Miguel Martinez walked around the art piece he helped create, bending and peering, running his fingers across the cold mosaics.
Finally, he sat down and laughed.
“I was scared that this wasn’t actually going to happen,” he said, looking out at downtown’s Ferris Plaza. “But here I am sitting on it.”
Martinez, 19, was one of the 57 Skyline High School students who helped design and build the installation, called Ignite Ferris Plaza.
Fifteen concrete benches inlaid with mosaics snake around the southeast side of the park at the corner of Young Street and South Record Street. A two-level cement circle completes the project with a mosaic map of Dallas.
The project will remain at Ferris Plaza until October.
The project was the brainchild of Janeil Engelstad, the director of MAP (Make Art with Purpose), a nonprofit organization that uses the arts to address social and environmental issues, and students at Skyline. Downtown Dallas Inc. was looking to activate some of the area’s underused parks and asked Engelstad for ideas.
“For me as an artist, what’s really key is when you do public art, you engage the community,” Engelstad said. “You don’t just plop a piece of art down.”
She enlisted the help of students at Skyline and toured parks to decide where the installation should go. They selected Ferris Plaza because of its history as a gateway to the city.
“This park used to be really busy, and now people just pass through,” Engelstad said.
Decades before skyscrapers climbed into the Dallas skyline and automobiles clogged the streets, Ferris Plaza welcomed train passengers pouring out of adjacent Union Station. The Trinity River inspired the shape of the benches. Soon the project was underway.
After a year of planning, designing, sculpting clay models and erasing, the students came up with the bench design. Skyline Architecture Cluster instructor Peter Goldstein calls the bench layout the “J Scheme.” Each bench was filled with PVC pipe and concrete in the shape of a J.
“We all liked it because it made angles where I can sit here and a person can sit across from me and we can have a conversation,” student Jose Beltrán said. “It ignites conversation.”
Beltrán, 18, worked on the project from start to completion. He often had free time during second period when he could work on his favorite part of the project, the mosaics.
The mosaic pieces scattered along each bench represent constellations and the four seasons. Beltrán said a group of students went to the Bank of America tower to look down on the city and map out its districts. Dallas seemed tiny from up so high, Beltrán said, but mapping a city in small mosaic pieces was harder than it sounded. After misplacing the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in one draft, he had to reshape every mosaic piece to relocate the bridge.
Beltrán, like Martinez, had doubts that the project would ever be completed. Martinez graduated before the project was completed and thought all their work would be lost. He saw the completed benches for the first time last week. Beltrán wasn’t sure the project would be carried over through the summer. He and other students spent days, nights and weekends putting the designs together.
“After working on this for almost a year and a half, having it here in front of us is amazing,” Beltrán said. “Art that we can claim and say that we built.”
The students had help from their instructors, Engelstad and the Beck Group and Osborn Contractors. The Heart of Neiman Marcus Foundation, Art Con and Dallas Downtown Inc. all contributed to the project.
The goal of MAP projects, Engelstad said, is to collaborate with the community to create art that can be used by its audience. Currently, MAP is producing 10 projects around the world.
Beltrán is proud of the work his school produced, but more important than the piece is what it stands for. “No matter how big or small, it always has a story,” he said. “I would like for people to think about the story that Skyline made doing this and at least to remember this is where Dallas started.”