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Mosaics on Main Street

by Ally Nkwocha

Before Glass Artist, Jeweler, and Sculptor Vicki Leon moved into San Diego’s Azalea Park neighborhood, her realtor said “You’re gonna be involved in this community.” Now, 18 years later, after founding the Azalea Park Mosaic League, Vicki is using her experience to inspire community members to lead local public art projects.

She’s always been an artist, but Vicki’s work as a community leader is more recent. She credits the 2013 Pomegranate Approach Training as a strong influence in her founding the Azalea Park Mosaic League, an organization dedicated to teaching artists in the design and creation of mosaics and installing them in their communities.

How to effectively run a community meeting tops her list as the most valuable tool gained from Pomegranate’s training. “It’s nice learning proven techniques then having a chance to practice and you see your other Fellows succeed. It really helped my confidence.” It takes skill and preparation to get everyone talking and everyone listening.

In the community meetings about the Azalea Park identification sign, “It was helpful for me to get a sense of what people wanted, and for people to influence each other, and it totally influenced the direction of my design,” Vicki says.
In the community meetings about the Azalea Park identification sign, “It was helpful for me to get a sense of what people wanted, and for people to influence each other, and it totally influenced the direction of my design,” Vicki says.

Influence can be a double-edged sword, and Vicki works diligently to maintain the balance in protecting her visions and knowing when they can be made better and more representative of her community by harnessing ideas and energy from others.  “Have the vision, work on the vision, clarify the vision, and share the vision. And then when it comes time to actually implement things, consider being flexible about the vision,” she says like a mantra.

Everyone has their own interpretations, and these can create new opportunities for participants to take on leadership roles in the project. An effective leader knows when to delegate and how to be inclusive. Vicki acknowledges that there is always room to grow as a leader. At the end of the day, “the main thing is that you want the thing to work.” Success is important in community projects, where enthusiasm, pride, and participation are at stake.

A key piece of advice that she has for fellow community leaders: organizers and visionaries who have dedicated time to work on the plan are essential to success. These are the people that are responsible for knowing how things are supposed to go. They maintain clarity and direction as more voices enter the mix, and keep the project from getting derailed.

Planning and building together strengthens communities and builds social capital.  “If you make a mosaic with them, they’re somebody you know now. It’s really great to have so many little projects going on that give people an opportunity to stop and meet each other and hook in.”  
Planning and building together strengthens communities and builds social capital.  “If you make a mosaic with them, they’re somebody you know now. It’s really great to have so many little projects going on that give people an opportunity to stop and meet each other and hook in.”

Our conversation kept returning to Main Street, where Vicki has had a studio for 4 years. The Azalea Park Mosaic League’s current goal is to mosaic everything on Main Street. Such a central and well-used location is ideal because people walking or driving by will stop by to ask questions and learn more about the project and the organization. Making art and creating opportunities for others to make art is one of the primary intentions of the Azalea Park Mosaic League. “Art is my first language and English is really my second language. It’s my favorite way to communicate with people– not just making something alone in my studio and then presenting it, but communicating through the making of art with other people. It’s really very bonding. It’s very memorable,” she says.

Many of the pieces that the Azalea Park Mosaic League has created so far are on trash receptacles or small street fixtures. The transformative powers of even something small aren’t lost on Vicki. “One piece of art on the side of a trash can, and that whole part of the street is alive and vibrant and looking better.”
Many of the pieces that the Azalea Park Mosaic League has created so far are on trash receptacles or small street fixtures. The transformative powers of even something small aren’t lost on Vicki. “One piece of art on the side of a trash can, and that whole part of the street is alive and vibrant and looking better.”

Strangers become collaborators, making the neighborhood safer and building bridges across cultural boundaries. In a diverse community, it isn’t out of the ordinary for project participants to speak different languages, and in these moments  “the mosaic was a language in itself,” Vicki recalls fondly.

What’s bigger than any mosaic is what the connection, collaboration, and engagement they represent within the neighborhood, and this is what makes her most proud of her work. “That’s part of my vision: for other people in the neighborhood to be contributing. So I’m proud of the vision in that it’s working, but really I’m proud of them.”