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The Power of the Pencil

The mural began with a sketch or two -- twenty-four, actually. And they weren't even the artist's sketches. They came from his subjects.

Tin Ly is the artist, and the homeless are his subjects. They're also the reason that the latest Broward County Public Art and Design Program project, which Ly oversaw, was created. Titled "Communal Dream," the mural now hangs in the courtyard of the new Homeless Assistance Center in Fort Lauderdale. Ly, a 45-year-old professional artist, volunteered for the program, which demanded that he put together a piece of work that somehow involved the homeless.

So Ly handed out pencils and paper at area homeless shelters and asked folks to sketch images covering four subjects: favorite outdoor activity, favorite indoor location, favorite person, and what you plan to do after leaving the shelter.

Ly collected about a hundred sketches, then picked 24 to use in the final mural. One sketch came from a 23-year-old man who drew his baby boy after pulling a photograph from his wallet. He told Ly that the child was in England with his mother. "He was so happy to be able to draw his baby boy," Ly recalls.

Several other sketches were drawn by children, including one that Ly refers to as "the Six Hanger Houses" by a seven-year-old named Corey. Corey's drawing feature what appeared to be houses hung from coat hangers. But when Ly asked Corey to explain the "hooks" on top of the roofs, the boy set him straight. "He said, 'You stupid. This is smoke from the chimney. This is a smoke stack,'" Ly remembers.

For the most part, Ly chose easily recognizable images for the mural. One picture, though, is an abstract design by a shy four-year-old boy named Teon, who said he'd drawn a bird. "It's a beautiful drawing, eccentric and beautiful," Ly says. "Even for an adult, that imagery is so sophisticated that I think it is wonderful." Two other sketches by Teon were used, one of a bed, the other a person wearing a huge hat. "That's the imagery flowing out [of] his pencil," Ly says. "It's so precious, [there's] so much innocence in it."

After selecting the images, Ly created his own versions of them for the mural, which stretches across a wall 60 feet wide and 21 feet tall. Some of the drawings were sandblasted into the stucco as etchings, and others are brightly painted, raised-aluminum pieces. Arranging the images in the mural was Ly's biggest artistic challenge. "It's my mission to knit all these vignettes together and give the vignettes some kind of meaning," he says. "I put the sun on top and all those [other images] floating and drifting and heading toward the sun."

Ly, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, says he wanted to design and oversee the $50,000 county art project for a couple reasons. First, he likes the direction in which public art is heading. "Nowadays, the definition of public art is not a piece of artwork by such-and-such an artist and just plopped on the wall or put in the center of courtyard," he says. "It's a piece of work that the artists have to take time to research, to learn about the community, where the site is, and to talk to the users around them, and be able to carry a specific meaning that would relate it to the immediate environment."

He also empathizes with his subjects. As a teenager Ly left Saigon, and he says, "I just feel maybe me being dislocated in the past from one country to the next, I have [a] certain sensitivity to homeless people."

-- Patti Roth

"Communal Dream" is located in the interior courtyard of the Broward County Homeless Assistance Center/Huizenga Family Campus, 920 NW Seventh Ave., Fort Lauderdale. For more information on the Broward County public art program, call 954-357-7457.

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Patti Roth

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