Before sitting down in Kathy VanLoan’s art class, Alex Renzi didn’t know much about the history of his hometown.
Of course, the high school senior knew about old man Arkell, and the Beech-Nut plant, but to scroll back a few centuries to the days when Canajoharie was inhabited solely by Mohawk Indians, and his mind went blank.
“I didn’t know anything about the great turtle or anything like that,” Alex said.
According to VanLoan, most students were in the same boat, a fact she decided to remedy with a very large mosaic.
Renzi hung out in the art room with a few other students Thursday morning, putting finishing touches on a 7-by-7-foot mosaic depicting the Mohawk creation story.
The turtle he referred to was actually a giant sea turtle that Mohawk legend says came up from the depths at earth’s dawn, forming North America on a globe of water. It fills the center of the expansive art piece, and has a tree growing out of its back. The tree has four long white roots representing the four directions of the compass and stands as a symbol of a treaty between native tribes — another section of Mohawk history that was new to Alex.
It’s a very colorful collage of small glass shards, all turning swirls around the great turtle, its tree and a few Mohawk Indians.
At the top is inscribed the word “Kanatsiohareke,” the native’s original name for the village. It’s pronounced Ga-na-jo-ha-lay-gay, which might explain why when whites came along, the name was simplified down to Canajoharie.
“Our version is actually wrong,” VanLoan said.
The art departments of Canajoharie middle and high school, with help from the New York State Council on the Arts, have worked together on large-scale art projects for years now.
Last year, scores of students painted a mural on a wall outside the art room detailing more recent village history.
This year, the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community caught VanLoan’s eye as she drove east from the village on Route 5.
“I asked the students what Kanatsiohareke meant to them,” she said. “None of them had a clue.”
Oddly though, once she described some native etymology the hard-to-pronounce name became more familiar. Translated, it means “the place of the pot that cleans itself” after the whirlpool carved out of rock along Canajoharie Creek.
“I only live a few miles away from that spot,” Renzi said.
The mosaic’s design is the result of a sometimes-tense partnership between VanLoan, Kay Olan of the Kanatsiohareke Mohawk Community and visiting Boston artist Joshua Winer.
On Thursday the piece was nearly done and Winer arrived to help students bed it in grout.
“I kept hearing back that little things were wrong and needed to be changed,” he said, pointing out various spots on his design sketch.
Two Mohawk Indians stand to the right of the peace tree. Originally he got the tilt of their hair feathers a few degrees wrong, and the color of their cloths a few shades off. Olan caught the mistakes.
Eventually everything was right. Through the process, VanLoan said her students learned a lot about both art and history.
She pointed out Joe Toomey, a lanky ball cap-wearing senior messing with tiny scraps of glass as class bells rang.
“He’s our glass-cutting expert,” she said. “He did the complicated places.”
“I guess,” he said.
Even with the complex loops and curves of the water and delicate palm-sized faces of the natives, the whole thing only took about two weeks to lay out, thanks to the big workforce.
In all, more than 160 students from the Canajoharie school district and the youth center worked on the project. By Tuesday it will be framed on a wall of the high school’s art wing. There will be a reception celebrating the mosaic’s completion May 21.