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Avonworth pupils create First Night display

Wednesday, December 26, 2001

By Rick Nowlin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Can you imagine seeing such folks as Roberto Clemente, Andy Warhol and Willa Cather on Liberty Avenue Downtown?

Well, you won't -- not really. But if you take part in First Night festivities next week you will see their life-sized likenesses, as well as those of 27 other historic Pittsburghers, made by pupils at Avonworth Elementary School.

The sculptures, as well as a mural depicting several regional landmarks, make up a display called "Transcend Pittsburgh," a combination art project and history lesson coordinated by Thressia Kriebel, who teaches art at Avonworth Elementary.

"This specific project that we're doing is about the history of Pittsburgh. Every part of the installation -- 150 feet by 40 feet -- is created by kids," Kriebel said. "The major part of the project is created by Avonworth students, and there will be essays and artwork by students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools."

The mural will display landmarks such as the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, Heinz Hall, the Clayton mansion in Point Breeze, PNC Park and Phipps Conservatory.

"It's a city within a city," said Page McSorley, director of development and marketing for First Night Pittsburgh. "They will be able to shake hands with [Andrew] Carnegie, look [Henry Clay] Frick in the eye," McSorley said.

The display will be placed on Liberty near the Wood Street T station on New Year's Eve.

"It's hard for me to understand how huge this is," Kriebel said.

The project's genesis, McSorley said, took place in July. First Night Pittsburgh's Neighborhood Network Outreach Program, which builds community through the arts while encouraging cross-cultural relationships, wanted to expand.

"I thought the best person to do this would be an art teacher, so I contacted Thressia," a longtime acquaintance, McSorley said. "She started talking and talking."

In fact, the moniker "Transcend Pittsburgh" was Kriebel's idea, McSorley said. "She wanted the kids to 'appreciate the past, impact the present and commit to the future.' That's been the thread that runs through the entire project."

The exhibit will be installed at the corner of Liberty Avenue and Sixth Street from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. and will open at 5 p.m. The mural will be dismantled at 2 a.m. New Year's Day and eventually end up in the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center in the Strip District. The sculptures, meanwhile, will be scattered about the city.

As for the construction and painting, the children seemed enthusiastic, constantly coming into the art room looking for paint, paper and other supplies. Kriebel noted they had painted 120 boards in three weeks, and the children too young to paint colored cut-outs.

Kriebel had after-school "camps" for pupils to continue to work. She said 200 did so. "The whole school has become united," she said.

The project has also energized parents, some of whom came to the school on Saturday to assemble the various panels. Occasionally they also helped out with some of the more delicate painting work.

Kriebel said, "We have mothers who come in for ... "

"Therapy," interrupted Maureen Roman-Possage of Ben Avon, who was outlining a painting of the PPG Place. Her daughters, McKenzie and Katie are participating in the project.

The school's fourth- and fifth-graders also are writing reports on the personalities represented, such as Fred Rogers, Jonas Salk, Mary Lou Williams and fictional steel worker Joe Magarac.

Rather than making "Transcend Pittsburgh" strictly an Avonworth project, Kriebel sought from the outset to get other schools involved. She contacted schools in the Shaler Area and Montour districts as well as the Downtown YMCA's after-school program.

"I didn't get the turnout I wanted," she conceded. "It was really on short notice -- we were just shooting for the stars."

Because of the time needed for the project, the Avonworth school board gave Kriebel leave in November.

"I couldn't have done this without the full support of the school board," she said. "It's exciting that the kids can learn about Pittsburgh while creating this artwork."

This is something that's going to take place every year, Kriebel said.

"My vision for this project is to have children all around the city get involved," Kriebel said. She said she wants to convey "how you can get involved in the city, all the things that go on -- take part in some of the art programs and museums."

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