A car pulled up to the stop sign at the corner of Fox and Anderson streets Wednesday and a middle-aged man called out the window, “You’re doing a great job!”

Just a minute or two later, a woman pulled up to the sign and cried out, “Oh, that is beautiful!”

“See, this happens all the time,” said Paula Gerstenblatt, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Southern Maine.

When passersby see the mosaic mural on the back wall of Coffee By Design that Gerstenblatt and artist Muhsana Ali have created with a social work class, horns honk. Drivers slow down to comment. Residents of East Bayside strolling by stop to comment or pitch in on the project.

“Are you the artist?” one woman walking by asked Muhsana Ali. “Thank you!”

The project, which started in September, incorporates Senegalese glass painting as well as donated materials such as pottery and tile pieces. Ali estimates that as many as 500 people have contributed to the mural, from schoolchildren at the East End Community School, who preserved their footprints in colorful paints on glass, to homeless people and elderly residents of East Bayside, who contributed words and phrases.

“The focus was getting people to express themselves and get their voices heard through this work.” Ali said.

Gerstenblatt, Ali and Ali’s husband, Amadou Kane Sy – also an internationally acclaimed artist – have worked together on mosaic murals using Senegalese glass painting before, in west Africa and in Texas. Their visit to Maine is sponsored by the university’s Artist In Residence Program, the School of Social Work and Coffee By Design.

Muhsana Ali learned this mosaic technique from her mentor, a Philadelphia artists named Isaiah Zagar. She and her husband have used it at the arts center they have run in Senegal since 2005, Portes et Passages. Residents of the local community and students and volunteers from all over the world come to the center to participate in community art projects like the one in East Bayside. Ali says the experience transforms “people’s concept of what community can be.”

“Basically that’s what we do with our lives, is work with community through art,” she said.

Shortly after Ali arrived in Portland on Sept. 5, Gerstenblatt took her to visit the Coffee By Design wall.

“We thought about doing something in East Bayside because this is a transitioning community,” Gerstenblatt said. “We have some of the deepest pockets of poverty, yet we have this kind of resurgence with breweries and development and generational families, so I thought this would be a good spot.”

At first, Ali was concerned that the mural she had in mind wouldn’t work on the large wall facing Fox Street, or the large wall facing Anderson Street. So she decided to design it to cover part of both walls. She said she was inspired in part by the intersection itself.

“You see so many different kinds of people from totally different backgrounds walking back and forth here,” she said. “It’s amazing for me to see all these people living in this one community.”

The corner is also where the two walls connect so people can see the mural from different angles.

The artist began with a spiral on the Anderson Street side. The central point of the spiral symbolized the origin of humanity, she said: “We all come from that origin, and then we spiral out from that in our different directions.”

Baby footprints start at the center of the spiral and then spiral out into waves that run along both walls. Rectangular pieces of glass painted white invoke the painted lines in a road.

Embedded in the mural are pieces of pottery donated by Portland Pottery. A porcelain cat, another donated item, clings to the side of the wall. The glass for the glass paintings was donated by local galleries.

Words and phrases contributed by local residents and other volunteers who have worked on the wall are spread throughout the design. “Come Together Right Now,” says one glass painting. Another one, contributed by an elderly woman who lives in the neighborhood, reads, “Everyone needs to be heard. Everyone needs to be touched. Everyone needs love.”

Volunteers climb the scaffolding to reach the upper parts of the mural. Gloves and sponges stained with colored grout are wedged in the holes of the chain link fence that separates the artists from the street.

Mia Bogyo, a recent USM graduate in art and ceramics who has a studio down the street, has been volunteering on the project every weekday morning. She had never done glass painting before, and “I know that I would never get this opportunity unless I traveled to Senegal.”

Glass painting, she said, “requires everything to be backwards.”

“All your words have to be backwards because we flip the glass over in order to protect it,” she said.

Gerstenblatt and Ali are co-teaching the social work class that goes along with the project, an elective that is open to all disciplines. The class meets in a conference room at Coffee By Design every Monday morning before heading outside to work on the mural. Anne Sedlack, a master’s student in social work, lives just three blocks away. She has worked at nearby Union Bagel and became familiar with the community policing program in the area last year when she worked at the Portland Police Department, so she felt is was a “no brainer” to take the class.

Sedlack said her classes are usually more clinical, dealing with issues such as substance abuse or teaching individual counseling.

“It made me realize that I want to go into macro work as opposed to individualized counseling,” she said. “I think that this building together of community is just another important way to work on the individual. If they have their community supports together, then they can be so much more successful.”

Belle Fall, a 20-year-old majoring in media, is documenting the progress of the project from start to finish. She also did some outreach at East End Community School.

“I really enjoy the social work side,” she said. “They really wanted us to go out into the community and talk to people and see what this community is like, because most of the people in the class aren’t from this community.”

Gerstenblatt said she wants her students to understand how powerful a tool art can be in bringing people together, and that to successfully engage with a community, “you’ve got to invest time.”

“You’ve got to be on the ground,” she said. “You have to let mistakes happen. Increasingly, in the universities and in k-12 in most education, it’s built on performance and not learning, in the sense that everybody is chasing the grade. But to have these experiences – to see a family come over, to hear a conversation of someone who maybe had a bad day but gets a great experience from doing this, to see a community rally around this project and the artist – is something you can’t get in a classroom.”

Ali expects the mural to be completed this weekend, but they could still use some help cleaning up. The group will hold a community potluck and “inauguration” of the mural next Friday at Coffee By Design. The artist said it will probably begin around 4 p.m. Check for details on the East Bayside Community Mosaic Mural Facebook page.