Tiffany Arrington moves her head in a slow circle beneath the three-story mosaic mural at 885 Southern Courts Apartments, trying to catch the streetlights in the spray of embedded mirrored shards. Dozens of children run fingers all over the wall on a recent Friday evening, exploring smooth, raised bubbles of iridescent glass and fragments of rough tile. Fourteen-year-old Arrington is depicted as the middle figure in the mural—a dreamlike scene of three children soaring, superhero-style, through a starry night of textured swoops and ultravibrant color.

On the lawn of Southern Courts Apartments, Arrington is slight and shy. Up on the wall, she is 15 feet tall and invincible.

Under construction since July, Shoot for the Stars, Not Each Other became a permanent part of the Washington Highlands neighborhood in Southeast on Oct. 6. Muralist Cheryl Foster’s design was selected in July by a D.C. Commission on Arts and Humanities committee composed of neighborhood residents and business leaders, after three years of planning for the public arts project. Work on the 30-foot-by-30-foot mosaic began immediately.

“I try to listen to what the concerns of the neighborhood are before I begin designing,” says Foster, a lifelong Washington resident. “This came out of my own concerns about the safety of our young people. But I don’t stand there and say, ‘This is what it means.’ I just want people to gravitate to it, to touch it—to see that when you cut us, we all bleed red, green, purple, and yellow.”

Dipping into Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ “Passport to Work” summer youth-employment program, Foster recruited 34 teens from surrounding neighborhoods to build the mural. Stefan Lockridge, Otis Osborne, and Arrington became the trio immortalized in the mural’s magnified, suspended animation after they won an essay contest on the subject of living a peaceful life. (A tip from Osborne’s essay: “Sometimes you just have to stand in a corner and scream.”)

Most of the teens who worked on the mural had no prior experience with art—or eight-hour days of physical labor. “I warned them,” says Foster. “This was going to be a lesson in work ethic. Leave your Lee press-on nails at home.” As the project progressed, she noticed changes. Eyes focused hard on shaping a violet swirl in a vat of white grout, and practiced fingers began to work fearlessly with jagged bits of mirror.

“Some days, this room full of teenagers would just drop silent with concentration. All you would hear were the sounds of work,” recalls Foster. “And that’s when I knew I’d gotten to them.”

Foster’s own attraction to the tactile began early, she says: “My father hunted, and he brought home pheasants. My mother and I would pluck the feathers and glue them piece by piece to matching pillbox hats. That’s where I learned to love the pleasure of patience and the joy of building something.”

Foster studied design at Howard University, then started work with Philadelphia muralist Isaiah Zagar, known for his South Street mosaics, in 1993. More recently, Foster began residencies at the Kennedy Center for the Arts and the National Gallery of Art, where she leads workshops with children and families. She has created public art all over the District, including a totem-pole history of Shaw at Seaton Elementary School. Her first self-portrait, Autumn is the Sweetest Season, is on display at Art-O-Matic through Oct. 28th.

Charletta Smith, whose sister lives at 885 Southern Courts, says that Shoot for the Stars has already become the stuff of neighborhood legend. “I hear kids saying, ‘Those are people who grew up here, and they are stars now. They got out and did everything they ever wanted to do.’” —Shauna Miller