Young artists bloom in spring

“We have become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic.” — President Jimmy Carter

“I made a tile for the mosaic with the word, ‘balo bashi,’ which means
‘be loving’ in Bangla. I also made a clay figure of a woman wearing
traditional clothes from Bangladesh–a shalwar kamiz (long tunic and
loose pants).  Making art is exciting and fun.”

— Amina Hima, a 5th grader at Piney Branch
Elementary School 


photos by Laurie Stepp

by Sandy Moore

On April 21, a group of nearly 75 fifth graders gathered at Takoma Park’s Community Center for the unveiling of a mosaic mural.  The large mosaic was created by a diverse group of students from Piney Branch Elementary, many of them recent immigrants to the U.S.  Young artists began work on the mural last year, and gathered this spring to see how each of their colorful pieces had been integrated into a “welcome arch” at the Takoma Park Community Center.

Alice Sims, founder of “Art for People” in Takoma Park, came up with the idea for the mosaic arch.  She teamed up with Piney Branch ESOL (English as a Second Language) teacher Rachna Rikhye last spring, involving 15 ESOL students in the project.  They asked students to bring in artifacts from home that reminded them of the culture they had left behind.  Among the artifacts they collected: an Ethiopian cross, a woven handbag from Somalia, a turban from Guinea.  As Rikhye explained:  “They made drawings inspired by these artifacts.  It was empowering for them–to share a piece of what they are, where they came from.”  Rikhye and Sims helped the kids go from drawing board to clay; the children shaped clay figures to represent their cultural piece of the mosaic that is Takoma Park.


kidmosaic_Sims_300.jpgAlice Sims

While they are not yet fluent English speakers, Rikhes’ students all know 1 or 2 other languages sometimes little heard in the U.S.  For example, Amina lived in Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates before landing in Takoma Park.  She grew up speaking Bangla and learned some Arabic along the way.  Now she’s honing her skills as a reader and writer of English.

The mosaic project, sponsored by Art for the People, showcases the talents of the young artists and highlights their diverse backgrounds.  Montgomery County also awarded Ms. Rikhye a grant to write
a book about the ESOL art project.  “While they’re learning English, I’d like for more ESOL kids to see themselves in a positive manner,” explained Ms. Rikhye. Takoma photographer Laurie Stepp has been documenting the joint effort, creating a photo record of the project.


5th graders from Piney Branch Elementary delight at seeing “Welcome Arch” mosaic created by ESOL students

One enthusiastic participant is fifth grader Bethlehem Zeleke, who moved to Takoma Park from Ethiopia four years ago.  A leather painting of angels she brought in from home inspired her contribution to the mosaic project.  Her clay figure is wearing traditional Ethiopian dress, just like the angels.

Fellow artist Efra Wodaje is also from Ethiopia.  “I love to draw.  Mostly I draw my family or sports,” said Wodaje, “but this time I drew Ethiopian things.”  A third participant, Ameen Islaw, brought in a Somalian purse his mom made.  The traditional criss cross pattern inspired the little ceramic crosses he crafted for the mosaic.

“I brought in a pretty outfit–the kind of thing a Muslim might wear to a mosque in Maryland,” said young artist Salimata Mankajang.  Mankajang has a diverse background: her mother’s from
Holland, her father, from Gambia.  The Gambian outfit, of white cotton fabric with flower cut-outs, inspired her flowered tiles.

Adult participants in the 2009 Earth Day portion of the Takoma Mosaic Project created hundreds of small ceramic leaves.  Sims added them to the kids’ mosaic.  As she explained,” “Having the leaves above the human figures is a metaphor, for the leaves are sheltering, or protecting, our children.”

The children’s clay pieces–small figures of people in ethnic dress, flowers, words in a foreign alphabet–are surrounded by glass marbles and pieces of tile. Said Sims,” Our young artists are
originally from Cameroon, El Salvador, Somalia, Guinea, France, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Gambia and Tanzania.  They’re like the colorful ceramic pieces, soon to become a part of bigger mosaic that is our Takoma Park community.

Takoma Park and Silver Spring mosaic artists include Salimatu Mankajang, Amina Hima, Ameen Islaw, Kaleb Tola, Efra Wodage, Bethlehem Zeleke, Karla Corvera-Portillo, Salematou Sylla,
Chelsea Ojage, Bereket Iyob, Ibrahima Sylla, Tram Tran, Nickson Minja, Aman Mohammed, and Lahari Saha.

Curious about mosaic activity in Takoma Park?  To read more about the Takoma Library wall and other activities that are a part of the Mosaic Project, go to

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About the Author

Sandy Moore, the Kids' Voice columnist, writes for young readers and is a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Sandy is also a past contributor to Washington Parent magazine, a Board member of Lumina Studio Theatre, and resident of Silver Spring.