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Kid-designed and -created sculpture takes shape at old Helen Hunt school

June 4, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018 at 8:07 pm
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From atop a ladder, Concrete Couch director Steve Wood, staff, and volunteers get their hands dirty while working on a concrete slide for their recent project. They have been building a concrete castle, slide and dragon for the playground at Helen Hunt Elementary School in the Hillside neighborhood. The concrete was donated by Transit Mix Concrete Company and was being poured on Thursday, May 31, 2018. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

A pint-sized castle and magnificent mosaic-tile dragon soon will transport youngsters to the magical land of make-believe on a site that fostered children's imaginations for generations.

Rising out of the weeds and dirt of the old Helen Hunt Elementary School's front yard is a new, kid-friendly sculpture that children helped create and that, in turn, will help grow their minds and bodies.

"When this is done, people aren't going to say, 'That's a run-of-the-mill playground,'" said Steve Wood, founder and director of Concrete Couch, a nonprofit that organizes public art projects with community assistance.

The $25,000 dragon and castle creation has been in the works for months and last week began to take shape.

Students from nearby Pikes Peak Prep charter school made blue and green ceramic tiles that are forming the dragon.

Students from other local schools, Hillside neighborhood residents and other community members are among the volunteers, and anyone can lend a hand this week during the kickoff of Concrete Couch's seventh annual Summer Community Art and Mural Program.

"Whether it's building a playground or a garden or getting better bus service, having the neighbors work together is a great thing," Wood said.

This project keeps the property as a community resource, said Concrete Couch community coordinator Ruthie Markwardt.

Colorado Springs School District 11 closed Helen Hunt Elementary in May 2016, after 114 years, saying the historic building needed too many costly repairs. The district sold the 3-acre site at 917 E. Moreno St. to the John E. and Margaret L. Lane Foundation for $1, with the stipulation that it be used to benefit the historically underserved area.

Several nonprofit groups occupy part of the space, providing support for homeless families, English language classes and food distribution.

Concrete Couch revamped the old playground last year, installing new equipment, recycled materials and children's art fashioned into tire and rope swings, an artsy climbing tower, a functional marimba, two side-by-side slides for races and other fun elements that neighborhood kids said they wanted.

During recent community meetings, a castle and dragon were the hands-down favorites for the new piece, Wood said.

The idea somehow fits the 1902 building, he said. "It's kind of castley and dragony looking."

Concrete was poured last week to build the tall castle, which resembles the rook chess piece and incorporates a slide.

Justin Richards, a former concrete layer and now a finish carpenter who lives nearby, said he never met Wood until the artist knocked on his door one day, asking if Richards would help build the sculpture.

"I've known him by reputation," Richards said of Wood. "He's done great work, and I really like a lot of his projects.

"Part of the reason I wanted to be involved is without concrete expertise, this job wouldn't have been able to happen. And it's for the kids, which I'm all for."

Richards spent copious hours troweling the concrete onto the slide to make it smooth.

"This will do a lot," he said. "The playground was in disrepair, and the whole area was attracting homeless people. This will attract families and a more positive experience unique to this neighborhood."

Children will be able to scale the green powder-coated metal dragon's wings and enjoy the slide as they are carried to a land far, far away.

"The school is kind of an eyesore," said 16-year-old Victoria Gallegos, who's lived in Hillside since she was 1. "It's nice to have some color in the neighborhood. It's a nice complement."

As members of the Hillside Community Center's youth leadership empowerment group, Victoria and friend Faith Stone, also 16, have met with Concrete Couch organizers every Thursday since January to prepare and plan the project.

"This is not just making playground equipment," Wood said. "It's giving kids the agency to be the creators, designers and builders, which is the cool thing."

When finished in a few months, the pubic art of the longtime Manitou Springs artist will join other displays found around town on playgrounds and school grounds, underneath bridges, on walls of government buildings and in street medians. Grants and donations fund the projects.

The dragon and castle have been a lot of work, high school students said last week, taking a break from hauling wheelbarrows full of construction materials.

Just like last summer, when they helped revive the school's old playground nearby.

"We laid down all that mulch," Faith said. "It was a lot of shoveling and wheel barrowing."

But it's been fun.

"When we finished the playground last year, I noticed kids playing on it immediately," she said. "It was nice to see."

The current project is the buzz around the neighborhood.

"It gives people something to talk about," Faith said. "What are you working on? A little of this, a little of that."

Victoria and Faith have fond memories of attending Helen Hunt. Victoria is now homeschooled, and Faith attends Achieve Online, a program at D-11's Roy J. Wasson Academic Campus. Both will be seniors in the fall.

"It's good they're not just knocking it down," Faith said of her old school.

"It was sad when they closed it," said Victoria, who attended Helen Hunt from preschool through fifth grade. "The school also needed a lot of work done, so I understand. This will be nice to look at, so it's not so empty over here."

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