Inter Urban Project Rides RTA The Red Line gets a slew of commissioned murals in time for the RNC

Visitors arriving in Cleveland for the 2016 Republican National Convention –most of them, at least—will arrive at Hopkins International Airport. The candidates and their top level staffs will probably have chauffers, and lots of others will surely drive rental cars. But with Greater Cleveland RTA offering light rail service directly to the heart of downtown, it’s safe to say that a whole lot of them will ride the Red Line. Beginning underground at the Airport, then winding past sound-barrier walls, then along a trench through the West side, the gritty corridor will offer many of this summer’s visitors their first impressions of Cleveland.


That puts muralist / curator Jasper Wong and a group of selected artists in a very high-impact role. Wong—an illustrator and designer who has created murals around the world, and mural festivals in Hawaii, Tokyo, Taiwan, Washington, DC, Long Beach, Austin (as part of SXSW), and elsewhere–has been chosen by LAND Studio to curate the mural component of its Inter Urban Art and Culture Connector.


The whole project has two parts: photo-based installations in stations along the route, and a series of grand scale murals with one foot in the literary world, and another in graffiti culture. Wong and  a crew of 19 artists will paint the murals in 12 locations between the Airport and Tower City during a two-week period in June.  The project is funded by the Cleveland Foundation, with collaborators the Anisfield Wolf Book Awards, NOACA, and the City of Cleveland.


LAND Studios director Gregory Peckham says 293 local, national, and international artists responded to a request for proposals that went out at the end of 2015. Just 19 were chosen, and of those, Wong says about half are from the Cleveland area. The rest are from the East Coast, the West Coast, and South Africa. He says they include women, men, and a mix of races. The roster won’t be revealed, however, until after the RTA board approves it in May—just after this issue of CAN goes to press. The Inter Urban Art and Culture Connector has been in the works for two years, but the complexity of multiple stakeholders and property owners means that certain approvals have taken until the last minute.


It’s hard to overstate the visual impact this will have, even in a context already shouting with colorful paint.  Illegal graffiti along the Red Line cuts a narrow swath, a hodge podge palimpsest of lettering that may stretch hundreds of feet at a time along miles of track, but hardly ever deviates in elevation from knee high to perhaps seven feet off the ground. That’s about the reach of a person standing on the ground with a can of spray paint. The Inter Urban project will color well outside that line. Working on walls selected in collaboration with ODOT and RTA, and with cherry picker lifts and other equipment extending their  reach, Wong and the chosen artists will cover walls several stories high. The work won’t involve lettering, but will be inspired by works of literature that have been recognized over the years by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. Established in 1935, and known (according to National Public Radio) as “the black Pulitzer,” the awards recognize books “that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.” Just like the roster of artists, the designs for the murals were not yet available as CAN went to press.


Cleveland Foundation Arts and Urban Design program director Lillian Kuri says the literary connection and the connective context of the Red Line are the reasons the Foundation funded the project.  “The strength of the partnership with the Anisfield Wolf Book Awards will link the projects through the theme of racial and cultural diversity through the entire transit system over time. And we felt that the curatorial approach with commissioned artists would give the Red Line public art the best starting point for the highest quality projects that would both stand alone as significant individual installations, and also tie the whole series together as a collective.”


Wong, then, is curating what will surely be one of the largest and most-viewed public art installations the city has ever seen. Graffiti along the Red Line is already arguably the largest and among the most important public art installations in the state. The Inter Urban project will take that as its context, punctuate it with select sites on taller surfaces, and connect it to the the city’s (and the nation’s) important dialog on race relations.


And if the power of art is increased as more people see it, consider this bit of Banksy-esque logic: The Cleveland Museum of Art reported 640,000 visitors in 2015, about 25 percent of which came to see the Monet’s re-united Water Lillies, and other works in the blockbuster exhibit, Painting the Modern Garden. People who ride RTA don’t generally climb aboard to see the art, but  they can’t avoid it. And RTA reported 6.4 million passenger trips specifically on the Red Line in 2015—ten times the number that visited the museum.


That kind of audience is part of what motivated Wong to launch his first mural festival, POW WOW, in Hong Kong in 2010: “We were trying to break down the barricades between galleries and museums, and the general public. We felt that work wasn’t reaching the general population, that there was always a divide. And one way to cross it was to paint in public places and create open air galleries as a benefit to the communities.”


Wong’s experience with festivals—therefore connections to artists, and understanding of logsitics that go with managing the installation multiple, large scale murals in a short period of time—are what got him the job. The POW WOW festival in Hawaii has artists painting 70 murals in a single week. For some of the installations, he says he had to ask, “Can you paint a six-story  wall in a week? I need some guys who can do that.”


For those festivals, Wong has been responsible not only for recruiting and curating artists, but for raising the money and getting permission to paint on the walls. “We would go door to door in a neighborhood and ask the people, ‘can we paint on your wall?’ And we show them what we do. They say we’re not going to let you paint a lot of graffiti on our buildings, But we show them it’s not that. It’s not lettering. It’s murals. We want them to be happy with it. We want it to be family friendly. Because there is nothing to stop anyone from painting over it. If we want the art to have a life span, the people who own the building have to be happy.”


Since the Inter Urban project already comes with the sanction of the City, public transportation authorities, and a major foundation—and because the walls were already identified and approved, and because money for expenses and commissions is already in place, Wong is free to focus on the artists, aesthetics, and painting challenges.


Wong’s background and line of work has put him in touch with graffiti culture, which will help. He came to Cleveland in the Fall of 2015 to meet people and look at potential sites, and in the process met some Cleveland artist/writers. He says he consulted with them to determine which walls have history, are sacred to the local culture, and therefore should be left alone.


“The walls that are constantly being buffed up by the city are not an issue,” he says. “But things that have history, the hall of fame walls, the memorial walls—we are not touching those.”


And that is a good thing. Even if it’s illegal, and even if it is constantly evolving, the graffiti that will serve as connective tissue between the Inter Urban project murals is not just public art, but art of the public—not commissioned, or chosen, or the creation of a single artist, but a genuine expression of ego by a segment of the population that has little other opportunity to make public impact. Its a visual record of neighborhood-level culture, the result of hundreds, if not thousands of contributions by self-appointed painters. It evolves constantly. It is maintained by volunteers, like a political campaign with hundreds of thousands of small donors together making a big impact.


The idea that commissioned murals could use that as a context—especially murals unified by themes from great literature dealing with matters of race, and recognized by an historic literary award based in Cleveland—must be one of the greatest and most symbiotic connections ever made between high culture and street culture. It’s a first impression we can all be proud of.  It greets the RNC and any visitor traveling that route with with the honest message that culture can bring people together and connect communities, and that Cleveland is a place absolutely spilling over with art.








A second component of the Inter Urban Art and Cultural Connector will involve installations of photography at three stations along the route, also following the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards as a theme. Photography collector Fred Bidwell is curating the process, and gives these insights:


1) For the tunnel adjoining the Airport station, artist Keliy Anderson-Staley will create 50 portraits of Cleveland creatives using the antique wet-plate collodion process. They will be enlarged and hung along the tunnel to create a gallery of portraits, each individually illuminated.


2) In the West 25th Street Station, the French photographyer Denis Darzacq (who photographs people from all walks of life who are struggling with or overcoming personal or societal challenges) will create photographs that will be applied as giant transparencies to the glass panels of the structure.


3) For the Terminal Tower Station, Cleveland photographer Peter Larson will create photographs of Clevelanders. Those will be applied to the station’s columns, so that they appear to be holding up the ceiling: literally, community “uplift.”