Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

After a long international journey, a collaborative art project has found a home in what will soon be the Kids Art Studies Academy in the Sonora Dome building.

The "Carpet of Peace," a project started by Groveland resident Douglas Erwin more than 20 years ago, consists of small squares of paper pasted together into a collage. Each patch depicts a contributor's hand and their thoughts on world peace.

Altogether, the sections of the "carpet" are the length of a football field, Erwin said. They feature drawings of hands by about 5,200 people, a total that will shortly include 210 Sonora High School art students.

As a "lead-up" to the grand opening of the Central Sierra Arts Council's Kids Art Studies Academy Oct. 6, students in two Sonora High art classes outlined their own hands and depicted their ideas of peace for the project this week.

"We have to go deeper than a peace sign and a dove," said Erwin, a 65-year-old retired art teacher. "It's about what peace means in their own lives."

Erwin, who recently moved to Groveland from Marin County, brought the carpet to Sonora last week.

The project will be housed in and around the Dome building in separate parts and now belongs to the nonprofit Central Sierra Arts Council.

Contributors to the project will be "inducted" by shaking Erwin's hand and having their squares of paper, which depict their own hands, pasted onto the larger work.

They also paste colored strips of paper across each patch in an "X" shape, which Erwin described as a symbolic connection between the

pieces and contributors.

If the paper that forms the Carpet of Peace is colorful, its history is even more so.

In 1987, Erwin was working as an art teacher at the Marin Country Day School and developing lessons on folk art. He wanted to teach about quilting as an American folk art by developing a quilt with patches from the surrounding communities.

When a large number of contributors expressed interest, Erwin turned to paper for a collaborative project. The resulting "carpet" was taken to several schools in Marin County and then the East Bay Area.

The pediatrician who treated Erwin's children had friends in Israel who wanted to start a project that would promote peace.

She and Erwin drew a connection between the carpet and the Israelis' desire for a peace project. And just like that - "in two weeks," Erwin said - the Carpet of Peace became an international endeavor.

In Western Galilee in 1989, the project brought Palestinian and Israeli children together to trace each other's hands. From there it went to Romania, Poland and France, picking up more patches and connecting more people along the way.

Erwin has volunteered with various nonprofit organizations and eventually started his own nonprofit, "Bridges of Understanding."

"It took off," said Erwin, who wears a small dove-shaped pin and another of a globe on his shirt collar.

When asked when he acquired such a strong desire to promote peace within communities, Erwin said it was a matter of course.

"I came into the world with it," he said. "It was just something I needed to do."

The Carpet of Peace has had its own trials and tribulations. In 1991, when Erwin was volunteering with the U.S. Department of State in Russia, it was "kidnapped" and held for $5,000 in ransom.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit Gorbachev Foundation eventually ponied up the money for its return.

In 1992, the carpet was appraised at $20,000. For a period of time when Erwin returned to teaching, it went into "hibernation" at the San Domenico School in Marin County. While there, someone decided to use it as a sound barrier - which did it some damage, Erwin said.

Rather than get angry about it, he chose to make the damaged portion into a sculpture. The rest is being refurbished, too.

Erwin shared his can-do attitude with Sonora High students who were hesitant about their work.

Junior art students Caitlin Johnstad said she initially drew a blank when she received the assignment to depict her idea of peace. However, with some coaching from Erwin, she brainstormed the idea of writing the word "peace" in multiple languages on her part of the project.

"I respect what he's doing, and it really opens a lot of doors," Johnstad said.

The Carpet of Peace will soon be making the rounds to other Tuolumne County schools and be on display at the Kids Art Academy grand opening Oct. 6.

There, members of the public will have an opportunity to join the 5,200 other contributors and be inducted into the project.

Erwin has a few words for those who doubt the gesture's significance or the purpose of the project.

"It's a small scratch in the surface of the earth," he said. "But I've put all my energy into it. … It's these little things that make a difference in the world. So there."