By Jeff Mays
"I declined at first because I said I'm not really an art person," said Mejia, 15.
That's when his mother, Kim Walton, 46, stepped in.
"I said you should try it because you just might like it. A few weeks later, he was coming home every day saying: 'Ma you won't believe this," Walton said.
Mejia helped to design six banners that will hang on Fifth Avenue and beckon people to the park, and became so adept that he helped supervise his peers.
The banners, along with 15 etched steel plaques that will be installed near the water at Artist's Cove at East 139th Street and Harlem River Drive, are part of an effort to beautify the park while creating a connection with the surrounding communities.
"The purpose of the banners is to act as an anchor to get people into the park," said Richard Toussaint, a member of Community Board 11 who wrote the proposal for the park back in 1990.
The 20 acre park is being built in phases between the Harlem River and the Harlem River Drive from 125th to 145th streets.
Thomas Lunke, director of planning and development for the Harlem Community Development Corporation, which oversaw the project, said it's part of an effort to make the park into a "relevant neighborhood asset."
"We wanted to empower the community to express itself in the arts," Lunke said.
The etched plaques, designed by artists such as Manuel Vega Jr., depict images representative of Harlem's history and culture. Vega's etching "Harlem River Ran-Kan-Kan" depicts Tito Puente. Another by Nora Mae Carmicheal called "Harlem's Hellfighters," depicts members of the 15th New York National Guard Regiment, the first African-American regiment to fight in World War I.
Harlem artist Misha McGlown designed a mixed media collage that shows a view from the park. It shows the state flower and rocks that represent the Harlem River.
"They have given so much thought to the ecosystem in the park," McGlown said of her collage.
"The art brings an element of interest and exhibition quality to the park. It's also a powerful learning tool," she said.
The banners represent different elements of the park. One shows a fisherman and is based on a man who used to fish in the area before it officially became a park. Another represents some of the flowers found in the park. The young people involved in the project surveyed the area before deciding what elements to depict in the banners.
"It's a very empowering experience for young people," said Molaundo Jones, program director of Creative Arts Workshops for Kids. "They will see their work outside the park and think about the importance of what they did and how it helps the community. It reverberates in the rest of their lives."
Mejia said he and his fellow banner creators had to learn not only about art and blending colors but about patience, working collaboratively with others and respect and self-respect.
"Once I got into the program, I thought to myself: 'This art stuff is nice,'" said Mejia.
Now, he still wants to be an education lawyer but also sees possibilities as a graphic designer.
"It makes me feel that no matter what age, big or small, everyone can make a difference," Mejia said.