Lessons in glass

NaNa Yah Effah adjusts glass in his window design. (Patrick Cobbs/For NewsWorks)

By Patrick Cobbs; video by Kim Paynter for NewsWorks

In another setting it might not have happened. Muhammad Brewer crossed the large room and slid between his brother Deshawn and NaNa Yah Effah, originally of Ghana, draping his arms around both of them.

Despite a rift between African and African American students that sometimes plays out at Germantown High, the three young men seem naturally close, especially when they’re making stained glass windows together at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.

“You become artists together and you don’t have to worry about the other stuff because of what you are working on,” said Paula Mandel, a glass artist and co-founder of the stained glass project.

She’s seen this and other kinds of magic in the five years the program has been running.

Whether it’s bridging gaps left over from the classroom, transforming football players into glass artists, or bringing artistic suburban white women into the neighborhood to work so closely with black students that both sides of that relationship are surprised by the strength of the connections, the stained glass program at FUMCOG tends to generate special moments.

Last year’s project was a perfect example. Germantown students volunteered their time after school to make decorative windows that they designed, and then they donated them to a new school in South Africa for children orphaned by AIDS. Before the windows shipped out, these same students displayed their work in an interpretive exhibit at the Fairmount Park Welcome Center at Love Park.

Take your pick of special moments there.

And this year’s project may be even better. At the suggestion of NaNa Yah Effah, the group decided to donate their work to another school - this one rebuilding in a flood damaged area of New Orleans.

But the Morris Jefferson public school isn’t just looking for a new building this year - it’s opening with an attempt to reverse the de-facto racial segregation that has beset New Orleans (and most urban school districts) even after legal segregation was banned fifty years ago in Louisiana. It’s a project the stained glass artists just had to be a part of.

“Our goal for this year is to get the kids to New Orleans and hand deliver the windows,” Mandel said.

They don’t have the money to do that yet - they are hoping, praying and fundraising.

But most of all, they are working like mad to get those windows ready.

Students plan their windows according to research they’ve done on New Orleans, they cut and polish the glass to illustrate their designs, and each student solders the pieces together into a window pane.

The process can be meditative when your’e lost in the moment, and frustrating when it doesn’t go right.

Onyikansola Adekitan left the room momentarily because cutting the glass can be so difficult. But she returned a few minutes later and set back to work.

“It’s kind of fun, but it’s hard too,” she said.

For Mandel and other artists, like Joan Myerson Shrager who co-founded the project, the experience of getting to know the children is as profound as it is for the students to be exposed to the new art form.

Everyone in the room is learning.

“These kids are looking at the world differently after they do this, and so are we,” Mandel said. Myerson Shrager, starry eyed, called the whole thing a kind of love affair.

And for students like NaNa, who said he was looking forward to the stronger connection this year’s project will have to his new country, the self satisfaction of the end product goes deep.

“It’s very fun when you are doing it, putting windows together,” he said. “And after you are done - last year I was very happy I could help other people.”

To learn more about the FUMCOG stained glass project visit its Facebook page.

For more on the Morris Jefferson school in New Orleans visit its Web site.

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