Near the Maryland Penitentiary's foreboding tower, a ceramic mosaic mural called And Still I Rise is being created by many hands at the St. Frances Academy Community Center.
When the artwork is finished around Thanksgiving, it will decorate what is now a drab industrial wall 245 feet long and 17 feet high. The mosaic, being made by students, residents and nuns as part of a collaborative Baltimore-Philadelphia effort, is intended to provide city youths with a visual history lesson of their African-American heritage.
Among the images on the mural will be Mother Africa, alongside civil rights leaders and symbols of the oldest African-American nunnery in the United States. It's all intended to add up to something that belongs to everyone.
"And Still I Rise" is also the title of a poem about resilience by noted poet Maya Angelou. The line is starting to make sense to Sidney Smith, a 14-year-old West Baltimore resident who just entered the Catholic academy next door. She worked on the mosaic project all summer, five days a week, as a volunteer, mostly cracking tile into small pieces as her contribution to the larger undertaking.
Explaining the poem, Sidney said, "It means, I'll always come back up. My spirit will not be broken."
Sidney and more than 100 others -- including nuns at the Oblate Sisters of Providence convent around the corner, St. Frances Academy students and community residents of all ages -- are being coached by a Philadelphia artist, Leroy Johnson. The 66-year-old artist is directing the neighborhood project for six months under the auspices of Baltimore Clayworks, a North Baltimore nonprofit ceramics center.
In the past, Johnson has coordinated public art projects -- which he says can be a healing force for social ills -- for groups ranging from nuns to the Black Panthers.
Johnson draws the outlines so those who come to work in East Baltimore can get a sense of the whole image.
"I drew the panels broadly enough for their energy to come through," Johnson said. "[The participants] love it. And I learn as much as I teach."
The cinder block wall that will bear the mosaic is almost a city block, from East Chase Street toward East Eager Street. On the other side of the wall is the R.E. Michel Co., which has approved the mural on the graffiti-marred wall.
A remarkable and little-known piece of religious history -- history that was made literally next door -- will be celebrated in the mosaic.
The Oblate Sisters of Providence, founders of the coed St. Frances Academy, will mark the sisterhood's 175th birthday next year. They moved to the current location in 1870.
The founder of the Oblate Sisters, Elizabeth Lange, known as Mother Lange, figures prominently in one panel. Deborah Bedwell, executive director of Baltimore Clayworks, said she found the portrait an especially powerful aspect of the design.
"To see Mother Lange in her bonnet next to African symbols of spirituality and womanhood gives you a continuity of watchfulness," Bedwell said. "You have crosses, rising and hope all together."
Ralph E. Moore Jr., the community center director, said he expected to see equally strong renderings of civil rights luminaries at the other end of the time line such as Thurgood Marshall, the late Supreme Court justice and Baltimore native.
Art with such clear messages can build morale in the wider community, Moore said.
"The idea is to engage the community in a symbolic way so the neighborhood can raise itself," Moore said.
Seniors from a nearby high-rise have volunteered alongside young people, with the background music they listen to varying from classical to hip-hop.
Sister Elaine Frederick, 72, said she was impressed by the collective concentration shown during the sessions she attended.
"It was fascinating, watching youngsters, they were so rapt. You didn't hear any talking, they were so busy," Frederick said. "Leroy told us there's no such thing as a mistake."
Frederick is still working on her piece of the project: the white and blue coat of arms of the Oblate Sisters of Providence.
The nun said she sees providence at work. "We have been in this community since 1870, and these things don't happen by accident," she said.