Five-by-five inch tiles cover a wooden table in Brazee Street Studio, a bright and airy artist community in Cincinnati’s Oakley neighborhood. Melted on each tile are colorful representations of animals—elephants, butterflies, turtles. Thin rods of pigmented glass, which look like raw spaghetti noodles, line the spaces between the squares. From far away, the animals reflect the colors of the rods and resemble a community working in harmony.
The tiles are the work of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital employees and their kids, who are creating part of a community-engaged mural that’s going to be installed in the hospital next summer. The project is being pieced together under the watchful and artistic eye of Sandra Gross, the studio’s owner and visionary of the mural’s end design. While she gets final say, she is, as she puts it, “open to letting any and all things happen in between.” This is, after all, art.
For Gross, though, the project is more than just art. It’s education as well. Gross added a master’s degree in Montessori education from Xavier on top of undergraduate and graduate art degrees from Miami. She always knew she wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t until recently that she discovered she could combine her artistic nature with her love of teaching by showing children how to create art out of glass.
“I love working with kids, because they’re more enthusiastic about the process than they are about the end result,” says
Gross. “When I teach children, I show them how to work with the materials, then we brainstorm together. I usually let them have control of the final product. By the end, it’s almost like we’ve become this little community in the studio.”
It all started with her first ArtWorks project, back in 2009. ArtWorks, a small non-profit based in Cincinnati that coordinates community-engaged public art, had partnered with Cincinnati’s Ronald McDonald House for a project. The house was expanding, and staffers were looking to incorporate a community-engaged art installation into their new space.
“I was really excited when ArtWorks approached me, so I got right to work with the student apprentices,” says Gross. “We started with the concept of day and night, and then we talked about what animals might live there and what stories might happen within that space. One of the apprentices designed a moon, one of them designed a mother and child.”
The glass canopy, which turned out to be a 22-foot-long piece, took Gross and five apprentices four weeks to complete. But
their hard work paid off. It was so well done, other glassmakers took notice and showed interest in working with her on other public projects. Since then, she’s installed community-engaged glass pieces in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Santa Fe, and she’s signed on to talk at a National Art Education Association conference this spring.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for me, knowing that it’s going to benefit children,” she says. “That for me is pretty powerful.
And it’s an interesting exercise to have the art not be just about me. I get to witness something amazing happening during the process of making these pieces. Plus, the kids come up with much better ideas than I do.”