Cleveland Walls: An Outdoor, National Group Show
In a locally unprecedented bonanza of public art, Summer 2021 brought Cleveland three city-wide series of installations, presenting work by more than 30 artists in 48 locations. Each of them– The Sculpture Center’s Crossroads: Still We Rise, Midtown Cleveland, Inc.’s CLEVELAND WALLS!, and Graffiti Heart’s How Do I Love Thee tour by the stencil artist WRDSMTH–amounts to an important outdoor exhibit, viewed by crisscrossing miles of urban landscape.
MidTown Cleveland, Inc’s CLEVELAND WALLS! alone is essentially a massive, national group show, spread across the East side. Curated by POW! WOW! Worldwide muralist/entrepreneur Jasper Wong, it presents a 50/50 mix of artists from Cleveland and across the country who painted 19 walls around mid-town, especially along Euclid and Carnegie. That mix is one of the great successes of this project: Cleveland artists are juxtaposed with muralists from all over the country. It shows people here what artists travelling the country painting murals are able to do.
The Cleveland artists come both from the gallery scene and the graffiti scene. That’s another plus for the project: Artists who typically are seen in galleries gain a broad audience with their outdoor locations. A typical gallery show by a Cleveland-based artist is likely to see hundreds of viewers through the run of the show. By contrast, according to NOACA, the intersection of Carnegie at East 55th sees 4,022 cars between 6 am and 9 am every day.
So for artists like Antwoine Washington and Darius Steward, for example, both of whom are busy showing in galleries, these outdoor locations bring a lot of new eyes. Not that every artist gets anything like that amount of traffic. Most of these locations are not as busy as Carnegie. Darius Steward’s mural is not on the front / East 55th Street side of Rainey Institute, for example, but on the back, facing its parking lot. On the other hand, anyone visiting the Rainey institute will not just catch a passing glimpse: Hundreds of Cleveland kids and their parents will spend some time with it every time they go to a class.
Steward’s mural is a rainbow swath of paint, from which emerge images of children singing, playing instruments, and dancing. This is what goes on inside the building. The artist almost always paints images of children, but has clearly adopted his work to the setting—right down to a Rainey Institute logo on the paintbrush. As far as we can tell, this is the only one of the murals to include the logo of a business inside. We have to wonder if this complicated the approval process by turning public art into signage. The rainbow of color, the logo, and the fact that the kids are making music and dancing all are departures for an artist whose works typically capture kids’ quotidian behavior–snapshots of emotion, or toting backpacks to school, for example. No matter: it’s beautiful work.
Antwoine Washington’s mural at 38th and Superior shows a Black family, looking happy together: a mother and father embracing on a couch, a girl and boy seated nearby. And in space delineated by color as the next room, a table with flowers, and houseplants potted on the floor. Anyone familiar with Washington’s work would instantly recognize this as his own, for its palate, the way of rendering figures, and the clean edges of each color field.
Gary Williams (who serves on CAN’s Board of Directors) and Robin Robinson are the only artists whose work appears in two of the summer’s major public art initiatives. In addition to Cleveland Walls, they also have work in the Sculpture Center’s augmented reality project, Crossroads: Still We Rise. While some of the Cleveland Walls painters delivered subtle messages in their content, Williams and Robinson did that and added to it some text. On the side of a building that was once the East 79th Street Branch of Cleveland Public Library, they beautifully rendered a dreadlocked figure, arms outstretched, in their right hand a sword (tipped down, not raised) and in the other the scales of justice. On their t-shirt, the familiar chant, Know Justice, Know Peace. And by coloring the first and last letters of the word Know, they deliver simultaneously the homophonic meaning, No Justice, No Peace. The figure looks skyward, asking or hoping.
Cleveland artists born of the graffiti scene make their mark on a wall visible from East 39th and Payne. Dayzwhun has covered the wall with color—a glorious bird drawn to a blossoming apple (or cherry) bough in sunrise (we’re facing East). The subject seems to be a graceful nod to the neighborhood, Cleveland’s Asia Town. That’s also home to his business, Red Lion Tattoo, which Dayzwhun acknowledges along with collaborators Christa Freehand, Mr. Soul, Poke, and others, as well as Pow Wow and Midtown Cleveland.
It’s worth noting that there were several moments of synergy between this project and the work of Graffiti Heart, which in several occasions drew together Cleveland graffiti artists and famous pioneers like Taki183 and the rest of the Boys from Brooklyn to create murals on other walls, but the same buildings as some of the Cleveland Walls commissions.
We were also delighted to see murals by Cleveland-based artists Glen Infante, Starbeing, Julia Kuo, Jordan Wong, and Ape Bleakney. For someone who visits galleries in Cleveland, it is a joy to happen across familiar styles, presented free and ongoing to the general public, outdoors: in a big way, this is Cleveland.
Several of the visiting artists created transcendent work. Andrew Schoultz, of Los Angeles, had a plum location, and a challenging one: A multi-story wall towering above trees at 4415 Euclid Avenue, the Midtown Innovation Center. Midtown estimates the wall is 80 – 90′ tall, and 40′ wide. He used it to paint the glow of sun through clouds in a highly abstracted way that alludes to the FRONT Triennial’s vision of a downtown gallery of mural-scale abstraction.
Across the street at 3634 Euclid, Chicago artist Kate Lewis had a wall 250′ wide X 30′ tall to work with, and filled it with pale and pastel color, woman with hair flowing behind her like Rapunzel’s as she rides a galloping tiger–the central image flanked by symmetry: a cockateil and a white woman on the left, a parrot and a Black woman on the right.
The show stopper is Max Sansing’s vivid, bold, and chromatic mural of two figures among flowers, one reaching for a blossom, the other holding one in his hands, and with a key floating loosely around his neck, as if it flew up when he turned quickly to look off in the distance. Visible across a parking lot from Prospect, it is a gorgeous thing.
While these murals were installed in a binge of activity, accompanied by talks, demonstrations, and other opportunities for interaction with local businesses, the best news is that they will endure. You can take them in during your routine travels, or you can –and should—make it a point to get the map at Midtown Cleveland’s website, and take an afternoon tour.