Community project headed by MUW instructor brings life to storm-ravaged town

July 1, 2011 11:05:00 AM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


The streets are gray with dust. Entire neighborhoods in Tuscaloosa, Ala., are flattened, transforming the once vibrant landscape into a monotone wasteland of concrete slabs. Blue, tarpaulin-draped roofs provide intermittent splashes of color. The tarps protect, but they do not provide hope. They speak of loss, but they say nothing of love.  


Jessica Peterson, an interim graphic design instructor at Mississippi University for Women, wants to change that through a community art project that''s become a personal mission to spread hope and color in the town she thinks of as "a surrogate home."  


The idea is simple: Provide decorative, hand-painted "love signs" for residents and business owners, indicating that even though things are a mess right now, they will return.  


She retains close ties to Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama, where she attended college and teaches as an adjunct professor in the Book Arts program. Many of her friends were directly impacted by the April 27 tornado, and she has spent a lot of time helping them sift through the rubble, salvaging their possessions.  


"It has been almost two months since the tornado, but it is still shocking to see the amount of destruction in these neighborhoods, which used to be vibrant, tree-filled communities and are now eerily quiet, empty and full of rubble," she said. "I can''t think of a better opportunity for a community art project. The signs provide a little humanity and color in landscapes that are otherwise still heartbreaking to experience." 


The project is the brainchild of Coker, Ala., organic farmers Jean Mills and Carol Eichelberger. When Peterson heard about it, she said she knew she wanted to be involved.  


"The way it looks now, it looks like nothing is ever going to happen, and nothing is ever going to live again," Peterson said Wednesday. "Jean sent out an email, and I was anxious to do something." 


So far, Peterson has painted a total of 20 signs, which are distributed throughout various neighborhoods in the Forest Lake and Glendale Gardens areas.  


She added that it''s a learning process. Originally, she didn''t know how to make a weatherproof sign that would withstand wind and would be visible from a distance. Many of the people working with her have no art background at all. 


"It seems easy to make a sign, but it''s hard to make it readable and look interesting," Peterson said. "With a community art project, you can''t control what people do so much, but it requires you to slow down and think about things you don''t usually think about if you''re not an artist." 


Peterson said in addition to brightening the landscape for residents, the project has also given her an outlet to cope with the tornado aftermath. 


"I know there''s a lot of suffering in the world, but there''s a lot of suffering in Tuscaloosa, too," she said. "People have a huge wall of emotion ... Art opens emotions and releases the inarticulate grief, anger and upset. Art helps you deal with things you can''t articulate." 


"It''s been surprisingly well received," Mills said. "They''re not extremely well done. They''re just on recycled canvas, painted with house paint. But people loved having something. They needed something that would give them hope." 


Peterson is inviting volunteers to join her in another sign-making session at MUW''s Art and Design Building, July 16, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The signs will be sent to Tuscaloosa and Smithville.  


For more information, email her at [email protected] 




Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.