Creative Fusion – Waterways To Waterways: Art and the Cuyahoga

The Cleveland Foundation Presents

Creative Fusion

Waterways To Waterways: Art and the Cuyahoga

by Stephen Love

“No visible life…it oozes rather than flows,” lamented Time Magazine in its now infamous article on the environmental plight of the Cuyahoga River. The article featured the river fire of June 22, 1969, a combustion so small that no known photographs exist. The thirteenth in a series of Cuyahoga River fires dating back to the 1800s, this minor blaze—sparked by a passing train—profoundly changed our relationship to water and the environment. It became a catalyst for a global movement, today characterized as the last time an industrialized river in the United States caught fire.

Fifty years ago, countless waterways across the country caught fire, excused as the price of progress in rapidly industrializing cities. While oil slicks were not unique to the Cuyahoga, the legacy of the response from our city’s leaders was singular and significant.

Astute and nimble reactions from Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes and his brother Congressman Louis Stokes elevated the fire to a national environmental emergency, and birthed the modern environmental movement. Kick-started by the Stokes brothers, the political momentum culminated in landmark federal policies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Clean Water Act.

Michael Tsegaye (Ethiopia), Aerial photo of the Cuyahoga River, created with support from the Cleveland Print Room during his
Cleveland Foundation Creative Fusion Residency, 2018

Fast forward to 2019. Like a freshwater phoenix, the Cuyahoga River continues to rise from the ashes. Today, the river teems with life while advancing the region’s economy. More than sixty species of fish spawn in the same waters that serve as a hub of activity for kayakers, rowers, and stand-up paddle boarders, all while lake-going freighters slowly navigate the river’s numerous bends.

The Cleveland Foundation staff, along with a coalition of leaders across the region, recognize 2019 as an important opportunity to tell the story of environmental leadership and the river’s tremendous recovery. Together, we are positioning Cleveland for a future where our greatest asset—freshwater—is not only protected, but drives innovation and growth.

Unfortunately, the Great Lakes and their rivers are jeopardized by hazardous algal blooms, climate change, plastic pollution, invasive species and rollbacks in federal environmental protections. Globally, rivers in cities from Beirut, Lebanon to Medellín, Columbia face conditions akin to our river’s five decades ago. While the threats are often magnified and more complex, the recipe for progress remains the same: we must support local action, innovation, and ultimately, strong policy.

The Cleveland Foundation staff believes art is a powerful medium to reconnect us to our water, to tell the story of our river’s recovery and to foster a global exchange around realizing our shared freshwater future. This year, our Creative Fusion international artists’ residency is entirely dedicated to this end. Creative Fusion 2019: Waterways to Waterways Edition convenes a diverse cohort of local and international artists to focus on projects that connect the recovery of the Cuyahoga River to global waterways. This initiative incorporates works conceived to inspire progress here in Cleveland and around the world, sharing innovative practices that revive and reimagine relationships to our waterways.

In the pages that follow, you will be introduced to artists working in diverse disciplines such as architecture, photography and fiber. William Busta, a leading dealer of art made in Northeast Ohio, provides a retrospective on the role of the Cuyahoga River as the subject of important art over the last century. We look forward to sharing more coverage of the Creative Fusion 2019 artists in the upcoming summer issue of CAN. Creative Fusion 2019 joins a broad civic effort to celebrate our river’s recovery and to ignite our dreams for a freshwater future. To learn more, visit

Water is life. Awareness and activism around protecting our waterways help guarantee their future, and ours. To quote Dr. Seuss’ 1971 book The Lorax (which makes mention of the ill state of Lake Erie in its first edition), “unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

We hope Creative Fusion 2019 inspires you to reconnect, respect and protect our precious freshwater.

Stephen Love is the Cleveland Foundation’s program officer for the environment.