On one busy corner of Kansas City's St. John Avenue, a community is coming together to create a piece of art that reflects the whole world.
Home to culturally and ethnically diverse businesses and many artists, the city's Historic Northeast neighborhood is already a colorful place.
Rebecca Koop's pottery studio, however, was a gray building with smooth Art Deco curves (back in 1929, it had been an auto repair shop). Over the last couple of years, a picture of the earth began to take shape on the facade as Koop and her neighbors spent long summer days on scaffolding placing section after section of tile.
“I just wanted an earth and I want it to be interactive and I wanted to meet my neighbors to have this be a community project,” says Koop, “and offer it as a teaching opportunity and really just kind of a neighborly kind of thing.”
Fifteen years ago, she had the idea for a large-scale mosaic that would cover the front of the building. So she started collecting cheap, surplus tile.
“At that time there was a lot of colored tile, and so I tried to just grab up as much blue and green tile as I could find," she says. "It’s easy to find tan and taupe and white. And I thought I had enough. Well, no I didn’t.”
The building might not look big, but Koop has more than 600 square feet of surface to cover. Every tiny piece must be cut, shaped and organized into a pattern.
“Where the earth meets space, I have the phases of the moon,” says Koop. “And of course between those phases we have space and points of light, so I’m putting the constellations up there.”
Koop is a full-time potter and ceramics teacher. She’s also the events director for the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, and she runs the community garden next to her studio. But she spends most of her spare time cutting tile, grouting, and dreaming up the next section of the mosaic.
Koop's also a bit of an art activist. On Wednesday evenings, she invites her neighbors to make their own mark on her wall.
“You just can’t imagine that a tiny little inch tile is then going to develop into a square foot, which will then develop into an entire mosaic,” says Beth Keith, who lives just around the corner.
“It’s a slow, plodding-type project," says Keith. "Those are the best kind, often. I can just come and be a little part of that and watch it slowly develop and then now we can stand back and look at it and say, 'Wow.' She should be proud.”
Another helper is Koop’s intern, Adrian Feiber, a senior at The Kansas City Art Institute.
“I had to do little sections here and there," Feiber says. "But I really couldn’t tell you exactly, like, a spot that I did for sure. Missouri I remember, the Colorados and areas like that; Canada and the lakes. I know I’ve got a tile in there somewhere, but I couldn’t point to it exactly.”
The work isn’t easy.
“Me and all of the others who have helped have cut, you know, many, many, many pieces of tile and that’s pretty labor intensive,” says Keith. “And, you know, I am not a young thing so I would have aches and pains after cutting tiles.”
Koop and her neighbors worked outside until late October. Now, the grout has been sealed and prepared for the winter. After two years of work, the mosaic now stretches more than halfway across the building.
“It’s been an experience," Koop says with a laugh. "It’s an exciting experience, actually, because I can see the progress.”
They’ll spend the next few months inside, cutting more tile into tiny pieces. When the weather warms up, they will be out here again. If all goes well, Koop expects it’ll be done this time next year.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter @juliedenesha.