Mt. Lebanon students create art to preserve memory of classmates

They transform copper into flowers to display at school in honor of their friend

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A memorial to a former Mt. Lebanon student who died in an accident at a summer camp is starting to take shape.

Leah Blum will be remembered with a copper sculpture to be displayed at Jefferson Middle School.

"It's really nice for the community to come together, to have this at the school where Leah really blossomed," her mother, Karin, said Monday as students stopped by on their day off from classes to work on the project to honor their classmate.

In the summer of 2009, just after she completed her eighth-grade, and final, year at Jefferson Middle School, Leah, 14, died after a tree limb struck her while she was attending a summer residential camp operated by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh near Cheat Lake, not far from Morgantown, W.Va.

Her friends are joining with family members and current Jefferson students to work on the project under the direction of Jan Loney, who is serving as artist in residence at the school through the Arts in Education Partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Participants are fashioning flowers and leaves in copper. Ms. Loney will combine the various elements for a finished work that will be 5 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide, she said.

"I came up with the theme of using botanical flowers and, after viewing some of Leah's last artwork, some drawings that her mother found in her backpack," she explained. "That seemed like the perfect way to use her artwork, with the students either directly copying her images or using that as a starting point to develop their own elements."

She plans for the sculpture to take the shape of a shrub.

"That seemed like something that would integrate nicely with the existing landscape and area surrounding the school, and kind of a perfect extension of her artwork," she said.

Two of Leah's friends since kindergarten who are now seniors at Mt. Lebanon High School have continued efforts to honor her memory. Kathleen Weston and Kate Walsh were among the students cutting and bending pieces of copper into flower shapes on Monday.

"Leah drew those flowers everywhere," said Kathleen, who is enthusiastic about the direction the project is taking. So is Kate.

"I like the final design idea, and it's cool that we all get to have a piece of it," she said. "I am not super artistic, but I enjoy working with my hands. It's probably something I'd never get to do otherwise."

Leah's brother, Nick, a sophomore, also took part in the activity Monday.

James Walsh, Jefferson principal, said the project has a number of positive aspects.

"Those students who may have a cursory knowledge of Leah, or maybe no knowledge of Leah, are able to [work in] a new art form, pounding copper into these shapes," he said. "And for some, it is an opportunity to participate in a memorial for a friend. That's been a great part of the experience for us."

Rachel Zoffer, a friend of the Blums and former Jefferson PTA president, originally approached Ms. Loney about Kathleen and Kate's idea for a memorial at the school.

"They were planning new landscaping for the front of the building, and it struck me: I should tell the girls that this would be a great place for them to do something," said Mrs. Zoffer, who contacted the artist after reading about her in a magazine.

The eventual location of the memorial has yet to be determined, but Mr. Walsh said the plan is to have it in place by the end of May.

Mrs. Zoffer said high school seniors - including her daughter, Erika, who was a classmate of Leah's - plan to dedicate a page to her in the coming yearbook.

"She's still part of their class. She grew up with them and they want to remember her," Mrs. Zoffer said.

The Jefferson project is one of many school-related efforts in which Ms. Loney has participated.

Last year, the Lawrenceville artist worked with students at Shanksville-Stonycreek School in Somerset County on a 71/2-foot steel structure honoring victims of the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Blums said they are glad to see their daughter's classmates taking time to honor her memory.

They said it was comforting to know so many people care about Leah.


Harry Funk, freelance writer: First Published February 21, 2013 5:00 AM


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