Mark Making project celebrates East Chattanooga teens
They examined the masks of Egyptian pharaohs and the exquisite bronze heads cast in the Empire of Benin. And from these, a group of 14 teens, ages 13-16 from East Chattanooga drew inspiration to create images of their own faces. These masks will soon be mounted in positions looking down on Glass Street. They will become, in fact, “The Kings and Queens of East Chattanooga.”
During fall break in 2013, nonprofit arts organization Mark Making sponsored a workshop in the Glass Street neighborhood. Mark Making founder (and now art director) Frances McDonald had attended a maker event on the downtown library’s 4th Floor that showcased evolving 3D printer technology. It was attended by a lot of parents and kids—but none of them, as far as McDonald could tell, were from the inner city.
She was struck by how this emphasized the increasing “tech gap” that exists between kids who have access to advanced technology and the huge number of kids in lower-income neighborhoods in Chattanooga who don’t. McDonald is one who acts on her instincts. She got on the phone. And before long, she’d secured funders the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and Hamico Foundation, partners the Glass House Collective, Studio Everything, Co.Lab, NovaCopy, Chattanooga Public Library, Jim Beckley ( as the 3D workshop speaker) and artist Barry Snyder (to assist in mask production).
The project’s goals were clearly delineated:
• Work with inner-city teens to beautify and take ownership of their East Chattanooga neighborhood.
• Use 3D printing as a process in the production of public art, thus exposing underserved populations to technology and ideas that they may not encounter elsewhere.
• Be part of the effort to decrease the gap”between the awareness and education of inner-city students and students who are more tech-savvy.
Mike Bradshaw, who is the executive director of Co.Lab and now a Mark Making board member, notes, “3D printing is being used in so many applications—but using it as a tool to bolster citizenship in an inner-city community is to my knowledge unprecedented. Not only did these teens create some spectacular public art, but the project also is an example of how to bridge the ‘gap.’ Technology is more and more available to our students in STEM schools and others but not among underserved youth. It’s important that technology be available to all Chattanoogans. We can only move forward as a society with everyone on the same page.”
The kids themselves came, McDonald says, “from the kids we saw in the neighborhood everyday on the street, the ones who needed something to do. The Glass House Collective recruited them.” They were shown slide shows of ancient masks, and “We talked about what is classic and transcendent about art thousands of years later,” says McDonald.
Printing company NovaCopy sent a 3D scanner and the kids’ faces were scanned. Then, McDonald explains, came 80 hours of print time, with each “face” being printed in quarters. Originally, the plan was to incorporate the finished masks as part of a mural already being created.
“But the content didn’t fit,” says McDonald, and she held onto the partially finished masks until this year, when artist Barry Snyder came up with a way to build boxes around the masks and fill these boxes with taxidermy foam, creating a very stable and strong piece. Of the original 14 participants, 13 were found and re-recruited to return and finish painting and decorating their “faces” (one mask was “adopted,” says McDonald, by a new participant, who became fully vested in its completion).
The masks were then covered with a plastic coating to protect and weatherproof them. They will be mounted by Dec. 11 in various locations high on buildings along Glass Street “to survey their kingdom,” says McDonald. A celebration of the installation will be part of Mark Making’s Christmas party.
The bigger picture
Mark Making itself is now a vital part of that same kingdom. The organizations holds two ten-year leases, one on its own spacious warehouse building at 2501 N. Chamberlain St., and another on the building next door, which currently houses The Glass Street Collective, a furniture and antiques dealer, and says McDonald, grinning, Binary Brews, which she describes as “craft beer created by techies.”
From its earliest years, Mark Making’s mission has focused on the connection between public art and citizenship. Its mission statement reads: “Empowering individuals and transforming communities through professionally led public art projects, with a focus on the underserved.” They are not on Glass Street as dilettantes or tourists. They are there as neighbors, and although McDonald acknowledges that progress in transforming the neighborhood is slow, she remains committed and hopeful.
“What we want to see is revitalization without gentrification,” she says. “We don’t want to see residents displaced. Home ownership here is fairly high, and there are families who have been here for generations. You have mothers working three jobs to take care of their kids. But poverty and illiteracy are huge problems. It’s a food desert. If the city can turn Tubman [the former housing project now owned by the City of Chattanooga] into a jobs generator, that trains and hires local residents, that would be a real change.”
“Kings and Queens of East Chattanooga” is far from the only current project. Work is being finished on a “Painted Garden” at Orchard Knob Elementary, a joint project with Girls, Inc. “We are also painting the background on the ‘Bethlehem butterflies,’ with Judy Mogul as the lead artist,” says McDonald.
And then there is the massive Hamilton County Jail project, in which inmates are creating both images of themselves and poems expressing what they want their futures to be, as part of two mural installations for an as-yet undisclosed location. Numerous other projects are planned for 2016.
Then there’s the potential major revenue stream of “Fashion Marks,” in which images from Mark Marking projects, and some original work are recreated on high-end fashion accessories, such as clutches and scarves. Like many nonprofits, McDonald points out, Mark Making is exploring nontraditional ways of funding its mission.
The organization also recently named a new executive director, Phyllis Mescon, along with McDonald’s new studio assistant Jessica Lowe.
Through it all, McDonald emphasizes, “We continue to put all decision-making in the hands of our participants. We are the only ones that give them authority over design. Since 2009, we’ve had 1,800 participants in our projects and put over $100,000 into the pockets of working artists.”
The biggest picture
For McDonald, the overriding goal for Mark Making is “empowering and de-stimatizing” the groups they work with. “Why can’t these kids be contributing citizens?” she asks. “Why aren’t we tapping into the potential of homeless people, incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people, people with mental disabilities?”
If her vision, and that of other people and groups working on Glass Street, takes hold, we might just be seeing the start of another Chattanooga Renaissance.