ArtWorks Focuses on Social Justice with its 200th Mural

“Time Saved vs. Time Served" features five formerly incarcerated, returning citizens — each now deeply involved in social justice causes — including mural artistic director Tyra Patterson, who was in prison for 23 years for crimes she did not commit.

Nov 6, 2020 at 2:57 pm
click to enlarge "Time Saved vs. Time Served" - Photo: Louis Rideout // Provided by ArtWorks
Photo: Louis Rideout // Provided by ArtWorks
"Time Saved vs. Time Served"

It’s almost impossible to walk through downtown Cincinnati without noticing a mural. Thanks to ArtWorks, the Queen City is home to dozens upon dozens of them, as varied in location as they are in theme. 

ArtWorks dedicated its 200th mural in a ceremony on Oct. 24. That’s the 200th mural the nonprofit has created in the 13 years since the public art program started, which means ArtWorks has been creating an average of 15.4 murals annually since 2007. (ArtWorks itself was founded in 1996.)

“When we launched, I never guessed we’d be at 200 in 13 years,” says former Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory, who challenged ArtWorks to create a mural in each of Cincinnati’s 52 neighborhoods after he saw a similar program in Philadelphia. “It’s a phenomenal number, and it really speaks to the drive and the commitment that ArtWorks has for the work that they do.”

According to ArtWorks’ website, they have more than halfway met Mallory’s request, painting murals in 36 neighborhoods and seven cities nearby.

In 2007, ArtWorks CEO Colleen Houston — then the director of programs — was selected to launch the initiative. ArtWorks organizes and funds the murals, but hundreds of local citizens and artists from around the world are also to thank for these public works. 

“There are probably one hundred people that are invested in making every single mural happen,” Houston says. 

The process includes a year’s worth of planning and fundraising with community partners, collaboration with the property owner and adjacent property owners, and the hard work of an average of 12 to 15 artists, including youth apprentices, per project.

“There is a collective pride and a collective ownership in each work of art,” Houston says.

The 200th ArtWorks mural, titled “Time Saved vs. Time Served,” is part of the current season, themed “New Voices.”

“It’s all about really looking at voices throughout our community that aren’t heard as much,” Houston says. 

In this case, the voices receiving a platform through the mural are those of returning citizens — formerly incarcerated people — who are often stigmatized and given fewer opportunities than others in the community. The concept for this milestone mural came from Tyra Patterson, the project’s artistic director, who has a personal story that leaves her deeply invested in social justice causes. 

In 1994, Patterson was arrested and ultimately incarcerated for murder and robbery, both crimes she did not commit. She was in prison for 23 years.

“I wanted to know what went wrong with my case,” Patterson says. “In order for me to do that, I had to educate myself, so I became like the prison advocacy warrior.” 

Patterson cites a famous Shirley Chisholm quote as her mantra: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

“I wanted to be at the tables when people are making decisions about things that impact us,” she says. “I personally feel that we’re the subject matters and we need to be in that space.”

Patterson now works as the Community Outreach Strategy Specialist at the Ohio Justice & Policy Center, and is an ambassador for Represent Justice. A few years ago, she was in Philadelphia for a speaking engagement and, like Mallory, was struck by the murals. She met artist Russell Craig, a returning citizen involved in the Philadelphia mural scene, and asked him to show her around the social justice murals.  

“It inspired me even more,” Patterson says. “I said ‘This needs to be imprinted everywhere.’ ”

Patterson approached ArtWorks with her idea. She also specifically requested that all hired artists be returning citizens. She and Craig co-directed and developed the design concept together.

“This is the first mural where we’ve been really intentional about hiring returning citizens,” Houston says. “I think creating meaningful jobs and employment for returning citizens was critical to the mission.” 

One of Patterson’s biggest goals is to help destigmatize those who have served time. Both lead artists and the teaching artists had served time in prison, which gave the youth apprentices an opportunity to see returning citizens in a leadership role.

“This has never happened — them hiring a returning citizen (in these roles),” Patterson says. “It sparked the right conversation, especially at a time like this with systemic change. So ArtWorks was brilliant in this and I couldn’t be more grateful.” 

“Time Saved vs. Time Served,” delivers a powerful message with multiple layers. On a building at 235 W. Court St., portraits of five smiling women — one of them Patterson herself — sit beneath the scales of justice, circling an Ohio-shaped clock marked by fives to represent prison sentences. Each woman in the mural is a returning citizen, and each is deeply involved in social justice causes. 

“I picked them strategically because I wanted their voices to be heard,” Patterson says. 

According to The Sentencing Project, the number of incarcerated women has increased by 750% since 1980. Whether they have made mistakes or were wrongfully convicted, Patterson believes in providing resources and opportunities that will help them succeed in reentry. 

“I wanted people to know that just because somebody made a mistake, they still need to be humanized for that,” she says. “If people don’t understand the legalese, they will understand art.”

Prior to the mural project, public art was a small piece of the ArtWorks pie, but it was one of Houston’s favorite pieces.

“I felt like public art was a huge opportunity to coordinate high-impact projects,” she says. “There’s so much talent in our city. There’s incredible artists, and I just felt like there was so much potential to elevate that.”

Houston has a background in social and public art — and spent some time as an ArtWorks youth apprentice — so she was well qualified for her role, but she attributes a lot of the vision to Mallory.

“I love how high he set the bar,” she says, “really thinking about art for all, and really high-quality art, and art that employs youth.”

Being one of the driving forces behind the mural program is something Mallory is still proud of.

“When you’re in a leadership position and you make decisions, sometimes the decisions you make fall by the wayside,” Mallory says. “With ArtWorks...there’s a visual impact, there’s a visual representation of those decisions, and those murals are going to live on for years.”

The ArtWorks mural program continues to turn heads — and not just those of passersby visiting the city. This year, Cincinnati earned 20th place on the annual SMU DataArts’ Arts Vibrancy Index, which “identifies the 40 most arts-vibrant communities across the U.S.” This was ArtWorks’ first time in the top 20. The mural program was highlighted as one facet that makes Cincinnati stand out from the other over 900 metros evaluated for the list.

“People coming here from other places, from around the country, and from around the world, seeing those murals and getting the impact that that art represents — that is impossible to measure,” Mallory says.

For more about ArtWorks, their mission and to find the locations of all 200 murals — or book a mural tour — visit