't kept in touch as much as they'd like. But occasional e-mails bring back fond memories, and those who took part say they're forever changed.

"It opened my mind up to a whole world of different people that I didn't know were out there," said Blue, now a senior at Holcomb High School. "It let me experience some diversity that I never knew was out there. I consider myself really fortunate for that."