Villas at Gower Public Art Project

When Piece by Piece was founded by Sophie Alpert, the goal was to provide a much-needed source of supplemental income to recently homeless and very low income residents of inner city Los Angeles. It quickly became much more. Under the tutelage of a team of professional artists, participants’ skills in the medium far exceeded expectations. Many individuals arrived already teeming with untapped creativity. Others, with little or no artistic experience, came full of enthusiasm and learned quickly. The result: an incredible group of talented new artists, eager to engage not only in the creation of their own artistic expressions, but to participate in projects that contribute to the greater community.

As these participant artists experienced the empowerment of selling their artwork, they also developed a strong alliance with each other. They shared knowledge and found themselves looking past the immediate and into what was possible through the strength of teamwork. Several smaller group projects made it evident these Piece by Piece artists were ready for something big. When the opportunity presented itself to apply for a public art project, Sophie Alpert took it.

Founder Sophie Alpert (center) with Piece by Piece instructor artists Dawn Mendelson (L) and Luz Mack Durini (R)

The public art process, as some may know, is no easy task. There are many requirements to meet, technical aspects to master, and paperwork to process. It took almost a year before we even started the actual mosaic. Part way through, the California Redevelopment Agency--the project's main funding source-- shut down, and the project was at risk of not being completed. It took the effort and enthusiasm of everyone involved to push the project forward. Throughout the process, Piece by Piece worked closely with the construction crew, the architects, fabrication artists, and those who would be involved in the final installation of the artwork. The building, Villas at Gower, would be new permanent supportive housing for homeless, at-risk of homelessness or families dealing with mental illness.

Drawing of Villas at Gower leaves

Piece by Piece instructor artists Luz Mack Durini and Dawn Mendelson collaborated on the original design concept. Inspired by the garden and its abundant sense of wonder and beauty in nature, they developed a series of ten leaves, each its own oasis of inspiration. Every leaf features a flower symbolizing a human quality we aspire to in our everyday lives. The rose, for example, symbolizes love; the chrysanthemum, optimism; the magnolia, dignity.

Piece by Piece instructor team (L to R): Luz Mack Durini, Dawn Mendelson, Bea Jones, Leigh Adams

Throughout the process, the team of artist instructors worked together to fine-tune the design. Piece by Piece instructor Leigh Adams added both her experience in the garden as artist in residence at the L.A. Arboretum and her technical prowess in cutting skills. Bea Jones was a steady force, working on every aspect of the project.

Piece by Piece artists, instructors and volunteers on grout day.

But it was the Piece by Piece participant artists who gave their best work, their dedication, and their enthusiasm to make the project move forward. They worked together twice a week as a team and inspired not only each other, but the whole Piece by Piece family.

Three of the leaves have a branch attached directly. There are two larger vines hosting the other leaves.

The fabrication of this project was the result of a huge team of artists, volunteers and technical experts. The realistic vine was created by Lucas Look Designs, a company that creates scenery for Hollywood and Disney. It was sculpted from an epoxy base and rivals the trees in our own backyard in beauty.

Piece by Piece participating artists cut high-density foam and covered it in two layers of mesh and concrete.


To begin the process of fabricating the leaves themselves, Piece by Piece enlisted the technical and artistic experience of renowned sculptor Sherri Warner Hunter. Her unique foam construction technique was the basis for the leaves. High density foam was shaped, reinforced with a skeleton, and covered in a series of layers of concrete and fiberglass mesh.

Artist Sherri Warner Hunter works with Piece by Piece artists on the fabrication of the leaf forms.

Beyond the technical, Sherri worked with our artists to see in 3D and understand shape and form. Her down-to-earth manner and her way of communicating with our artists helped them not only to master the foam, but to transfer this vision to their own work.

After the fabrication of the forms, the design was transferred to the leaves.


The Fabrication

The unique clay flowers were handmade by our participants, under the guidance of artist Matt Doolin of Topanga Art Tile. Matt taught our artists the subtlety of coaxing the clay into the delicate petals of our flowers. They were sculpted from high-fire clay and formed to the contours of the leaves.

Artist Matt Doolin worked with Piece by Piece artists to form the clay flowers.
The mosaic background was fabricated entirely by our team of participant artists, instructors, and volunteers. Over 15,000 pieces were hand cut and placed.
Piece by Piece artists working on mosaic.
The grouting process was completed in two days.

The Results

When the leaves were completed, there was a great sense of accomplishment by all. Our artists demonstrated true teamwork, showing anything can be achieved if we work together. This public art project became more than making some extra money. It became a sense of pride, a feeling of belonging, a drive to succeed.

The vine can be seen as unfurling our hopes and dreams. The roots are constructed from teamwork, individual creativity, and the desire to give back to the community. The leaves are a testimony to the human spirit. With new skills and renewed vision, our Piece by Piece artists have created something unique for the residents of Villas at Gower. It something to be proud of. And that is what we do with every piece of art at Piece by Piece: foster the love for what we do, embrace optimism, and build dignity.

Read more in Part Two: The Installation.
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