Unifying a Community

School of Fine Art – Sculpture students create centerpiece monument for Andy’s Unity Park

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FASCU faculty member Peter Schifrin (pictured second from right) with members of the Art Team. Photo courtesy of Peter Schifrin.

Academy of Art University is no stranger to connecting its classrooms and students to the real world. But for Peter Schifrin’s Maquette to Monuments course, School of Fine Art – Sculpture students were able to turn their assignment into a real piece of (commissioned!) public art for Andy’s Unity Park in Sonoma County.

“The Academy’s mission statement is to ‘help students build a career in the arts,’” said Schifrin, who has been an Academy sculpting instructor for 25 years. “This (Andy’s Unity Park) monument is one example where a direct line can be drawn from the classroom to a professional, high-exposure, permanent artwork.”

Andy’s Unity Park is located in the Moorland community in southwest Santa Rosa. The commissioned centerpiece monument is a mosaic structure bearing a cast bronze portrait of Andy Lopez, a local 13-year-old boy who was gunned down by a sheriff’s deputy in 2013. The event remains a controversial subject within Santa Rosa neighborhoods.

The call for artists presented itself to Schifrin as he was creating the monuments course; he thought, why not have students “go through the motions” of drawing up a design, creating a proposal and pitching to win a commission, solely for experience-sake?

Before the semester started, Schifrin hand-selected a total of eight sculpture students – Rene Walters, Caroline Ford, Faisal Alahmad, Ying-Ling Lin, Leo Carson, Herbert Martinez, Suheid Cisneros and Zoe Wu – collectively known as “the Art Team.” He wanted a diverse group (based on experience, age, background), “people who normally wouldn’t get a chance to work at something like this.”

“Caroline was still a teenager,” he said. “She was really young, really shy, but I saw something in her, a spark.”

Ford, who is only 20 years old, drew up the winning design. She drew elements of Andy’s life – the mosaic features the ocean, moon and stars, as his mother said he loved animals and nature – to tie along with the community’s Mexican Aztec cultural heritage. Just as much as Andy’s monument symbolizes a community’s healing and unity, Ford and her classmates viewed it as a pillar of their growth as artists.

“When I got selected for the class, I was very shy, I didn’t really talk to many people in my classes,” Ford said. “But getting to know this group of [artists], I really feel I’ve come out of my shell. I presented my design in front of all these people I didn’t know so it’s been a huge learning opportunity.”

The pitching process alone took up an entire semester. Walters, “the glue” of the group, according to Schifrin, ran point on organizing the PowerPoint presentation ensuring the proposal was cohesive from top to bottom, from design approach to materials and construction. By the time the Art Team got news they won the commission, the course was over so they moved their work to Schifrin’s personal home studio.

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The mosaic dedication at Andy's Unity Park. Photo courtesy of Peter Schifrin.

The group fired and hand-glazed over a thousand tiles for the mosaic alone. To make the bronze portrait of Andy, it was a multi-step process: Starting with hand-modeling, a likeness in clay, the image is then transferred into Z-Brush for digital refinement. Afterwards, a hard copy is 3-D printed to create a rubber mold. From there, a wax copy sculpture is made then handed off to Alahmad to make Andy more lifelike and then finalized into the permanent bronze.

To Alahmad, it was especially important to portray Andy as he was: A kid.

“We saw the actual hurt of the community and it definitely left an imprint on all of us, and for me in particular,” he said. “I tried to get some of Andy out through his portrait; we can’t get that extreme likeness, but we can get that feeling that we got from the community and his family.”

The final monument made its debut at the Andy’s Unity Park opening on June 2. Local organizations hosted a celebration of music, food, dancers, art and booths, dedicating the park to Andy and welcoming the neighbors to their new communal space. The event even garnered local news coverage, the Art Team’s monument as its face.

“Being a part of the community and being a part of helping them heal and rebuild themselves after [Andy’s] tragedy was so much bigger than us,” Walters said. “Going to the park opening and seeing how many people were touched by it was so amazing, it was priceless.”

The work isn’t quite done yet as the Art Team still has to complete a jam circle bench on another side of the park. This time, Walters’ design will be implemented on the concrete piece, featuring a sun and moon montage celebrating Andy’s place in the park.

To get the local students involved, Schifrin and Art Team member Herbert Martinez visited Andy’s school and worked with the kids to create drawings remembering Andy and their community to incorporate into the bench’s sides.

“As a teacher, this project was so fulfilling and meaningful to watch this happen in front of me and I got to help,” Schifrin said. “I was just nudging and helping from the sides.”