Creative Fusion: Daniel Gray Kontar / Cleveland

The Rhythm of People’s Speech

As executive artistic director of Twelve Literary Arts, a nonprofit organization he started in 2016, Daniel Gray-Kontar has helped to create a literary arts ecosystem for young black writers across the city. “For writers of color, it’s important to present them with models, and to connect them with older writers of color—people who look like them and have had their experiences,” he says.

This November, Gray-Kontar will participate in the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion: Data Edition, a three-month residency to explore the intersections of art, technology and community issues. According to the Foundation website, “The artists will craft compelling visual art from environmental and health data in Cleveland, strengthening bonds among the technology, arts and culture, and civic sectors in Cleveland.” Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP), Hack Cleveland (HackCLE), ThirdSpace Action Lab, and DigitalC are collaborating to host the artists, some of whom are internationally-based and some of whom live in Cleveland.

Gray-Kontar is both an organizer of the program and one of the participating artists. He plans to interview Cleveland residents about environmental justice issues and create visual poems featuring their words. Large banners and signs featuring the poems will be installed in Glenville where Twelve is located. Through these interviews, Gray-Kontar hopes to capture the rhythms of people’s speech as well as their stories.

Mary Barrett, a 19-year-old poet who Gray-Kontar has mentored for the past five years, will assist with the project. The artists will record spontaneous interviews in bars, libraries, bowling alleys and other east side locations. “We’ll have a list of ten to twelve environmental justice issues, and we’ll see how they’re affected by them, whether it’s a food desert, access to transportation, lead, infant mortality or brownfields,” says Gray-Kontar. “Then it’s about getting them to unpack their stories.”

“The idea is for us to lend an authentic individual voice to big data, so people get a sense that these things are happening to real people in real time,” he continues. “A lot of times when you see data, you lose sight of that. This will hopefully remind people that these issues are happening to real folks. They’re happening to us.”

Through his visual poems, Gray-Kontar hopes to create awareness about these issues and elevate ordinary people’s voices. Additional interview snippets will be posted online. He expects the project to be completed this fall, but said that specific details about the timing and location of installations are still being worked out.

For Gray-Kontar, the project is both immensely satisfying and personal. “I’m a very, very, very Cleveland person,” he says. “I’ve tried to leave a few times, but I always ended up back here. Because I love the city and the people so much, my intention is to capture their voices as much as I can.”