The project is a collaboration among Perkins Center for the Arts, Haddon Heights in Progress, and students from the Haddon Heights Junior-Senior High School.
By Matt Skoufalos | April 18, 2019
Like many South Jersey boroughs, Haddon Heights is fiercely proud of its history.
Unlike many of them, however, it’s got a new piece of public art to commemorate it.
Installed this week outside Carole’s Candy Corner in the 600 block of Station Avenue, “Greetings From Haddon Heights” is a mural-mosaic in whose tiles lies the work of many hands, including students from the borough junior-senior high school and artists-in-residence from Perkins Center for the Arts.
Starting with an idea put forth by former Haddon Heights Board of Education Member Tina Gentile and funded in part by the local nonprofit Haddon Heights in Progress (HIP), “Greetings From Haddon Heights” reflects an intersection of arts education, community development, and generational local history.
“We’re always looking for opportunities for kids,” Gentile said. “I really love the idea of getting them hands-on experiences, connecting beyond the [school]walls. Working with a real artist is such a gift.”
Artist Jackie Stack Lagakos of Lindenwold had completed a mural at Countryside Elementary School in Mt. Laurel, where Gentile teaches. Watching how the students there came together on the project stuck with her. When the opportunity arose to do something similar in Haddon Heights, she knew she wanted to work with Stack Lagakos again.
The focus of the piece was guided by the borough schools and government, who wanted something that reflected the town’s history. However, it really started to take shape when the kids threw out suggestions of how to approach that assignment, Stack Lagakos said.
“One of the young girls said, ‘Why don’t we do it like a postcard and have it be a map of Haddon Heights?,” Stack Lagakos said. “Instantly, it was taken over by the students by just that, and that’s the direction we went in.”
Local historian Bob Hunter taught the students about the significance of the various sites that eventually were depicted in the finished work, while Stack Lagakos and Kathy Casper taught them the fine arts skills they needed to create the work.
Hunter also provided the most significant piece of reference material for the project: a 1976 historical album created by eighth graders at Haddon Heights Junior High School.
“It’s amazing,” Stack Lagakos said.
“It’s so well done with so many great photos. It was a major help to us.”
The booklet provided a bridge from one generation of borough students to another.
To commemorate its significance, Stack Lagakos embedded a memorial tile to one of its contributors in the finished work: the late Leah Deprospero.
“The kids were great,” Stack Lagakos said. “They really got into it.”
“Greetings from Haddon Heights” is one of dozens of works Perkins Center for the Arts has created in the 25-year course of its arts residency program, said Alison Hunt, its Director of Education.
Perkins artists-in-residence have collaborated with students on curriculum-focused STEAM, emotional development, theatrical, and fine arts projects in neighboring communities like Cherry Hill and Lindenwold, to name only a couple.
“Our teaching artists are trained and skilled to work in the school environment,” Hunt said. “They’ve worked with us for quite a while in schools and different residencies.”
Each project is customized for the community in which it’s created. Perkins fundraises two-thirds of the cost of the project, and its partners fund the remainder. HIP covered the school’s $5,000 share of the $13,000 project cost, and also shepherded the project through various approvals from the borough school, zoning, and historic boards.
Joe Gentile, Tina Gentile’s husband and the HIP co-founder, said the organization would like to find a way to replicate the success of the project in neighboring communities along the Atlantic Avenue corridor.
“If something were to happen in another downtown, it would be something that we can get behind as an organization,” Joe Gentile said.
Haddon Heights Junior-Senior High School Principal Eric Rosen said the project has touched three-quarters of the seventh-grade students on its campus.
Throughout a 10-day residency spread across the course of three marking periods, the artists connected with about 150 kids.
“I think it’s amazing educationally and creatively,” Rosen said. “It’s awesome how the community and the school could work together in a positive way to create a tangible piece of art that everyone can see for years to come.
“Hopefully it’s the beginning of many positive collaborations with them,” he said. “It would be cool to continue that tradition.”
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