Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza: A new Rockefeller Park installation by Angelica Pozo honors one of Cleveland’s greatest athletes

The 200 Meter Starting Line at Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza, in Rockefeller Park

How do you capture the wind left by a monumental figure racing against time and hate? With an Olympic oak, flames frozen like leaves in mid-quake, and echoes of the dreams and fears of our community.

Angelica Pozo’s recent installation honoring Jesse Owens–located in the Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza, near the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and East 105th Street, in Rockefeller Park–joins mutability and solidity through a series of mosaic structures memorializing Owens’ shimmering life. Owens was an extraordinary track and field athlete who grew up in Cleveland. In 1936, he won four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics, shattering athletic records as well as the virulent racism of Nazi Germany. Post-Olympics, Owens’ athletic successes smashed up against the racism he experienced as a Black American.

“I felt the responsibility to tell his story right,” says Pozo. “It weighed upon me.” Pozo calls herself a “memorialist,” having created public art commissions honoring Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the West Park African American Community, and Congressional law statues for Cleveland State University’s law library, among others.

“As an artist, we give ourselves a problem to solve. The function of a design and concept is inherent in public art. I have to reconcile how a piece of public art is being used and perceived. I like to have a nice, strong, overall design and put in a lot of details, so people can see it in a rush or linger over it and take notice of the details. I need to answer the question, ‘how can I make this function better in an engaging way?’”

An oak tree, cloned from one of four that were presented to Owens in Berlin during the 1936 Olympic Games–is planted at the center of the plaza.

For the Olympic Oak Plaza, Pozo poured through the Jesse Owens archives held at The Ohio State University, where he attended during the early 1930s. She and Jayme Schwartzberg, landscape architect at DERU, walked the proposed site in Rockefeller Park over and over, circling around the lagoon and gazebo at the south end of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard near E. 105th Street. This location was fitting, near the site of Fairmont Junior High School, where Owens first ran track.

Pozo and Schwartzberg realized that a loop of Rockefeller Park’s all-purpose trail was exactly 200 meters, the length of one of Owens’ record-breaking races. Pozo envisioned a series of four elements to mark distance, choosing a leaf shape that reflected both the Olympic flame as well as the Olympic Oak—a clone of one of four oak trees presented to Owens in Berlin in 1936—now planted at the center of the plaza.

A marker commemorating Owens’ medal-winning long jump.

Each marker commemorates one of Owens’ gold medals: 100 meter, 200 meter, 4 x 100 meter relay, and the long jump. Spaced at near-compass points around the loop, each marker features a medallion of Owens encircled by oak leaves and acorns and a vibrant Owens’ quote—”I let my feet spend as little time on the ground as possible. From the air, fast down, and from the ground, fast up”–on one side. The other side is a rich array of the “Jesse Owens Journal,” a compilation of archival photographs and newspaper articles about Owens throughout his life and legacy. Ceramic tiles in shades of green, gold, and brown reflect the Park’s environment.

A bench, which Pozo made in the style of an awards podium, measures the length of Owens’ winning long jump: 26 feet, 5 and 5/16 inches.

An awards podium-style bench curves inside the space bounded by the markers and overlooks the Olympic Oak. Pozo designed the wings of the bench to be the length of Owens’ winning long jump: 26 feet, 5-5/16 inches. And the bench is where Owens’ voice echoes across decades into the present.

Pozo was struck by two quotes by Owens:

The battles that count aren’t the ones for gold medals. The struggles within yourself—the invisible, inevitable battles inside all of us—that’s where it’s at.

We all have dreams. But in order to make dreams come into reality, it takes an awful lot of determination, dedication, self-discipline, and effort.

Quotations from memers of the community adorn a podium bench.

So she invited members of the community to write down their invisible battles and dreams, and incorporated these intimate statements into the top of the bench. Blue and red text seems to vibrate against stark white tiles, and small metallic glass tiles—in gold, silver, and bronze—flash bright light among voices saying, “My dream is to go to college … world peace … for my children to live in a world that celebrates all peoples … my invisible battle is keeping my faith intact when it is truly tried during times of disorder amongst mankind ….”

“While we were installing the pieces, a man came down from the neighborhood to run the track,” remembers Pozo. “He was using his phone to time himself, zooming around; it looked like he had done this before. This is his training track.” And a group of kids took turns jumping the long jump marked on the pavement just south of the bench, marveling at how far Owens soared as they tried to do the same.

The Jesse Owens Olympic Oak Plaza is located near the intersection of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard and E. 105th Street, on the west side, just north of Rockefeller Park Lagoon.

An official ribbon cutting will take place at 11 am Monday, September 25.

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