A bin of collected plastic water bottles sits inside Young Men’s Leadership Academy’s auditorium Sept. 22. Students collect water bottles to be used in a Tarrant County Education Foundation art project with Willie Cole, a world-renowned artist. The student body is reminded during the morning announcements to bring bottles from home. The goal is to gather 20,000 bottles from 10 area schools. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Young Men’s Leadership Academy students swarm a water bottle drop-off box every morning. Some bring a few bottles and some bring one, but they all bring something.

At times, students barge into art teacher Melissa Schulman’s classroom to bring bottles to her, she said.

“They’re like, ‘Miss Schulman!’ — holding the bottle up. I’m like, ‘The bag is back there!’” she said. “They’re all great about it.”

The student body of about 400 is close to collecting — alongside nine other area schools — nearly 20,000 water bottles in an art process artist Willie Cole calls ‘Artcycling.’ Collected bottles will be used to build a giant water bottle sculpture in partnership with the Tarrant County Education Foundation and artist Cole.

Students like Deshaun Raymond, 15, have joined the effort to meet the 20,000 bottle collection goal by Oct. 20. After a Fort Worth visit from artist Cole on Oct. 24, students will clean the bottles and conjoin them into large sheets of plastic that will be used to make the sculpture.

Work sessions to complete the sculpture will take place between the students and Cole throughout fall and winter 2023 and into spring 2024. The finished sculpture will be on display from March 1-31 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St. 

Raymond is participating in the collection effort because he loves art and processes.

He said he is committed to getting into Howard University to study film — he is only a sophomore in high school, but the school’s culture inspires thinking about higher education as early as sixth grade.

“Seeing what people could do with not only special effects but also practical, grounded stuff, and seeing people in their rooms making these amazing films with deep messages just really resonated,” Raymond said.

While he is only a beginner filmmaker, Raymond hopes to make connections through the sculpture project.

Young Men’s Leadership Academy art teacher Melissa Schulman, left, student Deshaun Raymond, center, and principal Rodney White pose in front of a bin of collected plastic water bottles Sept. 22. The Tarrant County Education Foundation recycled-art project is not the first for YMLA students. Schulman’s students submit art annually to the Clayton Youth Program; and more than one has placed first in the competition. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)
A car is full of bags carrying donated water bottles Sept. 23. The bottles were dropped off at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St., for Tarrant County Education Foundation’s giant water bottle sculpture project. (Courtesy photo | Tarrant County Education Foundation)
Tarrant County Education Foundation Executive Director Dr. Arlene Barnett, left, and Shirley Pace, an organization co-founder, speak to students Sept. 23 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St. Young Men’s Leadership Academy art teacher Melissa Schulman said her students love recycled art. “They love working together,” Schulman said. (Courtesy photo | Tarrant County Education Foundation)
Children arrive with bottles at a Fort Worth Community Arts Center drop-off event Sept. 23. Melissa Schulman, art teacher at Young Men’s Leadership Academy, said the opportunity for students to work alongside world-renowned artist Willie Cole on the project will open doors for her students. (Courtesy photo | Tarrant County Education Foundation)
A giant sculpture made of recycled water bottles sits against a tree in Newark, New Jersey. Artist Willie Cole created the sculpture out of donated bottles and will create a similarly giant sculpture in Fort Worth with the help of area school students. Young Men’s Leadership Academy sophomore Deshaun Raymond, 15, feels excited about working with Cole. “It’s exciting to be able to help him and be a direct contributor to him,” Raymond said. (Courtesy photo | The Pingry School)

Tarrant County Education Foundation Executive Director Dr. Arlene Barnett said the goal is to teach students about the importance of higher education; expose them to science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers in an unconventional way; and positively impact the community by exposing students to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise gotten, such as working with Cole.

“We want them to emulate things they see,” Barnett said.

Raymond and Schulman will continue to pursue Barnett’s goal through the sculpture project.

“Part of it is to have them exposed, not just to the creative part of the art but also a conversation around what’s happening in the community, what’s happening on our planet and what they’re going to do about it,” Barnett said.

How to participate

Community members can drop off 16-ounce water bottles 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday, Wednesday and Saturday through Oct. 20 at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, 1300 Gendy St.

Bottles must not be crushed and should have bottle caps.

Source: Tarrant County Education Foundation

Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cristian is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Christian University. At TCU, ArguetaSoto served as staff photographer at TCU360 and later as its visual editor, overseeing other photojournalists. A Fort Worth...