Dearborn public art project teaches students lessons about art and life

Wijdan Aldhouli used to go to Fordson High School but the 15-year-old Dearborn resident is transferring into the Henry Ford Early College program this fall. It’ll give her a head start on obtaining her engineering degree. Smart and talented, Aldhouli also has a passion for the arts; she dreams about publishing her own graphic novels one day. A program funded by the Dearborn Community Foundation is teaching her lessons about the arts and well beyond.

Aldhouli was one of a handful of Wayne County high school students selected for the latest cohort of the POP Design Team, tasked with painting a large-scale mural on the side of the Blick Art Materials store in east downtown Dearborn. The POP project, or Pockets of Perception, was started by the Dearborn Community Foundation in 2010.

Over the course of several weeks, students collaborated on designing the mural, pitched their idea to a Dearborn design committee for approval, worked with Blick on their own approval, and launched into a weeks-long painting project. There’s a wide variety of valuable lessons learned from such a large-scale project, including collaboration skills, presentation skills, and a range of art techniques.

Not only that, but they each received a $500 stipend at the end of the project, too — a veritable fortune for a teenager.

The mural serves as an unofficial gateway to east downtown Dearborn.“We had to mix a lot of each other's ideas. Like, what me and one of the other painters had was this idea where it was more imaginative. We had an idea where it was a person walking down the city street, most of the colors are just regular colors, but a trail followed behind him. And it was more neon colors, brighter colors,” Aldhouli says.

“Others had ideas where it was literally like the two cities together; there was very little in the middle. And we just kind of came together.”

The end result features a young boy playing with a toy race car along a road. With east downtown Dearborn at one end and downtown Detroit at the other, the mural is meant to represent Michigan Avenue as a bridge between the two communities, Aldhouli says. It serves as an unofficial welcome sign for east downtown Dearborn, too.

‘It brightens the community’

That collaborative spirit was on full display at the mural worksite, where professional artists and POP Design Team alumni were on hand to guide the high school students through the process.

Professional muralist Zach Curtis helped guide students through the process.Professional muralist Zach Curtis of Pontiac helped students on a lift, giving them pointers on how to mix different paint colors to achieve desired effects. A young man himself, Curtis owns Zach Curtis Artwork and his murals can be found all over Pontiac, as well as several other communities throughout metro Detroit. He was also charged with painting the more complex parts of the mural, like the little boy with the race car.

“I've never really, for the most part, even worked with other artists,” Curtis says. “So just being able to hang out and be with other creative people, seeing each individual, where they're going and their plans for the future — it's super inspiring. Just to even watch them all work. It's awesome.”

Sunshine Durant is director of the POP Design Team and owner/operator of Fishnet Artist Studios nearby. She’s seen the positive effects these projects have had on the students and the community first-hand.

“These projects are important because they make the children a part of their community. And it gives the community something to smile at. It brightens the community,” Durant says. “We’re very aware of what kind of message we're sending. If you have a message like this, and the kids made it, the community gets involved.

“We get people driving by all the time, hanging out the window and going, ‘Whoo! Keep going!’ That reflects on the community and brightens the community itself.”

“I feel like now, as I go through college, I'm appreciating the POP project more and more for what it prepared me for,” says POP Design Team alum Amar Haidar.‘You learn a lot for the future’

The fact that POP project alumni are routinely involved in these projects is a testament to its power.

Amar Haidar has been helping with POP projects since 2018, when she was a senior in high school and a part of that year’s cohort. Now in college pursuing a degree in graphic design, Haidar returns to the POP Design Team each year to help out, wanting to share her own knowledge and give back to a program that she reveres.

“The POP project helped me collaborate with other peers,” Haidar says. “I used to be really, really shy as a kid and so once I joined the POP project, that really helped me learn how to talk to other people and ask for opinions and take constructive criticism and everything else. So I feel like now, as I go through college, I'm appreciating the POP project more and more for what it prepared me for.”

Another POP alum, Carolyn Pawlicki, has been keeping tabs on the project, poking her head out the door as she works a shift at Blick, where she’s an assistant manager. 

“When I went to high school, it was nice to be part of the POP project because it brought in people from everywhere. I got to know people that I could relate with, that I wouldn't have normally met at my one high school,” Pawlicki says. “Working on the project, you learn a lot of problem solving skills. You learn a lot for the future, too. You have to take a lot of ideas and narrow them down into one project. And that taught me a lot.”

Matthew Dietz, general manager for Blick, has been impressed by the young artists working on the mural. The store provided some of the supplies for the project, in addition to offering their wall as a canvas.

“I just think it's great that you can get these young artists together and they can put together a full mural. They had to propose it to the city, propose it to us, propose it to the committee that's a part of it. It's good experience,” Dietz says.

“When would you have had a chance to paint a giant mural as a kid? There was no program saying, ‘Hey, come paint a mural on my building,’ when I was in high school. So it's exciting. It's cool to be part of it.”

A dedication ceremony for the new POP Design Team mural will be held at Blick Art Materials on Thursday, Aug. 26, at 5 p.m.

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.