MADE OF CLEVELAND; When the city’s influence goes deep beneath the surface
by Erin O’Brien
For some artists, simply depicting Cleveland in their work isn’t enough. From a metal sculptor who hand forges steel in order to evoke the Cuyahoga’s iconic bridges, to a pop artist who uncovers secret messages within our retail cast-offs, CAN Journal showcases three who literally imbue their work with essence of the city.
At first blush, Stephen Yusko’s Cuyahoga Bridge series tables reflect a gossamer delicacy, with long thin legs supporting narrow tops fashioned from glass or distressed steel. Deconstruct the work, however, and the tables reveal themselves to be longshoreman-tough and then some.
Every aspect of Yusko’s work reflects an old-school Cleveland mentality, from design to technique. He starts with 1 3/4- inch thick steel rods that he fires to yellow-hot and shapes with a power hammer. He masters the finer details the old fashion way: with a hammer and anvil. Yusko uses a hulking lathe and milling machine to finish the elements with features that would make any seasoned tool and die man sigh: threaded self-leveling legs.
“I’m using this industrial material that’s all about building and structures,” says Yusko, “but I’m forging it as well and hopefully making these beautiful, light forms.”
The tables are tranquil and cool, improbably far from the searing fire of his forge, the drone of Yusko’s machines and curling piles of swarf –the shavings removed as he urges the pieces into his lofty designs. They reference the graceful arches of the Superior Viaduct and Veterans Memorial Bridge. Pilings and truss systems inspire Yusko’s lines, while tabletops echo the bridge decks upon which we all travel.
Yusko also directly incorporates industrial elements: a pallet jack fork becomes a tabletop; wooden cradles that formerly supported massive coils of steel provide an unexpected curve.
“There is such beauty in these forms,” says Yusko of the industrial elements that inspire him. “I look at an old rusty piece of equipment, and I just think it’s gorgeous, with its texture and finish. I’m drawn to the beauty in that.”
The messages come from signs, signs, signs—particularly the ones that elicit shudders as they clutter strip malls and business districts: Blockbuster and Bob Evans and Red Lobster. Dana Depew rips them from their cultural comas and spins them into a blinking fantasy world of homage and devastating commentary. With each letter harvested from somewhere in Northeast Ohio, Depew brings words like “humble”, “broke” and “nerd” to life by adding blinking bulbs, glowing neon and diffused matte light.
“I’m trying to create experiences,” says Depew. “I love old cringy lights flashing, and the sound of neon.”
Each letter becomes a component in something it never could have imagined in its former cookie-cutter life. The letter “c” flops onto its back, transforming itself into a “u”. The “ob” from an affable Bob Evans sign gets flipped upside down to form the “go” in “ego”.
Huntington Bank unknowingly donates letter “g”s to assert that greed is good. A cast-off “m” from a Max & Erma’s sign goes belly up to emerge as the “w” in Wilma, part of an elaborate homage to longtime Cleveland news anchor Wilma Smith. Depew’s creations also look backward with a funky nostalgic point of view. He’s currently focused on yesteryear’s middle class meccas such as Gold Circle and Zayre.
“I’m creating a bridge to something that’s lost and forgotten and gone,” says Depew of his nods to the defunct area retailers. “It hints at nostalgia and instills these childhood memories. You really reach your audience when you get them personally involved or when they have some type of rapport with the work.”
Depew’s boundless imagination consumes more than cast-off signage. A chenille bedspread stripped from Aunt Edna’s closet and unceremoniously dumped into a thrift store donation bin becomes giant pop-art tube socks. He festoons unusable industrial water tanks with gleaming lights and presto: behold baubles worthy of the 50-foot woman. Or dozens of EXIT signs, harvested for more than a year and a half from vacated Playhouse Square spaces, become a towering commentary of repetition, however silent.
Garrett Weider promotes Cleveland in the most direct sense: by repeating the word over and over again. His tributes combine his own distinct style with inspiration from the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Shepard Fairy. Weider is like a one-man set of Free Stamps with ever-changing impressions that project Cleveland in every possible permutation. He cuts it apart and stacks such that it becomes a VEL with a CLE on the top and an AND on the bottom. He takes out all the vowels and applies it to the bottom of a skateboard. He distresses it into submission.
“I want people to think aboutother things besides just the word. I include texture,” says Weider. “I want people to feel that this comes from Cleveland.”
Striving to evoke old signage and crumbling walls splattered with graffiti, Weider calls his work “Cleveland gritty,” and inspired by all things “old and imperfect and urban.” Weider’s collage-style offerings are a culmination of graphic design, pop art, graffiti, fine art and craft. It’s taken him years to develop the process-oriented technique, which combines digital elements as well as plenty of free-style handwork. “I take bunch of elements that I like and put them together,” says Weider, “almost like Hip Hop, where they cut and sample the best hooks and put them together in a song.”
When he’s not artistically repeating his Cleveland mantra, Weider’s transforming the city itself, creating skyline landscapes—sort of. The pop-style images are all about distortion. The Terminal Tower dwarfs the Key Bank Building. The Cuyahoga flows in three directions.
“When you look at it just regularly,” says Weider. it might be kind of boring. So for more effect I make things bigger and bolder. I like to make stuff go POW.”