Saturday, May 21, 2016

Healing and Metamorphosis

By Pamela Zoslov

On a cloudy December day, Shelly Gracon walks through the garden at the Cudell Recreation Center on Cleveland's Near West Side. She is searching for the Madonna sculpture that normally presides, hands prayerfully crossed, over a group of tiny stone children's heads. “Here she is,” Gracon says, relieved. She picks up the toppled Madonna and replaces it gently among the babies.

This is the Butterfly Garden, created in memory of Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was fatally shot by police on November 22, 2014 while carrying a toy pellet gun. It is adjacent to the gazebo where Rice was killed, and was created by and for members of this West Side community to help them heal. “The garden is about creating something beautiful out of something tragic,” Gracon says.

The garden, which will be in full bloom this spring, is part of the Butterfly Project, a program that also included community workshops and a summer camp for children.

Gracon, 40, who is pursuing a master's degree at the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, was deeply affected by Rice's death. At the time, she was an intern with Ward 15 Councilman Matt Zone, whose ward includes Cudell. She recalls the day she heard the news. “My first thought was, Oh my god, a 12-year-old boy! I was in a state of shock. How could this happen?”

The next day, Gracon, who describes herself as “an activist at heart,” went to the gazebo. “I talked with some of the kids who knew Tamir,” she says. He was an artist, they told her. He loved to draw. He had a mischievous sense of humor. “He was so misunderstood by the media,” she says, “which was portraying him as a thug.

"It surprised me that there could be such a narrative, just because of the color of someone's skin.”

Gracon approached Councilman Zone about doing something to help the children handle their grief. At his suggestion, Gracon consulted with Tamir's teachers about creating a public art project and summer camp. With Zone's help, Gracon obtained a $5,000 grant from the city's casino-revenue fund.

Writing the grant proposal and getting approval was an arduous process, she says, but the camp, held at Cudell Fine Arts two days a week in July, was a success. Twelve children, including Tamir's sister, Tajai, participated. They learned yoga, meditation, drumming, and art. They formed tight friendships. They created the artwork displayed in the garden: concrete plaques embedded with buttons, beads and jewelry, and blue posts bearing painted handprints and epitaphs: “Young Black King Tamir,” “RIP,” “Love You.”

The garden was the project's final phase. In August, neighborhood residents and Tamir's classmates planted bulbs and installed the garden's decorative elements. The garden will be crowned by an installation by metal sculptor David Smith, a Buddhist prayer wheel adorned with tiles made by the children.

Shelly Gracon, at the Butterfly Garden she and Tamir Rice's friends and neighbors created in his memory.

The imagery of the butterfly, a symbol of metamorphosis, was Gracon's idea. “It's all about the transformation of trauma and grief,” she explains. The colors, predonimantly blue and white, were chosen by Tamir's mom, Samaria, who, with her family, was actively involved in creating the garden. “The garden was probably the most healing thing to the family,” Gracon says. “There's so much power in creating that sacred space in Tamir's memory.” Latonya Goldsby, Tamir's cousin, called the Project “the most beautiful demonstration of community love and healing I've ever experienced.”

On the first anniversary of Tamir's death, Gracon's teacher, Mandel assistant professor Mark Chupp, helped facilitate a “healing action” session including ritual silence, candle lighting and an opportunity for the Rice family to speak. Mandel students worked with small groups to help the family and community process their feelings and create a collage timeline of events that happened since Tamir's death. 

Nothing can erase the pain of losing a 12-year-old child, but Elisa Kazek, Tamir's art teacher — who recalls Tamir as a boy who was "always smiling" — said those who participated in the Butterfly Project found some healing. “They appreciated the volunteer effort and had a sense of community,” Kazek said, “from building the garden and going on the field trips. There's a sense of bringing the community together for something good."

Gracon's project took her beyond what she could learn from books and journal articles. It also sent her on a difficult emotional journey. “I'm very sensitive by nature, and I take on other people's emotions. There were days when I'd just cry. ” 

Being a single mom of an 8-year-old son informs her activism. “I've been through divorce and a lot of life changes, and I'm very focused” said Gracon, who enrolled at Mandel because she wanted a meaningful career. “I know what's at stake, and I don't want this world for my son.”

(Photographs by Pamela Zoslov)