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Telling Missouri’s tale one tile at a time

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 | 5:38 p.m. CDT; updated 3:39 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
From right, Nine-year-old Helen Fletcher paints a ceramic tile during her 4th grade class at Grant Elementary while Columbia artist Heinrich Leonhard helps William Campbell, 10, with his tile.

COLUMBIA — Heinrich Leonhard dabs a brush into glaze the color of scrambled eggs and applies it gently to raised shapes on a ceramic tile.

“Just a bit of yellow so it’s not all white,” the artist tells the tile’s maker, Abir Siraji, a fourth-grader at Grant Elementary School. “Sometimes limestone comes in all sorts of colors.”

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Abir’s tile is part of a larger project under way across the fourth grade at Grant as students learn Missouri geography, government and history. Abir’s depicts crinoid fossils; others are more quickly recognizable, such as Aidan Landry’s fiddle (the official state instrument) and Luc Goldstein’s bridge (the 1874 Eads Bridge, a breakthrough in its day, which spans the Mississippi River).

Students made their sketches for the tiles a couple of weeks ago, drawing from reports they did on a range of Missouri people, places and things. Last week, they sculpted the tiles. Tuesday was glaze day, and paper cups of color — powder-blue, pea-green, caramel-tan and bubble-gum-pink — dotted the desktops.

Infusing history into an art project makes the learning more palpable, the teachers say. “If they read about something and then do this, it makes it more real,” says Jim Steelman, who has taught at Grant for 14 years.

“Plus it’s fun, and it’s something they’ll remember,” says Lisa Schenker, who is in her tenth year at Grant.

Standing next to Mariah Poe’s desk, Schenker points to Mariah’s tile — a depiction of the Ferris wheel at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. “She can make this come to life,” Schenker says. “It makes a stronger memory.”

Across the room, Tara Harrington brushes blue glaze around the face of a woman, carefully avoiding the black musical notes she has already painted in the background. Her subject is the celebrated entertainer Josephine Baker, born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis at the start of the 20th century. A few minutes earlier, Leonhard had mixed up a black-brown for Baker’s hair.

Leonhard, a full-time artist who works primarily in clay, has old ties to Grant — his three children, now in high school or college, went there — and it’s the only school he works with. He has led past tile projects at Grant: two tile murals that dominate the 98-year-old school’s main stairwell and an extended outdoor bench on the Garth Avenue side of the building. “The kids are creative,” Leonhard says. “It’s amazing what they can do.”


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