Creative Fusion: Old River, New Perspectives


Michael Tsegaye | Ethiopia

Sophie Schwartz | Cleveland & New York

Sharon Day | Minnesota

CPR Teen Institute | Cleveland


Cleveland Print Room


Four CPR projects will deliver the Cuyahoga from fresh points of view.


A quartet of programs from the Cleveland Print Room for the Creative Fusion 2019 Waterways to Waterways edition will put the Cuyahoga River into keen focus courtesy of unique perspectives that locals might otherwise never imagine.

Internationally renowned photographer Michael Tsegaye, who traveled to Cleveland last fall to document the Cuyahoga with aerial photography, will deliver his results in an immersive exhibition at CPR’s gallery. Crooked River will transform the space into a slice of the river itself with a unique twist: images on the floor. “So people can walk on the river,” says Tsegaye. Considering the intensity and breadth of his photos, the experience will undoubtedly evoke the power of water one feels when viewing a river from the side railing of a bridge or through its grated decking. Images on the walls and suspended from the ceiling will round out the exhibition.

Until the show’s June 21 opening, Tsegaye’s preview photos are already speaking for the river. Case in point: the Gorge Dam in Summit County. Tsegaye’s aerial image of it captures the stark devastation of mankind’ s iron fist.

“The dam was a huge line cutting the river…and making it into something else,” recalls Tsegaye. “It divided the river into two parts. It was a significant point to see from above.” The obsolete 1914 dam, which is regarded as the most significant impediment to the free flow of the river, is slated for removal. Conversely, Tsegaye notes that the fishing and kayaking along the Cuyahoga are hopeful signs and that, while the urban and industrial sections are “rough,” other stretches are lush with foliage.

The project is a departure for the Ethiopian artist.

“It was, for me, a surprise when I was invited to work on the river. I never had experience working on nature photos,” he says, adding that his portfolio has focused largely on social issues. His haunting work engages subjects such as Working Girls II, which documents sex workers in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia’s capital, or the changing nature of that city in Future Memories.

“His images are stunning, really beautiful,” says Sally Winter, CPR’s education director and residency liaison. “They live in beauty and splendor…and sadness. They capture all of that and make it into spectacular images.”

While Tsegaye’s efforts will bring the Cuyahoga into a gallery, Ojibwe elder Sharon Day of Minnesota will deliver the river’s spirituality by enlisting our most basic movement of putting one foot in front of the other. Day, who is also the executive director and cofounder of the Indigenous Peoples Task Force, will guide a four-day Nibi (water) walk that will have participants carrying a pail of water collected at the river’s headwaters in Burton, Ohio, to its mouth at Lake Erie.

“Every step is a prayer,” she says of the ritual.

Evocative of the rosary, the moving ceremony is scaled to an 85-mile trek across Northeast Ohio that is characterized with urgency. Walkers move at a good clip in order to get this water home where it belongs. They are also silent save for singing. Hence anyone expecting a group of affable acquaintances chatting leisurely as they stroll along will find the Nibi walk to be a completely different experience.

“It’s about having some reverence for the water. You can’t do that if you are constantly talking. Nor can you hear anything else if your voice is filling up that space.” Make no mistake, this walk is about the river and its environs. The light, the quality of the air, and the sounds—whether they come from the river itself, passing traffic, birds or wind—are all relevant.

Local videographer Erahlea Harnett will record the walk and present a rough cut three-minute trailer at its closing ceremony, which is slated for June 20 at Wendy Park. She’ll then set to work editing the footage into a twenty-minute documentary that will be publicly available online and for teaching opportunities. Michael Tsegaye, incidentally, plans to participate in the entire walk.

While it’s about accepting responsibility for a symbolic measure of water, the Nibi walk is a world away from those hokey teen parenting “egg baby” assignments. Instead it fosters a profound spiritual relationship between participants and the river that Day compares to the bond between a parent and an infant. The end result blooms in transformation that will slake our collective thirst for gentleness in these turbulent times.

“People begin to understand that we are the water,” says Day. “And if we treat the water with respect and dignity and gratitude and love, then we’re a little bit closer to being able to treat each other that way regardless of class or race or gender.”

Another project is steeped in the spirit of homecoming. Cleveland Heights native Sophie Schwartz travelled back home from her current city of New York to discover the Cuyahoga, ironically, for the first time.

“Growing up, I didn’t feel that connected to water,” she says. “I didn’t feel like Cleveland was connected to water. It didn’t feel like a coastal town.”

Her work, which took her from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park to the Flats’ Crooked River Skatepark and points in between, changed all that. The multimedia artist and curator used a large format 4×5 camera to create landscapes and portraiture. The bridges also captured her imagination.

“The bridge was this amazing recurring metaphor both graphically and symbolically,” she says, adding that focusing on the river’s spans adds an appropriate tether between today and 1969. “The bridge as a symbol is also so charged and so pertinent to this celebration and remembering the burning.” As for the defunct bridges frozen in static positions, she notes, “The way those bridges live in the world now…they feel like living fossils. I think they’re beautiful.”

Lastly, CPR’s Teen Institute will bring the frenetic energy of that demographic to the celebration. Under the guidance of teaching artist Melinda Placko, the group will create a large collage of cyanotypes, a blue print process dating back to the nineteenth century that includes using sunlight and water baths. River Water Soup will be on display at CPR for the June celebration.

Cyanotype by Melinda Placko. Artists of the Cleveland Print Room Teen Institute will work with Placko on a collective cyanotype project called River Water Soup.

The students will explore the river for inspiration and collect its water for processing. The mixed-media collaboration will include photography and drawings that Placko calls, “imagery that is generated by students and inspired by the river” rendered in the distinctive cyan blue format. The teens, who will also participate in the Nibi walk and document their work in a book, are paid employees of CPR. The group will number eight or nine.

Parties interested in participating in the Nibi walk, which is scheduled for June 17–20, may contact Sally Winter at the Cleveland Print Room,, 216.802.9441. Women are asked to wear long skirts during the walk.

The opening reception for Michael Tsegaye’s Crooked River Exhibition will be on June 21 at the Cleveland Print Room from 5:00 to 9:00pm.

As of press time, the selection for exhibition space for Schwarz’s exhibition was pending.