The members of Akron’s First Congregational Church already know its new Feed My Sheep Garden is a special place.

Now the community will know it, too.

Twenty-two students in a summer arts apprenticeship program at the University of Akron are making sure of that. They’ve created a prominent gateway for the urban garden, where the church is growing fresh produce for its food cupboard.

The participants — 13 students from Firestone High School and nine undergraduate and graduate students who are studying art education at UA — worked with Akron sculptor John Comunale this month to produce the gates for the garden and built a landscaped gravel path leading to it. The gateway will be unveiled at a free public celebration from noon to 3 p.m. July 8 at the church, 292 E. Market St.

The project was the focus of this year’s Arts LIFT, a two-week program that gives students the opportunity to work with artists in a studio setting. (LIFT stands for the Lola Isroff Fund for Teens, the endowment fund that pays for the program.)

In this case, the program also gave the students an opportunity to learn about gardening. Part of the experience involved working on the design of the garden with Sarah Vradenburg, a master gardener, member of the church and former Beacon Journal editorial writer.

Comunale designed the steel gates, which incorporate images of corn growing in the sun and are overlaid with metal shapes of sheep. Glass globes produced by Jack Baker of Akron Glass Works top the gates, enclosed in metal cages. Shards of Vitrolite provided by Tyler Goodin of West Hill Hardware were used to create mosaic tiles that decorate the supporting posts and spell out “Feed My Sheep” on a metal arch over the gates.

The idea was to create a work of art that would be attractive and functional but would also bring people together and serve the community, said Elisa Gargarella, the art education professor who directs the program with the assistance of artist and educator Daniel Coffield. Gargarella said this project was about revitalization as well as beautification.

The project introduced the students to some of the real-world challenges that artists experience, such as collaborating to produce someone else’s design and working under a deadline, Gargarella said.

It also gave them a chance to use power tools such as grinding and welding equipment — not surprisingly, the part of the project that several students said they liked best.

The students were able to put their individual stamps on the gateway in the form of the tiles that adorn the posts. Each student created his or her own tile, resulting in a colorful collection of gardening images and abstract designs.

The experience represented a change for Comunale, just as it did for the students. For an artist who usually works alone, directing 22 people and keeping them busy was by far the most daunting part of the process, he said.

Nevertheless, he was impressed by the participants’ eagerness.

“It’s been wonderful being with them,” he said. “They’re all just doing the job and getting it done.”

One of those students was Comunale’s daughter Chloe, who will be a senior at Firestone. She described the experience as “cool,” although she acknowledged it was odd having such a large group of people working in her father’s studio, a place that’s “like home to me.”

For Hilbert Mobley, the project was an introduction to the variety of options he can pursue as an artist, not to mention “something pretty fun.”

Gargarella sees Arts LIFT as an opportunity for young artists “to have a voice, to do something prominent, to do something provocative.”

Firestone graduate David Petry recognized that.

“We’re putting up stuff that’s not going to get painted over in a couple of years,” said Petry, who is headed for the University of Akron.

Someday, he said, he’ll be able to take his child or grandchild to see the gates and tell them, “Hey, I made that.”

Mary Beth Breckenridge can be reached at 330-996-3756 or mbrecken@thebeaconjournal.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @MBBreckenridge and read her blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/mary-beth.