From the Catbird's Seat

Artist Daniel Dorff documents the changes at Washington Park

Daniel Dorff literally has the catbird seat from which he keeps his artist's eye on the transformation now underway in Over-the-Rhine’s Washington Park, where Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation is building an underground parking garage for patrons of Music Hall and others.

What he sees from his vantage point, on the fifth floor of a building at 14th Street, midway on the block just north of the park, is regularly recorded in charcoal drawings and in oils. And he displays them in the building, in an area he describes as “The Stairwell Gallery. Cincinnati's Guggenheim — kinda.”

The Stairwell Gallery displays a changing record of the activity in the park along with other works by Dorff. (It's open by appointment only; call 513-600-5682.)

That stairwell rises in the center of the house he and his wife, architect Martha Schickel Dorff, bought in 2004, gutted and renovated into floors for living space and work space for the two of them. (He’s also a graphic artist with various clients.) There’s also a floor rented out to a marketing company. After two years devoted to the makeover, the couple moved into the city from Loveland, where they had raised four children in wholly different surroundings.

“We had no idea then what might happen to the park, but we liked this location because Music Hall wasn't going anywhere,” Dorff says.

They had raised the roof at the front of the house and made a little terrace area where Dorff's makeshift easel, attached to the balcony railing, now is at the ready to record whatever's going on below.

The initial stage, the demolishing of Washington Park School, brought in heavy machinery to do the job. That inspired Dorff’s artistic vision.

“I always loved equipment,” he says. “These were like giants in the land, leaving big tracks. I started working in oils, then went to charcoal, which was faster and more in character with what was going on. I'd forgotten how much I love black and white. There's a certain drama to it, like black-and-white photography.”

He explains that as work went on, he took camera documentation, moving across the broad area of activity taking one picture after another. He later picked out compositions within the photos to be rendered in charcoal. Later he moved back into color with oil paints, his preferred medium, he says.

Midway through our interview, he looks out at the busy construction scene below and points to a “composition” he would like to record. “See the fellow with the hose?” he says. “See the shadows?”

He had heard work start at 3 a.m. that morning, when cooler temperatures are better for pouring concrete, and not for the first time got out of bed to see what was going on.

“You hear the beep-beep, then other noises, and there they are. I have real admiration for how hard these guys work. They keep at it; everything is moving fast.”

The beginnings of what will become columns supporting the next level of construction jut up from the floor of the new structure. Dorff points them out.

“See those reinforcement bars?” he says. “A wooden form will be built around them, and then concrete poured in. It's all noisy, it's dirty, it's progress.”

A couple of shopping carts stand near these bars; apparently they can transport building materials as efficiently as groceries.

In the park, the gazebo/bandstand remains in place, trees still stand. And beyond, forming a skyline, are downtown’s Kroger Building, Macy's headquarters and Carew Tower.

Directly below Dorff's overlook, however, is something just as compelling to the artist: the enormous excavation.

“They're on the second level now, there's another level beneath this one,” Dorff says. “It's really exciting to think what it will be like in a year. The utility poles will be gone, the wires underground, new trees planted. It's all happening so quickly.”

In his Stairwell Gallery, besides construction scenes, there are also abstractions he calls “Dream Sequences.” They are painted from memory. Asked about a painting of rusted railway wheels and axles standing in snow, he recalls that, “I almost got arrested doing that one. Homeland Security is very careful about who goes into railway yards, and when I come in with painting equipment they want to know what's going on.”

Dorff is also an accomplished guitarist, although these days he concentrates on visual art.

“I don't want to play clubs anymore,” he says. “They give you the wrong take on life. You begin to think unwinding, partying is all there is.”

The living space in the building is pleasantly domestic. The names of Dorff, his wife and each of their four children — none of whom lives there — are painted on individual stairwell risers between the fourth and fifth floor. A high chair is against a wall, ready for visiting grandchildren.

Dorff's paintings and drawings will also be seen in a show called Urbanscapes at downtown’s Cincinnati Art Galleries (225 E. Sixth St.) Aug. 19 through Sept. 16. But even as that exhibition displays what he has seen from his perch so far, it's certain that Dorff himself will be continuing to record the changes happening below his eyes.