Friday, November 04, 2016
CLEVELAND, Ohio – Large blank walls can smother a city's vitality, stifle the public realm and broadcast loneliness, danger and division. But to an artist, a blank wall can be a giant canvas and an irresistible challenge.
Those two realities constitute the vital ingredients behind this year's international Creative Fusion artists residency sponsored by the Cleveland Foundation.
Starting in September, six artists from around the world plus 10 Cleveland-based artists participated in conversations and educational projects with Ohio City residents, young and old.
The artists then channeled those experiences into lush, colorful, eye-catching murals installed throughout the up-and-coming Hingetown area.
Still underway but nearly completed, Creative Fusion has already sprinkled moments of surprise and delight throughout the emerging residential, retail and cultural district known as Hingetown, which centers on the nonprofit Transformer Station gallery at 1460 West 29th St.
The artists are on track to complete 11 projects in time for the Friday, Nov. 18, opening from 6 to 10 pm. of a group show of their work at the Cleveland Collection Gallery, 2529 Detroit Ave.
On Saturday, Nov. 19, St. John's Episcopal Church, 2600 Church Ave., will host a community celebration with live entertainment from 1 to 5 pm, where residents can meet Creative Fusion artists and embark on free trolley tours of the mural sites. Both events are sponsored by PNC Bank.
Artists involved in the project said they see their work variously as a form of large-scale self-expression, as part of the gentrification affecting urban neighborhoods around the world, for good or ill, or as part of a fight for social equity and environmental justice.
For example, Michela Picchi of Rome, Italy, who is now based in Berlin, painted a bright, flowing, sharp-edged mural of a flying tiger on the brick wall of a one-story commercial building at 2817 West 28th St. because for her, the tiger is a personal totem expressing freedom and power.
"It's how I felt when I got here," she said during a recent walking tour of the mural project. "I felt free, totally free."
In a similar spirit of personal whimsy writ large, Cleveland artist Joe Lanzilotta painted the rear wall of the vacant one-story factory at Church Avenue and West 28th Street as a vibrant yellow field punctuated with images of people's heads sticking up out of holes in the ground, like prairie dogs.
Biggest wall of all
Most spectacular – physically and in its social ambitions – is a sprawling mural designed by Ananda Nahu, a 31-year-old native of Bahia, Brazil.
The artwork covers the entire 620-foot length of the gently curved retaining wall along Washington Avenue on the north side of the elevated West Shoreway between West 25th and West 28th streets, which rises more than 30 feet above the street below.
Nahu's vast mural, said by the Cleveland Foundation to be one of the largest in Ohio, portrays at monumental scale the faces of children Nahu met through Cleveland Public Theatre's Brick City program, which provides year-round after-school and summer programs at the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority's Lakeview Terrace Apartments.
Aided by Cleveland artists Gary Williams, Robin Robinson, Derrick Quarles and Adam Zimmerman, Nahu has been racing the clock and fighting the weather to complete in six weeks a mural she estimated would normally have taken her four months.
"It's a big challenge, definitely a big challenge," she said on Tuesday after climbing down from her bucket lift to take a break. "I'm very happy with the result, because the feedback is more positive than I could imagine."
As if to punctuate her thought, a woman driving west on Washington Avenue slowed down, lowered the window of her white sedan and shouted: "Fantastic! Amazing job! I love it!"
Creative Fusion is the latest mural project to sweep the city after last summer's "Inter | Urban."
Led by the nonprofit LAND Studio and funded by the Cleveland Foundation and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency, "Inter | Urban" established a dozen indoor and outdoor public art installations along the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority's Red Line Rapid route before the Republican National Convention in July.
Rather than beautify a transit artery, Creative Fusion is intended to change perceptions, nurture Ohio City's transformation and break down racial and social barriers.
Cleveland Foundation President and CEO Ronn Richard conceived Creative Fusion in 2008 as a way to introduce emerging artists from around the world to low-income children here, and to broadcast globally the message that Cleveland is a city of the arts.
"This is one of a broad array of things the foundation is trying to do is to make our arts more accessible to the rest of the world," he said.
The annual program has invited more than 80 artists, writers and performers to the city for three-month residencies that have provided programs to more than 10,000 children.
Managed since 2015 by Lillian Kuri, the foundation's program director for arts and urban design, the program focused on Ohio City this year to heighten its impact in a single neighborhood and the leave a lasting legacy in the form of the murals.
Ohio City Inc. helped the foundation convene nonprofit community organizations to host the visiting artists, and to coordinate with local artists who are participating more fully on educational programs and projects than in the past.
Ohio City Inc. also obtained permission from property owners and the city to install the murals. The agency will maintain the artworks for five years.
The participating nonprofits, including Cleveland Public Theatre, the Transformer Station, Cleveland Print Room, Spaces, Ingenuity Cleveland and Ohio City Inc. chose the participating artists from a list provided by the foundation.
Not all the Creative Fusion projects this fall are murals. Artist Rainer Prohaska of Austria will create a surreal temporary installation in the Transformer Station parking lot consisting of five automobiles parked on their roofs like upside down turtles.
"It's the anti-parking parking lot," said art collector and philanthropist Fred Bidwell, co-founder of the Transformer Station.
In a related spirit of fun and non-sense, Cleveland artist Mike Sobeck painted a triangular slice of pizza that appears to be partially smeared across the white brick surface on the backside of the same building that feature's Picchi's flying tiger mural.
Erin Guido, another Cleveland artist, painted a one-story brick wall at West 26th Street and Detroit Avenue as a field of black sprinkled with luminous colored squares, rectangles, triangles and arch shapes that glow like stained glass. Her work injects a striking note of visual appeal in an unlikely place.
Inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphics, David Shillinglaw of London, England, 34, is painting a bright, colorful array of symbolic images on the three-story rear facade of a brick building at 1468 West 25th St.
The images include a fruit tree, a pair of open hands, a staircase and a snake based on a one-time pet of Shillinglaw's that he called "Snakespeare."
"I'm interested in how we take these loves, fears, hopes and hates and translate them into symbols," he said of his evolving work, which constitutes a kind of self-invented international sign language.
Donald Black Jr., another Creative Fusion artist from Cleveland, applied a vinyl photomural with autobiographical meanings to a brick facade of the Van Rooy Building, owned by Fred Bidwell and his wife, Laura, at 2900 Detroit Ave.
Visible to eastbound traffic, the image depicts a solitary black boy atop a staircase in a vacant industrial building in Slavic Village that has since been demolished.
The image communicates isolation amid decay and abandonment, emotions that Black said he felt in his childhood.
Despite the work's somber tone, Black said he was pleased that he was commissioned by Creative Fusion not only to document work by the other artists, but to create a mural of his own.
"I feel like I'm dancing with what I'm doing now," he said. "Before, I felt like I wasn't even watching someone else dancing. I couldn't see it."
The biggest common denominator among all the murals is that they melt the opacity of the walls they adorn by morphing brick and concrete into color and light.
That's especially true of Nahu's big mural along the Shoreway retaining wall.
Conceived in the 1930s and '40s, and completed in the 1950s, the Shoreway severed low-income black residents in the Lakeview apartments on the north side of the highway from the increasingly vibrant core of Ohio City to the south.
It also left the public housing marooned between the highway and heaps of gravel piled along the old channel of the Cuyahoga River to the north, where trucks hauling heavy loads send clouds of dust wafting through Lakeview when the wind comes in off Lake Erie.
Nahu's mural has turned a huge, ugly and socially isolating piece of highway infrastructure into a panoramic image of children whose faces glow with pride and hope.
And that, one might say, is an act of creative fusion.