MY CITY, MY ART GALLERY: PUBLIC ART IN A PANDEMIC
Despite the fact that area museums and galleries have reopened, attendance is limited, and those with pre-existing conditions may still be wary to visit. Virtual events and exhibitions are certainly options for viewing art safely; but let’s be honest, they are a poor substitute. The good news: we are surrounded by art, as long as you know where to look.
Murals were having a moment in Cleveland even before the pandemic—popping up on buildings throughout the city, but especially in the newly-gentrified areas of the Near West side. LAND Studio, a Cleveland nonprofit specializing in public art installations, just celebrated their tenth anniversary. Through programming and collaborations, they are responsible for much of the public art around Cleveland. Their most recent project, called The City is Our Museum, includes a walking tour of public art. The loop is 4.5 miles long through parts of Ohio City, Detroit Shoreway, and Edgewater Park.
But I’d like to offer an alternative public art tour: one that acknowledges that in addition to living through a pandemic, we are currently witness to a Global Movement for Black Lives. The murder of George Floyd re-ignited the nationwide movement against the state-sanctioned murder of Black Americans, and the ensuing uprising inspired artists across the nation to create artwork in response. Here in Cleveland, a Black Lives Matter street mural was created back in June on East 93rd Street near Bessemer Avenue. Sadly, it was vandalized not long after its unveiling. Around the same time, a temporary outdoor exhibition called #VoicesofCle was installed—featuring murals by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists on large free-standing plywood panels in Public Square, throughout Downtown, and covering damaged windows.
If you didn’t make it to see those projects, don’t worry—here are five examples of recently-installed public art that you can visit, and all of them feature strong Black and Brown women. As Brandi Jackson and Aderonke B. Pederson eloquently wrote in the Washington Post, “Black women sit squarely at the confluence of multiple systems of oppression, and are experiencing a disproportionate loss of life and livelihood in the era of COVID-19.” The statistics are jaw-dropping: Black and Brown women are twice as likely to have lost work due to the pandemic, while Black and Brown women are also more likely to be “essential workers” on the front lines. Almost half of Black households with children are headed by single women, who have to tackle issues of childcare and virtual schooling on their own. And of course, Black and Brown women are more likely to die of COVID-19 than their white counterparts.
For me, visiting these murals allowed some much-needed time for reflection. As we move into winter with no sign of life returning to normal anytime soon, it’s all too easy to feel defeated. Our country is more divided than ever, and I struggle to find the good in people. Despite this, I choose to take inspiration from the words of poet Kisha Nicole Foster, whose work is included below: “Let’s move forward. Pushing ourselves aside to give our hearts to a human that needs it. That’s Love. That’s Mercy. That’s Peace.”
SWIMr CST, also known as Osman Alim Muhammad, was born, raised, and remains based in Cleveland. He is a member of the of the influential Cleveland graffiti crew, the Cleveland Skribe Tribe (CST). This mural is sadly temporary, having been painted on the side of a derelict apartment building that will soon be demolished, which in itself says much about the displacement of the people who once lived in this now-gentrified neighborhood. The message “Value Life Like She Did” is a call to action—the artist chose to focus on her life and her contributions to the world, instead of the tragedy of her murder. Follow Swimr on Instagram @adeptswi_cst.
Gina DeJesus is known around the world as one of three women held in captivity for ten years in a house on nearby Seymour Avenue. But this mural is a celebration of her life, her strength, and the completion of the Cleveland Family Center for Missing Children and Adults, located across the street and founded by DeJesus and her cousin, Sylvia Colon. The mural was sponsored by MetroWest—the neighborhood’s community development corporation—with support from the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program. The artist, Gisela McDaniel, is a diasporic, indigenous Chamorro artist whose work reflects on the healing of women who have survived sexual trauma. Follow Gisela McDaniel on Instagram @giselamcdaniel.
Commissioned by the Biden-Harris Campaign, for this image Williams chose to focus on Harris’s effortless cool stride and the momentum of us all moving into a better future. “There are very few things more exciting than seeing your work being installed on a large scale,” said Williams, known as Starbeing, whose mural for #VoicesofCle was a memorial for Desmond Franklin. Franklin was murdered by an off-duty officer in Cleveland in April, 2020. He was unarmed. Follow Williams on Instagram @starbeing.
This collaborative mural, emphasizing mercy and restorative justice and installed on the Oriana House Community Corrections Facility in Hough, was designed by Katherine Chilcote. An artist and founding director of Building Bridges Arts Collaborative, Chilcote arranged creative workshops with more than thirty men and women who were serving court sentences in two of Oriana House’s residential facilities. These workshops were led by Kisha Nicole Foster, a local poet, artist, and winner of the 2019 Cleveland Arts Prize for Emerging Artist in Literature. “In teaching poetry to them, they revealed very intimate parts of their journey. It was my privilege to walk them through their emotions and pen it to paper,” said Foster. The resulting poem, Mercy, written by Foster for the collective, is a powerful call for mercy, compassion, and kindness to accompany justice. Follow Foster on Instagram @iamkishanicolefoster. Building Bridges Art Collaborative: clevelandmurals.org.
This mural was conceived by Kevin “mister soul” Harp, a graphic artist, illustrator, and painter from Cleveland’s Lee-Harvard neighborhood, and member of Cleveland graffiti crew Cleveland Skribe Tribe led by the city’s acclaimed graffiti king, SANO. The portrait of Maya Angelou was painted by SANO himself, and the lettering was executed by Mr Soul and Dayz Whun. This particular mural was part of the 2019 Inner City Hues Project: over a dozen artists were involved in working with community residents to create public art installations on buildings located on Buckeye Road in Buckeye-Shaker. At the center of the image is Angelou, her stoic face resting on folded hands, literally surrounded by words representing both the struggles and strengths facing communities like Buckeye-Shaker. Angelou’s own words appear to the right on a large scroll and are the perfect note to end this tour: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” Follow the artists on Instagram @mrsoul216, @sanoizm, @dayzwhun.