Inspiring Your City with Murals, Empowerment, and Soul
“I was born and raised in Cleveland but I became a man in Atlanta,” says Kevin Harp, the artist known as Mr. Soul. He graduated from John Marshall High School on Cleveland’s West Side in 1992, enrolled at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and soon after graduation moved to Atlanta to create graphics for the music industry. He got involved with an artistic community that would become the City of Ink gallery and tattoo shop there, and worked with them to build up a scene and his career. Atlanta, Mr. Soul says, is “where I learned about building relationships, building a team.”
He also learned how different life can be when Black people are empowered stakeholders in the community. According to a 2021 article from The Associated Press, Castleberry Hill—the neighborhood around City of Ink—is home to what is believed to be the largest concentration of Black-owned property and businesses in the nation.
As Mr. Soul’s friend and collaborator there, City of Ink owner Miya Bailey says, “it is like a giant collective. The galleries are owned by artists, artists have a lot of decision-making power. We own a large percentage of the neighborhood. When artists own the neighborhood, they can control gentrification a little more.”
But like so many people with ties to Cleveland, in 2016 Mr. Soul came back to be closer to his family. He brought with him a belief in the empowerment of individuals, and a skepticism of institutions, systems, and committees. Mr. Soul has worked within and without that system ever since. In 2021, with that perspective, combined with relationships and a track record, he landed a six-figure contract to create five murals in support of the public art vision in the Burten, Bell, Carr community development corporation’s Elevate the East plan. Noteworthily, he’s managing the project himself, without the involvement of the agencies that typically serve as middlemen between artists and the community development industry.
“It certainly isn’t the traditional way the Arts have been funded by philanthropic institutions,” says Timothy Tramble, St. Luke’s Foundation president and CEO. The foundation is funding the murals—known together as the Inspire Your City project—with a grant of $100,000.
Tramble was formerly executive director of Burten, Bell, Carr Development, Inc. He says he first met Mr. Soul when the artist was invited to serve on a committee to create Elevate the East, a community plan for public art in their service area. “Mr. Soul was apprehensive about serving on the committee, because of past experiences in extractive efforts that mined the creative talent and ideas of community stakeholders without providing equitable access to funding opportunities,” Tramble says.
Tramble continued, “we made this pivot after hearing artists like Gwen Garth and Mr. Soul share their perspectives based on their experiences of going through a ‘middle-man’ as they called it. They spoke of subordinate relationships oppressive in nature with go-between organizations that interfered with, constrained, and in some cases disrupted, their visioning and creative processes. As a person that led a nonprofit organization and experienced comparable circumstances, I could relate to their sense of constraint. At Saint Luke’s Foundation we’re committed to shifting power and elevating the voices and capacities of the community.”
Despite Mr. Soul’s reluctance to work with middlemen and committees, it’s easy to find the visual impact of his return to Cleveland. The artist has created and collaborated on murals throughout the city, especially around Buckeye Road, but in other places too. In 2018 he worked with SANO and Dayz Whun—members of the ′90s-era graffiti crew, the Cleveland Skribe Tribe—on a mural at West 78th Street Studios, as part of the first CAN Triennial. A year later, the three artists created a large mural—nine feet high and sixty feet long—at the Tri-C Metro Campus Center. They were also commissioned as part of the Inner City Hues program to paint the western wall at Nikki’s Music, at East 117th Street and Buckeye. They graced it with the image and words of poet Maya Angelou.
Mr. Soul himself has multiple current projects, as well. He’s working with RTA to create illustrations of Black leaders (Fred Hampton, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Malcolm X, Barack Obama, and Carl Stokes and Louis Stokes) on six bus shelters in the Union-Miles area. He’s one of three artists creating two murals each at Public Hall, commissioned by the City of Cleveland, which puts him in the company of the noted Cleveland School artist William Sommer. At press time, Mr. Soul was still musing about what he might paint in that location. “What do I want to create that’s going to be there another hundred years,” he asked rhetorically, to describe the gravity of that decision.
The current, multi-mural Inspire Your City project began with all that work, in combination with relationships. In 2018, Mr. Soul connected with Cleveland Ward 6 councilman Blaine Griffin, and had conversations about empowering artists to work independently. More recently, he connected with the councilman again, and learned at that time that Griffin was interested in commissioning some public art.
Initially, Mr. Soul says the Inspire Your City murals were going to be portraits of Black community leaders. But instead of presenting the faces of familiar and often-painted heroes, he decided he wanted to paint something representative of the legacy of their work. “I had Fred Hampton and Carl Stokes mocked up on walls, but the more I looked at them, I said, ‘What does that portrait mean if the people now don’t know who he is?’”
Then in March he says he got the epiphany to speak to literacy. According to the nonprofit organization Seeds of Literacy, the City of Cleveland has a 66 percent illiteracy rate, and in some communities the rate is as high as 95 percent. So he settled on subject matter that would encourage reading—images of Black children engaging with books. As reference material, he’s using photos by Donald Black, Jr.
As any artist working in the public realm knows, a large, multi-mural project in the City of Cleveland is not as simple as just painting a picture. These days that requires community engagement, design review, and a broad variety of relationships and collaborators at different levels. The team-building skills Mr. Soul learned in Atlanta have been indispensable for handling the work without a nonprofit “middleman.” Inspire Your City outreach activities so far have included a ten-week session with students from John Adams College & Career Academy. Mr. Soul had given presentations to John Adams students via Zoom during the time when schools were fully-remote because of the COVID pandemic, and so he reached out to his contact there when he got the grant. David Ramsey, proprietor of Deep Roots Experience Gallery, has been handling logistics. They went on a mural tour. “That gave the kids the opportunity to ask questions,” Mr. Soul said. “We took a trip to Deep Roots. We went to Dayz’s mural at East 39th and Payne, and they got a chance to meet him. Now, as I put up the next four murals, they already know the possibilities. They have been on the tour.” He plans to engage interested students in the ongoing process. “We have a relationship,” he said. “It’s not just a photo op.”
During a meeting with city officials and community leaders in summer 2022, Mr. Soul updated stakeholders on progress. Largely due to relationships, including some from his track record of earlier projects, he found a supportive audience.
City of Cleveland Public Art Coordinator Tarra Petras set the tone. “I have worked with Mr. Soul on several projects,” Petras said. “I love his style of community engagement. He is part of the community, and his engagement is sincere. This is generating public art in an underserved area of the city.”
David Wilson, a project manager for LAND studio who worked with Mr. Soul on the mural at Nikki’s Music, said, “the work speaks for itself. The images are powerful. The process is equally impressive. There are artists who pay lip service to community engagement, but you are doing it. My question is, is there any way to make this even bigger?”
Mr. Soul is working on that. Inspire Your City will also be the title of a documentary, produced by his Atlanta-based collaborator Artemus Jenkins, who also produced City of Hope—a short film about the Cleveland Skribe Tribe’s mural project at the Tri-C Metro Campus Center. It will be about the creation of the murals, but also about the theme of literacy in the city, with interviews about that. He aims to have a trailer in April, and the finished product in October.
The one mural complete at press time—a two-story portrait of a young girl carrying a big stack of books, against a backdrop with splashes and arrows of vivid color—is on the eastern wall of the hair and nail salon, Uniek Kreations, at 12814 Buckeye Road. He’ll get back to work and complete the remaining four as soon as the weather gets warm enough.