Artist continues to promote togetherness with ‘Pittsburgh Builds Bridges’

By Harry Funk staff Writer hfunk@thealmanac.Net 5 min read
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Ebtehal Badawi shows the mural that was created during World Square: Welcoming All of Pittsburgh’s Neighbors, held in June in Market Square.

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A member of the Pittsburgh Riverhounds soccer team contributes to "Pittsburgh Builds Bridges."

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"Pittsburgh Builds Bridges" at Pleasant Hills Middle School

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Ebtehal Badawi observes a student contributing to "Pittsburgh Builds Bridges" at McClellan Elementary School in Pleasant HIlls.

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"Pittsburgh Builds Bridges" for Hello Neighbor, a nonprofit based in Pittsburgh committed to supporting recently resettled refugee and immigrant families.

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Ebtehal Badawi works with students at the Campus Laboratory School of Carlow University.

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A student at the Campus Laboratory School of Carlow University provides an answer to Ebtehal Badawi's question: How do you build bridges?

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Brushstrokes will be added to a wall on which Ebtehal Badawi has sketched her "Pittsburgh Builds Bridges" artwork.

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Students at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville work with Ebtehal Badawi on her second group mural, in early 2020.

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This mural was created in October with University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences students.

A prime conversation starter during the 2019 Spring Art Show at the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon was Ebtehal Badawi’s mixed-media piece “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges.”

The Jefferson Hills artist was eager to discuss her then-new creation, depicting an array of religious symbols above hands of a variety of colors, as being emblematic of her mission to promote unity.

Harry Funk/The Almanac

Ebtehal Badawi’s work is displayed as part of a March 2019 art exhibit at the Galleria of Mt. Lebanon.

Since then, “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” has stretched across the region with a series of reproductions created by Ebtehal with assistance from folks who agree with her line of thinking.

“We love the same things. We hate the same things,” she said. “There are more things that bring us together than separate us.”

Over the past several months, she has led groups of participants lending brushstrokes to their own versions of the original painting, including a daylong effort in her home school district involving 800 students and staff members.

In fact, “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” is on its way to all the West Jefferson Hills schools, with the blessing of Superintendent Michael Ghilani.

“Ebtehal is one of the kindest and well intended human beings I have ever met. Her mission is to make the world a better place by highlighting and embracing diversity through a positive lens,” Ghilani, a former Upper St. Clair High School principal, said.

“The way she expresses herself in her artwork speaks to all people and for our students symbolizes positivity and working together and making connections regardless of one’s culture or beliefs,” he continued. “We are truly fortunate to have her as a parent and member of our community.”

Unfortunately, the idea for “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” arose from an incident in which her son was subjected to racially insensitive comments, for which he later received an apology.

“But as a mother, I felt it hurt, and I also thought of the other person. Why did he do that?” she recalled.

Around the same time, she learned a Syrian immigrant had been assaulted in the girls’ room of an area high school, with another student taking video of the incident.

Ebtehal and a group of other moms discussed what they could do to help prevent similar occurrences, and they decided a poster could spread a positive message.

“I’m the artist, and I love helping people,” Ebtehal said. “With that intention, I started sketching.

A counselor at the school where she worked at the time suggested an appropriate representation for Pittsburgh – “We have more than 400 bridges here” – and Ebtehal added further elements to reinforce the theme.

Her mixed-media piece was adapted as a poster, which she attempted to have placed in as many locations as possible. One was put on a cafeteria wall at the school attended by a son of one of her friends, who originally was from Puerto Rico.

Gisele Fetterman, left, wife of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and a native of Brazil, works with Ebtehal Badawi during the third annual Home Sweet Home fundraiser, held by the nonprofit Hello Neighbor organization in September.

“She told me her younger son had panic attacks and anxiety because his older brother played football and he was bullied. She got the older brother out of the district, but the younger one is still there,” Ebtehal said. “During one of his anxiety attacks, he was in the cafeteria. He saw the poster. He felt he belonged, and he got better.”

Inspired by the revelation, she decided to see if she could find places for larger reproductions. The owner of Keystone Café on Sixth Avenue invited her to paint the image on one of the restaurant’s walls, and shortly after, she joined with students in repeating the effort at Arsenal Middle School in Lawrenceville, on Martin Luther King Day in 2020.

The early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic slowed her ambitions. Eventually, she was invited to participate in an event called World Square: Welcoming All of Pittsburgh’s Neighbors, held last June in Market Square.

Just before the start of World Square, she had the idea to sketch the outline of “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” on a sizable canvas, and then invite everyone who was interested to add a brushstroke. Some 200 people took her up on the offer, and 154 of them provided her with their email addresses in support of future projects.

One is to replicate the image on a much grander scale than ever before, and Ebtehal reported that a McKees Rocks property owner has given her the go-ahead to use a side of his building.

In the past several months, she has sketched “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges” outlines for use at numerous locations and events. For example, she served as a speaker at the annual banquet of Council on American-Islamic Relations – Pittsburgh, where she invited guests to use brushes on a canvas.

And she always is looking for new collaborators.

“My vision is not just in Pittsburgh, but to go to different cities and states to paint together with different people,” she said, “because at the end of the day, we’re all the same.”

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People attending the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ annual banquet add brushstrokes to “Pittsburgh Builds Bridges.”




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