The Thirteenth Fire

Owning the history of the burning river | 

The first twelve fires on the Cuyahoga River didn’t get much attention or do much to change the way our industries or governments viewed one of Cleveland’s defining features. But the thirteenth fire, which took place in 1969 and was reported in Time magazine, captured the attention of the nation. Not only did that fire help to inspire the environmental movement and motivate the creation of the US EPA, but continual progress since then has left the river cleaner than it has been in a century. And in recent years, our understanding of the importance of fresh water as a regional asset has grown.

It takes time to overcome embarrassing history, even when events lead to positive change. It takes even more time to get to the point of celebration. Fifty years after that most famous fire on the Cuyahoga, Cleveland has reached that point. With promotional support from the City of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga50 program, and financial support from the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion Waterways to Waterways cohort, artists, galleries, and related organizations in the region are celebrating the whole story of the river as a point of Cleveland pride.

We’ve come so far that the Cleveland Museum of Art was comfortable commissioning the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang to draw the river’s course in gunpowder on a grand scale and set it on fire. For Clevelanders who lived through the fire and the late-night TV jokes, the resulting crooked trail of ash (Cuyahoga River Lightning, 2018) should call to mind the myth of the phoenix. It goes on view at the museum, starting May 25.

Of course, artists’ interest in the Cuyahoga as a subject is not new. William Busta noted in our previous issue that artists have incorporated the river in their work throughout the history of Cleveland. “There’s an intuitive sense that the river is the heart of the city—marking cultural differences which divide, and spanned by bridges which unite,” he said.

Really, you could say that interest has been constant as a river. A year ago, as coverage of CAN Triennial and FRONT International ramped up, several reporters asked us, “What are the common themes in contemporary art-making in Cleveland?” The exhibit was expansive, with ninety artists presenting work in an enormous range of mediums and styles. And while art of the region is far too varied to say any single theme dominated, we did find that environmental concern—specifically an interest in the health of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie—played a prominent role.

But a region-wide celebration of the river and its warts-and-all history, with major institutional support—that does feel like something new. We’re thrilled to see the city and all the organizations participating in Creative Fusion helping to draw attention to the life force the river represents, the need to attend its sustainability. Happy anniversary.

We’re also thrilled to see the constant outpouring of all kinds of activity represented on all the pages of CAN—including an exhibit of works by AfriCOBRA co-founder Wadsworth Jarrell. That’s his vibrant image on our cover. Jarrell was the winner of the CAN Triennial 2018 / Mansfield Art Center Exhibition Prize, and his resulting exhibition there opens in June. We are proud to have played a role in connecting his art to that audience. You can read more about his work and a multitude of projects related to the Cuyahoga River as you turn the pages. We look forward to seeing you.

Michael Gill

Editor / Publisher