For the past six weeks we have had the great fortune of spending every weekday with 20 of the most brilliant kids in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. Yesterday, we all celebrated the final outcome of the Camp—Renaissance Gate, Pittsburgh’s newest work of public art and a 4.1 kWp solar energy installation on Frankstown Avenue.

The artwork helps to power to Homewood Renaissance Association’s new community center next door and provides passersby with a place where they can charge their cellphone during the day while catching some shade under the armatures of the installation.

The form of the artwork was inspired by the shape of the violet flower and by the way that the existing unused marquee at the site resembled a kind of gateway. The campers were already familiar with the concept of the Torii Gates of Japan, which symbolize a spiritual passage or journey. Renaissance Gate, the kids decided, would be a passageway to a new Homewood—a community of hope and progress, or what Free Blackwell, the Executive Director of Homewood Renaissance Association likes to call, “the most livable neighborhood in the most livable city.”

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto imparted even more meaning to the title of the artwork when he spoke at the August 13th opening ceremony just before cutting the red ribbon. He reminded us that the original renaissance in Europe marked a turning point from a period of fear and violence to a period of progress and hope in the future. It was the marriage of the arts and sciences that made Europe’s renaissance possible. The Art + Energy Summer Camp is an expression of the power of that combination and the importance of STEM to STEAM initiatives in education.

Over the course of the six week Camp the participants, ages 8–17, learned about energy science, art, and design.

Week one consisted of field trips to understand the existing landscape of energy production and consumption in Western Pennsylvania. We visited the Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant and the Beaver Valley nuclear power plant. We spent a day at Eden Hall, Chatham University’s sustainability campus where we saw a large solar installation at work and learned about solar thermal heat, aquaculture, and on-site wastewater treatment with engineered wetlands.

We visited Conservation Consultants Inc.’s building, one of Pittsburgh’s first green buildings, to learn about energy efficiency and to see their rooftop solar installations. We visited the new Energy Innovation Center to see their ice storage system and other advanced green building technologies. Other field trips included a visit to a local residential solar installation (thanks Fred Kraybill), and Construction Junction and Creative Reuse, where we learned about how to reduce waste streams and divert used goods and products from landfills.

Fun activities expanded vocabulary and engaged campers in the use of energy conversion efficiency and capacity factor to estimate the average annual output of energy installations.

Weeks two through five continued the lessons on art outside the gallery and the steps of the design process. At the same time the campers began to come up with their artistic concept and sketch the form of what would become the Renaissance Gate.

Some worked with paper and dowels on a 1” = 1’-0” scale model of the existing marquee. Others free-form designed with clay, while some of the older kids manipulated the solar panels in Google Sketchup.

A visit from David Edwards, a local artist and inventor, stimulated our imaginations with the endless possibilities of incorporating solar and wind power into artwork.

By the end of week three it was time to meet up with Tim Gerhart, the structural engineer, and Fred Underwood, the solar installer. Their input was invaluable as we worked together on the final design drawings.

During weeks four and five we were in full-swing with the fabrication and installation! VB Fabricators was able to deliver the finished structural steel armatures in a very short amount of time, and by the start of week six Underwood Solar was installing the solar panels and getting everything wired up. The campers really enjoyed being a part of the installation process, from framing up the panels to the aluminum rails, prepping the colorful panels, and even helping to dig the hole in the ground to examine the existing foundation (Imani and Terrell both found this to be their favorite part!).

We finished up just in time for the ribbon-cutting event with Mayor Peduto. We’re so glad that he was able to take the time out of his busy schedule to attend and speak on the importance of renewable energy and energy justice for communities like Homewood. Daniel Moore with the Pittsburgh Post Gazette wrote a great article that captures the energy of that wonderful day.

A highlight of the day’s festivities was a live performance of “Solar Energy” an original rap by Jordan Blackwell and DaVontae Garner. You’ll definitely want to give it a listen in the player below. It is a brilliant anthem for energy justice.

The kids have been a driving part of the entire process. They have helped with documentation, social media, design, and meetings with consultants. When challenges presented themselves, the campers were there helping us to brainstorm solutions. The outcome for them goes beyond this particular solar artwork. In a sense, we have graduated project managers. It’s our hope that they’ll be able to apply this experience in all walks of life.

And we hope that the Renaissance Gate will be cherished by the community as a symbol of what can be accomplished when we all work together towards a brighter future. As Mya Lane put it, “I feel the Renaissance Gate should inspire the community that in Homewood you don’t always have to use violence—and it’s a very nice community and it should be represented as one. The Renaissance Gate should stand for peace, non-violence, truth, justice. It should bring us and make us realize that we are all the same and one big family.”

We’re so grateful to our funders who made this project possible: Heinz Endowments, Google Community Grants, and Three Rivers Community Foundation.

Art + Energy Camp is a collaboration between the Land Art Generator Initiative (Elizabeth Monoian and Robert Ferry), Homewood Renaissance Association (Free Blackwell, Executive Director, and Rodney Heard, Camp Teacher), and Conservation Consultants Inc.(Indigo Raffel).

Thanks to all of our camp participants: Jordan Blackwell, Canaan Blackwell, Adrian Nanji, Ewane Nanji, Thomas Bowens, Mya Lane, Sarai Robinson, Emani Jones, Elizabeth Blackwell, Jordan Woods, DaVontae Garner, Terrell Williams, Lamonte Farrish, Cameron Jennings, Madison Wilson, Erin Shealy, Caleb Williams, Imani Nanji, Elisha Blackwell, Jasmine Berry, with teachers Rodney Heard, Indigo Raffel, Robert Ferry, and Elizabeth Monoian.

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