Art: Coming to a Building Near You

MuralWorks changes the lives of teen apprentices and community residents

Aug 20, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jelly Terkelsen

Local teens work together on the Roselawn mural, part of ArtWorks' MuralWorks summer program.

Does art have the power to change the way we look at our communities and ourselves? By creating collaborations among local residents, community leaders, businesses, artists and teens in their latest project, ArtWorks certainly thinks so.

This is the inaugural year for the new MuralWorks program, which employs teen artists to paint murals throughout the city — with results that hopefully will be around for a long time. In fact, ArtWorks Executive Director Tamara Harkavy's ambitious yet attainable goal is to eventually reach every neighborhood in Cincinnati.

Seeing how MuralWorks is the brainchild of both ArtWorks and Mayor Mark Mallory, who was inspired by Philadelphia's Mural Arts Program, this goal seems to have a viable shot at actually being achieved.

This summer's first wave of murals was selected through an application process in which neighborhoods were chosen with the consideration of community value and sustainability. Out of 15 applicants, the seven neighborhoods ultimately chosen for round one (June 18-July 27) were the Central Business District, Clifton, Madisonville, Millvale, Over-the-Rhine, Roselawn and Walnut Hills. Three more will go up this fall in Northside, Price Hill and Over-the-Rhine.

Not only are these murals placed in local communities, they're designed with resident feedback and each neighborhood's unique character in mind. Indeed, community engagement seems to be a central theme here.

Project managers — local artists who led the teen apprentices — consulted with community groups and designed each mural with regard to what those residents wanted to see in their neighborhoods. The resultant works range from photographic realism with a direct link to the community's past and/or present to more abstract, interpretive representations of the neighborhood's history and personality.

After spending a day driving around town to check out each piece (except Clifton's, which will be installed this week at the Ludlow Avenue IGA), I was impressed by the incredibly creative compositions, diversity and masterful execution of each mural.

My first stop was Millvale, where the chosen site is the side of the bustling Millvale Community Center. I spoke briefly with Project Manager Scott Donaldson, who told me about the meaning behind the piece, which highlights the center's activities and people.

Education, mentoring, boxing, dance and camping — just a few of the activities the center is known for — are all represented in lifelike portraits of the actual people who frequent it.

Luckiest of all is Antonio, an avid swimmer whose 10-by 15-foot portrait is the focal piece of the mural. This work represents perhaps the most visible example of intense community involvement, not only in the portraits and activity-centered theme, but also by the fact that the kids who regularly use the center were curious throughout the painting process, always wanting to grab a brush and help out.

The most dynamic and interesting pieces are located in Over-the-Rhine, Roselawn, Walnut Hills and Madisonville.

Of this group, Over-the-Rhine is the only work exuding a photographic-like quality of realism. The piece is, in fact, a replication of an old photograph showing how this site looked more than a century ago: Workmen are seated on a barge on the Erie Canal, which was eventually paved over to create Central Parkway, where the mural is situated today.

The Roselawn, Walnut Hills and Madisonville murals, on the other hand, are far less straightforward.

If I hadn't spoken with Harkavy, for example, I probably wouldn't have immediately recognized Roselawn's mural as a nod to the neighborhood's eclectic population and evolution. Nor would I have known that the Walnut Hills piece addresses the community's pivotal role in the Underground Railroad while expressing its aspirations for the future.

In the end, it doesn't really matter if you get the message or not. These murals stand alone as exceptional, stimulating works of art beyond what they might stand for.

This seems to be the direction that Harkavy would like to take MuralWorks in the future. She wants the project to "break boundaries" and to produce more "provocative, engaging art." I love the idea, and if I were a teen with a shred of artistic capability I'd definitely apply for the next round.

Besides the fact that MuralWorks creates some vibrant public art that engages and involves the host communities, another big plus is the beneficial career training the teen apprentices receive. (See the related story "We Are ArtWorks" on page 46.)

In order to be accepted to this competitive six-week project, candidates submitted a portfolio and went through an interview process. Once accepted, they presented the polished mural design in a professional setting to their "clients" (the community board) before revising and beginning to paint.

Those teens might not realize how fortunate they are to have received this kind of preparation until they're interviewing for their first job out of college and realize that Ice Skating 101 did nothing to prepare them for this moment. Or maybe that was just me. In any case, such practical familiarity definitely gives them an advantage.

For Business District apprentice Catherine Stein, the positive community impact was the most valuable aspect of taking part in MuralWorks. She noted the privilege of participating in a project that's "doing something beautiful and important" and feels a great sense of accomplishment from her experience.

From what I've seen and heard thus far, these works of art will not only serve to beautify the urban environment but will also have the potential to act as an agent of change for the teens who work on them. They might even help change those in the community who will live with the mural from here on out.

Specific MURALWORKS locations can be found here: