THE LOCAL COHORT: Local Artists-in-Residence for FRONT International

Back in October, the FRONT International team announced the names of six local artists who would represent Cleveland during the global art triennial. Chosen by curators Michelle Grabner and Jens Hoffman (who has since left his role in the wake of sexual harassment charges), these six artists come from a wide spectrum of interests, media, and disciplines: Julie Ezelle Patton is a published poet, permaculturist, and performer; Johnny Coleman is an installation artist as well as a professor of Africana studies and jazz; Dale Goode and Elizabeth Emery are both multimedia artists who transform found objects; Lauren Yeager is a conceptual artist; and Michael Oatman is an award-winning playwright and director.

All six are part of the larger Madison Residencies, a cohort of local, national, and international artists supported by the Cleveland Foundation through its Creative Fusion Program. All are responding to FRONT International’s theme, An American City, but with insider knowledge of the specific American city in which the whole thing is taking place.

The official announcement of the six local artists was made at the ribbon-cutting for the renovations of the Madison Building, now known as part of the PNC Glenville Arts Campus. The modernist building on East 105th Street in the Glenville neighborhood was built in 1962 by Robert P. Madison, Ohio’s first black registered architect. It was the city’s first professional building for black doctors, and the first black-owned commercial building in Ohio. At the time, the Glenville area was booming, but gradually it began to change—facing challenges like civil unrest, widespread poverty, crime, and urban decay. The investment by the Cleveland Foundation, the Famicos Foundation, and PNC is meant to catalyze further interest and to re-energize the neighborhood as one of the city’s most desirable districts.

A large part of this plan includes how the local artists chosen by FRONT in its inaugural year can help with this effort. When they were announced, it was explained that the local artists would thoughtfully engage Glenville residents in the creation of works displayed or performed within the community, and this work would be presented or installed in Glenville for the duration of FRONT. When this issue went to print in late April, I had a chance to catch up with the six artists, to see what their plans for the triennial entailed.

Julie Ezelle Patton grew up in Glenville—her late mother, Cleveland artist Virgie Ezelle Patton raised six children in the heart of the neighborhood, on Olivet Avenue near East 105th Street. In what would have been her mother’s ninetieth year, Patton is planning a memorial in her honor for FRONT. The Painted Closet of Virgie Ezelle Patton & Other Wings (working title) will be a 2,000-square-foot installation at Patton’s live/work/exhibition space, the Bee Ark Hive on East Boulevard (also and variously known as the Salon des Refusés), about a three-minute walk around the corner from the Madison Building. Patton saved the 1913 four-story apartment building from demolition. It now houses artists, an exhibition space, gardens, studios, and it is, in her own words, “a living sculpture.” She hopes to stage a series of events concurrent with the memorial installation, including a conducted musical Drama Closet, and a performance of her published text Using Blue to Get Black.

Oberlin professor Johnny Coleman has proposed an ambitious project to the FRONT team, formed from his extended engagement with the community over the last five months. Coleman has been spending time with what he calls the “Elders of Glenville”—walking the streets, listening, and attending Bethany Baptist Church on East 105th just above Superior. During this time, he has been collecting their memories as well as their aspirations for the neighborhood, while simultaneously recording his own reflections of the area. His proposal for FRONT prominently features the spoken reflections of these elders as a crucial component of a larger immersive environment. (Coleman is known for his site-specific sound installations.) Unfortunately, his idea has been rejected due to liability concerns with the location he chose. St. Mark’s Church on East Boulevard is an abandoned brick building in the East Boulevard Historic District. Coleman’s multi-channel sound piece would be composed of three elements: the voice of legendary Cleveland gospel vocalist Bonita Wagner Johnson singing “Move on up a Little Higher” from the balcony at the rear of the church, while the sounds of a train would emerge from the pipes of the now-missing organ on the altar, all while the voices of the Glenville community elders enter the empty space through the windows on both sides of the nave. The second part of his installation would include an outdoor component, but it remains to be seen whether or not he will get approval for his proposal.

Elizabeth Emery creates abstract ceramics and sculptures. These extremely tactile mixed-media assemblages often include found objects such as plastic toys or aquarium décor, suspended within gracefully oozing clumps of plaster. For her FRONT project, however, Emery is using a quite different medium. She plans to develop a podcast about female athletes from the Glenville neighborhood. Once a professional cyclist, Emery already has her own podcast called Hear Her Sports, a forum that gives voice to exceptional female athletes and women in sports. For the FRONT podcast, she is specifically looking for women living in Glenville, from roughly eighth grade and above—hopefully including some who continued their sport after high school. While doing research, she found that only four percent of total sports media coverage is about women—their voices lost in an endless stream of manly chatter. Her goal is to change that by creating a space for discussion about women’s issues in athletics, a subject that is clearly underrepresented. For the FRONT podcast she hopes to talk specifically about the challenges facing women athletes in Glenville, a community also underrepresented in the greater discussion of Cleveland athletics. The podcast will be available through the normal channels (iTunes, Spotify, or other podcast players) and listening stations set up during FRONT.

Dale Goode and Lauren Yeager are both planning large-scale sculptural installations for FRONT. Lauren Yeager studied glass blowing at the Cleveland Institute of Art, but now makes conceptual installations using commonplace objects, often out of context. There is a decided sense of humor to her recontextualization of the everyday—for example, in a recent project she examined traffic cones in all their monotonous banality, laying them out in perfectly ordered lines. But she also threw them out of a window and photographed the defenestrated cones from above, scattered, splayed, and upturned like roadkill. For her FRONT project, she will again use a bit of humor, but this time her subject will be sculpture bases—the pedestals and columns that support works of art in exhibitions. This large-scale installation will be a formal and conceptual attempt to define exactly what a sculpture base is, and also to explore the potential for a sculpture base to evoke sculpture all by itself. Unable to find a location large enough to house her work in Glenville, Yeager will be presenting Sculpture Bases (working title) in the Singer Steel Building in Little Italy—a vast skeletal warehouse on Random Road. The objects she plans to create, large mixed-media assemblages, will be arranged in small groupings throughout the expansive space. And while her work does not address the Glenville neighborhood specifically, nor is it specifically about the city of Cleveland, it can be seen as a reflection of both (or of any city, really) since many of the materials she plans to use were found objects, collected from tree lawns and second-hand stores—the kind of everyday ubiquitous things discarded in many American towns.

Dale Goode’s piece, however, will be directly tied to Glenville. He plans to create a large outdoor installation in the neighborhood, on an approved lot at the corner of East 112th and Ashbury. This large abstract sculpture will be composed of crushed metal—aluminum, copper, and steel, utilizing various geometric shapes. And while he did not mention the inclusion of any found objects, in the past Goode has created large sculptures with items salvaged from his neighborhood: discarded doors, shovels, old clothes, shoes, discarded boards or fragments of fences—the entire assemblage poured over with lustrous gold paint.

Goode is a tireless advocate for his community, and Cleveland in general. A graduate of East Tech High, he has lived his entire life in the city. In 1978, he completed his iconic mural, Faces, on the Whitwork & Sons Moving and Storage Building on the corner of East 105th and Superior (sadly now destroyed). The mural was a direct response to the Cleveland Area Arts Council’s City Canvas Program that was giving large-scale mural commissions to established white artists such as Julian Stanczak (whose mural is coincidentally being recreated for the FRONT Triennial). Goode, angered at the government’s discrimination in arts funding, was also frustrated that they were only doing murals downtown and not in areas like Glenville and Hough. The NAACP sponsored Faces, and Sherwin-Williams donated the paint. As he said in an interview for Jet magazine in 1976, “I have a sense of commitment to the Black community.” Also mentioned in the article, in addition to the mural, were the artist’s community installation pieces. At the time, Goode was placing stacked planks of wood in vacant lots throughout Glenville. These sculptural pinewood assemblages were painted in lively pastel colors in an attempt to fight the gloom. Goode was a pioneer with these guerilla installations, foreshadowing the kind of art that FRONT hopes to bring to the area—the kind of art with which the community can directly interact.

As far as direct interaction goes, theatrical performance is an especially visceral means to engage and promote dialog. That’s why it is exciting to see that the FRONT team selected playwright and director Michael Oatman to be part of the local cohort. As he once explained in an interview, “For me the beauty of theater is that it lives. It is not an artifact. It wrestles with us and forces us to wrestle with it. Plays live in real time; actors can reach out and touch you. Good drama is not a spectator sport. It’s a subtle give and take, a delicate dance between actor and audience, playwright and the world.”

Oatman has already started his Glenville interactions, spending an evening in early February at the Madison FRONT Porch (part of the PNC Glenville Art Campus) discussing his recent production and direction of Fences at the Aurora Community Playhouse. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson examines a blue-collar African American family, their generational challenges, and the realities of growing up trapped in a cycle of dysfunction. The lead actors in this performance were Glenville natives, who were also in attendance in February as Oatman spoke about his direction of the celebrated play.

During FRONT, Oatman isn’t sure if he will stage a new work or direct a play. The details are still being worked out, but rest assured he will pull no punches. Oatman likes to take risks, to push his audiences out of their comfort zone. “That’s what keeps theater alive,” the playwright explains.

Many of the themes Oatman has explored in his work in the past relate directly to the theme of FRONT—the ever-changing and politically urgent conditions of an American city. So what does it mean to live in an American City? Perhaps it depends more on who you are asking than where you are. As August Wilson wrote, “It ain’t nothing to find no starting place in the world. You just start from where you find yourself.”