RNC delegates riding in and out of downtown Cleveland on the RTA Red Line will be treated to an art display. It will be only a fleeting glimpse, but it’s part of a public art project designed to last.
In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman takes a peek at wall murals along the rail line.
For weeks, Amber Esner has been gathering brushes and spray cans, strapping on a safety harness and riding a bucket truck up, down, and along a 40-foot retaining wall.
She’s creating art beside the rapid tracks under East 9th Street in working conditions that are less than ideal.
“You kind of get spooked every time the RTA goes past you. And then when you’re trying to move the heavy machinery , which is a first for me, which I love, it’s so much fun. But it’s so difficult trying to figure out, and the ground’s uneven. But it’s definitely a trip.”
Public-private partnership for public art
Esner is one of 19 international, national and local artists, working at 12 sites along the train tracks. They’re racing to beautify the path in time for the Republican National Convention.
The project is part of a half-million dollar initiative of the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation and the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency.
It’s managed by the non-profit LAND Studio’s Tiffany Graham.
“We use public art, urban design, community engagement and sustainable building practices to improve public spaces all throughout the city. And we’ve been working on implementing public art along the Red Line for almost two years.”
The concept predates Cleveland getting the RNC.
“It’s one of those dream projects that LAND Studio has been kind of obsessed with for a very long time. However, it was once we got the convention that we were really able to say, 'Well, let’s really make this public art plan something that comes to life.”
Red Line first
She says the decision to start with the Red Line was not a nod to Republicans.
“The line that we’re working on right now connects the airport to downtown, through many neighborhoods, and all the way out to University Circle. And this is part of the city that thousands of people see every day.”
And that 50,000 visitors coming in for the RNC are also likely to see. Delegates have been encouraged to abandon their cars.
“They’ll ride the Rapid from the airport into downtown, and then there will be delegates going out to different parts of the city, University Circle, other eastside areas where there will be convention events.”
Mix of artists
LAND Studios curatorial team chose the artists to paint the Rapid’s walls.
“Cleveland does not have the mural culture that some other cities have, so what we wanted to do was provide an opportunity for local artists to be part of this project, have their names be recognized with some of these other folks and bring some people from around the country and the world here as well.”
For Amber Esner, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, this is a new challenge.
"My full-time job is a manager at a T-shirt shop. And I’ve actually never really painted before or done, like a mural or anything like that. So this is definitely a first for me.”
But not for another artist working nearby.
“My name is Aaron Delacruz. I’m a visual artist based out of San Francisco, Calif.”
Eye-catching even for a glimpse
His mural is abstract, with geometric lines and symbols suggesting a made-up graphic language.
And it’s 90-feet tall.
“I wanted something to be, when they pass by it’s like,’Whoa, like what was that?’ And you kind of almost want to get back on the train and go the opposite way and see it again.”
LAND studios Tiffany Graham cautions that you have to be on a train to see it, "legally. As you can see that’s East 9th Street, and you can walk right down here. We would not encourage that.”
But muralists were strongly encouraged to connect their giant paintings with big ideas.
Big ideas behind the huge murals
The Cleveland Foundation wants the art to reflect the insights on racism and the diversity of winners of its annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards program, now in its 81st year.
Karen Long, manager of the awards, curated some choices to help the visual artists find inspiration in the written word.
"All art this is a leap of faith on a very grand scale, because we are moving conceptually from literature to visual. So we just threw it out there in menu form.”
Aaron De La Cruz chose the poem “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” by Delores Kendrick, "about a little girl learning how to read from a friend of hers, and she is also her slave master.”
He says he could relate because his parents never taught him their language, speaking Spanish with each other only "when they didn’t want you to know what they’re saying. So that just kind of reminded me of that feeling when people kind of speak in code around you.”
Backdrops for a national conversation
Anisfield Wolf’s Karen Long says art that recognizes literature that recognizes racism can be part of a national conversation long after the RNC.
“And the conversation is, ‘Who gets to be at the table: Who we exclude, who sits at the table and who serves at the table enters all our lives. And this art is reflective of that.”
“I’m actually excited to be doing it,” says local artist Darius Steward.
He’s grateful to have his art seen outside of a gallery.
“It’s only a handful of people that actually go to galleries. Now it’s for the everyday people. Some of the people that I talk to about in my work might actually get to see it.”
The star of Steward’s mural is a boy on a swing.
"'Swing’ talks about me as a black person, how much energy I feel like me and my friends have spent to go back and forth and end up at the same place we started.”
Steward designed his mural after reading John Edgar Wideman’s poem, “Rain:"
“Talking about this person walking in the rain eating a banana. Nothing else ended up having color besides the banana. That’s something that speaks a lot to me because that’s what my work deals with, race and social issues and identity.”
Relating beyond race
It was harder at first for Amber Esner to draw inspiration.
“A lot of the poems are about being African American, and it’s really hard for me to connect on that.” But then she turned to the last poem in Elizabeth Alexander’s book “American Sublime,” titled “The End.”
“It was about someone who had just recently lost someone, getting rid of the objects that were part of that relationship.”
“It was kind of a subject that it doesn’t matter what color you are or what race you are. That’s something we all deal with. We all deal with loss.”
She paints a set of keys on her mural, a baseball glove, a pair of shorts and a “to and from” gift tag from a friend who died.
“That was a tag that Brandon had put on a gift for me. And it’s just one of those little things that sticks around where you kind of don’t want to get rid of it.”
Then there are the things you have to get rid of. RTA’s also working to clear the Rapid tracks of weeds, tires, mattresses and fast food wrappers before the RNC.
LAND Studio’s Tiffany Graham says the public-private partnership behind the Red Line murals will stay on track. “This is not a project that will go away after the RNC.”
Public art is also planned along the Blue and Green Rapid lines.
CORRECTION: This story originally referred to "Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” by Delores Kendrick as a short story. It is a poem.