‘Community outreach through art': SHAMc’s ARTreach works with Pinellas County schools on mural projects

ARTreach’s Heather Richardson shows off the mural she helped students at Forest Lakes Elementary School create.

SAFETY HARBOR — Long before the Safety Harbor Art & Music Center opened three years ago, the creative minds behind the organization were already giving back to the community through art.

“We’ve done it longer than the arts center has even been here,” said Heather Richardson, mosaic tile artist and SHAMc co-founder. “It wasn’t officially SHAMc, but we did lots of projects before SHAMc became SHAMc as a building. We called ourselves an art collective. We’re artists and we wanted to do things. It was community outreach through art.”

Projects have ranged from community tile mosaic pieces at the Safety Harbor Public Library to painting grapefruits on local businesses and city-owned buildings throughout Safety Harbor.

“That was around the time Dunedin was doing that whole thing with the oranges, so it was like, hey, we need to do something,” Richardson said.

Over the years, SHAMc artists have led art projects in other countries. Richardson worked with children in Panama to create a mural on a hotel near property she owns there, and other artists have worked on projects at an eco-resort in Costa Rica.

These projects are “not just public art,” she said. “It’s not just an artist creating a piece of public art. It’s people from the community coming together to create art for their community. They’re part of something bigger. That’s what it’s all about.”

Once SHAMc opened its doors in 2017, the organization’s founders named its community outreach program ARTreach.

“When we became an entity with this building, we said, ‘Let’s become more formal. Let’s give it a name,’” Richardson said.

Around this time, she did her first project in a local public school after getting a call from an art teacher at the Leila G. Davis Elementary School in Clearwater. The large-scale project featured tiles made by students at the school on 3-by-5-foot panels with images and inspirational words: Teach. Write. Play. She went back to the school the next year to work on a smaller project.

The art teacher at Leila G. Davis posted a video of these projects to the Pinellas County school district’s website, drawing the attention of other art teachers throughout the area. Several of these teachers reached out to Richardson about creating murals at their schools.

During the 2018-19 school year, she worked with students to create murals at Ozona Elementary School, Curtis Fundamental Elementary School, Forest Lakes Elementary School, Seminole Elementary School and Garrison Jones Elementary School.

Each school’s project has been different. For instance, at Garrison Jones, fifth graders made clay owls and every student in the school made a leaf for the branches of a tree, while Ozona Elementary students created mosaic pieces featuring their thumbprint on a round tile.

For this school year, Richardson will work with Curtis Fundamental Elementary School, Ridgecrest Elementary School, Carwise Middle School, Safety Harbor Elementary School and Palm Harbor Middle School.

“Ninety-five percent of the tiles we use are made by the kids,” she said. “They understand the whole process: rolling out the clay, cutting out the pieces, then it gets fired. We teach them how to break the tile, cut the tile, break the mirror.”

She added, “They learn that nothing is trash. We use 100 percent recycled and repurposed materials. This is all things that we’re keeping out of the landfill.”

Demee Barth, an art teacher at Seminole Elementary, said the students got a lot out of having ARTReach artists work with them.

“Not only do the artists beautify the blank canvases of public school campuses, but they also allow students to see a living artist,” she said.

“They are able to see a working artist and their process from start to finish nd see public art grow from the art classroom to the wall. I look forward to having more public art at my school.”

Richardson is open to art project proposals from local schools and other community organizations.

For more information about SHAMc’s ARTreach, visit www.safetyharborartandmusiccenter.com/shamcartreach.html.