One of Maryland's most unique and elaborate public art projects was completed with the help of inner city teenagers. Working under a federal grant, Baltimore youths joined professional artists in constructing a mosaic of mirrors, seashells, marbles, broken china, old bottles and miniature figures of U.S. presidents on the outer walls of a museum containing some of the world's most unusual art.

Welcome to Baltimore's American Visionary Art Museum, where a mosaic exterior covering some 300 cement board panels attached to steel framing is now in place.

Visionary art

Since opening in November 1995, AVAM has astounded visitors with its collection of perhaps the country's most curious public art on display. Historically, the visionary art category was defined as the art of the mentally ill. But today, visionary art is better defined as the vivid works of mostly self-taught artists driven to express their personal visions, often due to intense life trials-be it war, poverty or persecution.

Given that it houses an intense art collection, AVAM has always wanted to clothe its outer walls with a striking façade.

"The museum decided to create not just a flat, monochrome mosaic, but a visually strong, 3-D mosaic that represents what the museum is about," says Jack Livingston, an artist who coordinated the museum's "Community Walls" project.

When the project started, AVAM received a U.S. Department of Education grant and $150,000 of that grant was used to fund the first phase of an exterior mosaic project estimated to cost $1.5 million. Partnering with Baltimore's nearby Southern High School, AVAM allowed students who volunteered to receive an art education credit toward their studies.

Built to last

Work began by consulting a structural engineer who helped determine that the mosaic would be built on a durable substrate and attached to the museum's outer cement walls. The panels exceed industry standards (ANSI A118.9) for compressive strength, flexural bond strength, nail pull resistance and freeze/thaw resistance, deliver the performance needed to ensure against potential problems that could mar the finished appearance of the mosaic.

"They came pre-cut in 3-foot-by-5-foot panels," says Livingston. "The Durock panels don't weigh too much."

All 300 panels were initially fastened to steel studs along the museum's three-story exterior. The outline of the mosaic design was drawn onto the panels with chalk and marker pens. The panels were then numbered, removed and brought into a studio.

In the studio, artists and students cut pieces of glass, broken bottles and tile and placed them onto the cement board. With the pieces in place, contact paper was set over the mosaic and the entire pattern was flipped over, allowing workers to apply a latex-modified thin-set mortar. After 24 hours, artists added a blue grout to fill in gaps between pieces. When the grout dried, the mosaic was cleaned off and sealed. Like a piece of a puzzle, each finished panel was placed back on the outer wall in its numbered position.

Stay in school

One goal of the project was to help keep Southern High School students in school. While the "Community Walls" effort was part of the vocational training of the participating students, the AVAM project also helped students to work and learn as artists.

"What we're most proud of is that we offered students an enriching life experience at a place that is a safe haven for them," says Livingston.

Of course, the AVAM staff and the students are also proud of the finished mosaic exterior that they helped create. The exterior mosaic at AVAM is as visionary and dramatic as the works featured inside the museum.