#VoicesofCLE: Downtown art project gives voice to an unheard population

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police not only sparked protests worldwide, it catalyzed vital communication on what it means to be a person of color in America.

A new initiative from a collage of Cleveland groups is using art to elevate the community’s previously unheard (or purposefully ignored) voices, intending to keep the conversation on racial equality going well into the future.


Artist Rashaun Dillard with his mural at the 5th Street Arcades.The #VoicesofCLE public art project launched in late June and was organized by the City of Cleveland, Ingenuity Cleveland, Karamu House, Destination Cleveland, Cleveland Public Library, Downtown Cleveland Alliance, and LAND studio.


The effort is beautifying boarded-up downtown storefronts damaged during the May 30 protests—using panel installations that will stay in place until those businesses reopen.


Installations will then be archived before finding permanent homes at venues throughout the city.


Artist Rashaun Dillard was recently putting the finishing touches on a mural at the 5th Street Arcades. The acrylic-on-wood work depicts a black woman with flowers in her hair and a broken heart. Though her natural eyes are closed, she has a third eye that clearly recognizes the state of the world.


Dillard, a native of Cleveland’s Buckeye-Woodland neighborhood, says he hopes the mural raises local consciousness about the decades-long issues people of color have endured with police.


“She can close her eyes and not see what’s going on, but the third eye signifies awareness,” Dillard says. “I’m a Black man—I’ve experienced this type of treatment throughout my life. I was naïve to think people were oblivious to it, but after the protests, I learned there were a lot of people who had no idea it was going on.”


#VoicesofCLE attempts to provide a platform for expression and healing, while offering an avenue for artists to share views about police conduct—a difficult topic that Dillard believes can be more easily broached through public art.


“Sometimes you can’t just come out and tell people exactly how you feel,” he says. “You have to put in some sugar with the medicine to slowly bring people into the conversation.”


Though the collaboration between businesses and artists has already started, project newbies can sign up to be added to a database of artists willing to create murals.


The alliance is also conferring with African American artists and activist groups to give underrepresented populations the platforms they deserve, notes Emily Applebaum, artistic director of Ingenuity Cleveland.


“All of these groups know each other and have a working relationship, so that’s helped us come together and get something off the ground that’s flexible and responsive to community input,” says Applebaum. “This will continue to differentiate the project as we go forward.”


Nearly 20 art installations are set to appear from Public Square to North Coast Harbor—ideally producing peaceful debate around social justice.Additional Cleveland artists involved with the project include Stina Aleah, Jordan Serpentini, Isaiah "Starbeing" Williams, Brandon Graves, and the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition.



In the coming months damaged buildings will be repaired, even as critical discussions on racial equity continue.


Nearly 20 art installations are set to appear from Public Square to North Coast Harbor—ideally producing peaceful debate around social justice in an era where the protests’ initial violence dominated the news cycle.


“We want this project to endure over the months and beyond,” Applebaum says. “We need to keep this conversation relevant once the windows are replaced. This is an issue important to everyone.”


Dillard, who like his fellow #VoicesofCLE artists is paid for his involvement, compares the Arcade’s reclamation to a society in need of repair. While art is no substitute for justice, it can be a foundation for understanding, he believes.


“[Businesses] are beat up and under construction, and this project is trying to replace windows with something positive,” Dillard says. “It’s analogous to coming together and fixing this busted-out window we call America.”

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.