5 up-and-coming artists to watch in Cleveland

Cleveland has long been known for its world-class art museum as well as vibrant venues like SPACES gallery and MOCA Cleveland. Yet with a successful Front Triennial in the books, plus programs like Creative Fusion and high-concept public art adorning the city's public spaces, Cleveland is also increasingly seen as being welcoming to new, up-and-coming artists.

Despite the perennial (and, by all accounts, legitimate) complaint that the gallery art scene here is not as strong as it is in many other cities, Cleveland's art scene has certainly risen, and we've got many organizations to help artists succeed. In celebration of the city’s long-simmering creative visual arts landscape, we've selected 5 up-and-coming artists to watch.

Galvanizing Glenville

Gary Williams and Robin Robinson with “Our Lives Matter,” a mural at East 105th St. and Yale AvenueRobin Robinson and Gary Williams cut their teeth training under the leadership of Philadelphia-based “godfather of street art” Kent Twitchell, who added a giant, 40-foot-tall mural of Cleveland-born actress Ruby Dee to Karamu House in 2013.

Now, the two African-American artists have turned their attention to brightening historic East 105th Street in Glenville with eye-catching street art. As leaders of Sankofa Fine Arts, they’ve installed a half-dozen murals on the beleaguered boulevard north of Superior Avenue, involving the community at every step of the art making process.

“Our Lives Matter,” a mural at East 105th Street and Yale Avenue, features a black male wearing a hoodie surrounded by his wife and two children. Devised to challenge stereotypes of black males following the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice, the piece has generated an amazing community response.

“A woman comes up crying at the opening and says, ‘We all need to know our lives matter,’” says Robinson. “’The police need to know, but we need to know, too.’”

The artists hope to use murals to revitalize East 105th Street and create some positive momentum for Glenville, which is being redeveloped south of Superior close to University Circle. “We want people to look at the murals and feel better about themselves, and have more pride in the neighborhood,” says Robinson.

<span class="content-image-text">Leigh Bongiorno</span>Leigh BongiornoAmerican Portraits

When she lived in Los Angeles, the artist Leigh Bongiorno used to take street photographs of homeless people living on Skid Row. After explaining what she was doing and giving them her card, she’d spend months in her studio painting portraits from the photos, which she hoped would shed light on the issue of homelessness.

The 2011 Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA) grad, who worked in biomedical illustration before turning to portraiture, says her paintings represent marginalized or underrepresented voices in society. Through her art, she seeks to raise awareness and understanding of those individuals and transform how society sees them.

“All our work should reflect the times,” says the Cleveland native, who has exhibited her work at the Makeshift Museum in Los Angeles, Cleveland Institute of Art, the U.S. Capitol Building, Alliance Gallery in New York, and others. “Otherwise, it’s just decorative.”

Recently, Bongiorno's work “American Portrait” was featured on a billboard in Miami, Florida during Art Basel, of the biggest art fairs in the world. In the portrait, a woman grimly holds a rifle in a post-apocalyptic urban setting. Underneath her confused, battered expression, a target is painted on her chest and stuffed animals of shooting victims lie at her feet. It's a powerful take on the effects of gun violence on our society.

Last year, Bongiorno was one of 25 visual artists selected to have her work displayed on RTA’s Red Line as part of the InterUrban project sponsored by LAND studio in partnership with the City of Cleveland, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA), NOACA, Anisfield-Wolf and The Cleveland Foundation.

Although the artist says that Cleveland’s art market is not nearly as developed as New York or other larger cities, our cheap cost of living helps make up for it. “It’s a good place because real estate is a lot cheaper, and you can have a big affordable studio,” she says. “If you live in Manhattan, that’s a lot harder.”

<span class="content-image-text">Amanda D. King</span>Amanda D. KingEliminating Barriers

Amanda King started Shooting Without Bullets in response to police violence against young people in Cleveland. With young people of color underrepresented in the visual arts and systemic racism holding them back, she saw a need for a program to help young artists thrive. Now a nonprofit organization, Shooting Without Bullets provides public arts programs for young people of color ages 13-17 as well as an artist collective for young artists ages 18-21.

“We work to eliminate the systemic barriers that help black and brown youth from thriving,” says King, a photographer who went to law school before starting a nonprofit. Shooting Without Bullets recently held a 12-week public art class aimed at helping young female artists to combat racial and gender disparity. The young people designed a public transit shelter that would also serve as an art gallery. It was given conceptual approval by the city planning commission and King is now looking for a site for the public artwork.

“The girls said, ‘Hey, why can’t we have a space where black women and artists of color can put their work? We don’t need to be in CMA,’” says King. "They walked away with a little money in their pockets but a lot more confidence."

The work doesn’t end there. Shooting Without Bullets’ artist collective helps college-aged artists to navigate everything from negotiating public art contracts to finalizing a project for a client.

King is also a forceful artist in her own right, and last year exhibited work as part of Michael Rakowitz’s “A Color Removed” at SPACES during Front Triennial. This month, she’s exhibiting her photographs as part of an ongoing residency at Karamu House. Her installation “To Be Born _____” features self-portraiture that aims to reclaim representations of black women by white male artists.

<span class="content-image-text">Malaz Elgemiabby</span>Malaz ElgemiabbyWelcome to Irishtown Bend

Malaz Elgemiabby is a Sudanese-born architect who is helping to design a new welcome center for Irishtown Bend, the historic 17-acre site that was once home to Irish immigrants and connects Ohio City to the Flats, downtown and Lake Erie.

The artist, who has lived in several cities in the Middle East and Europe, says that she “loves being in places that are at the verge of becoming, of change” such as Cleveland, which she says reminds her of Qatar. As Ohio City and other neighborhoods experience a wave of redevelopment, she says she’s interested in exploring how to create something new that still honors what’s here.

Elgemiabby recently completed a six-month engagement process as part of the Creative Fusion “Waterways to Waterways” project. She conducted over 200 interviews and held four design charettes. As a result, four core values were identified – community, inclusivity, diversity and dignity. She’s now working to design a welcome center that will become a performance space for music, a storytelling museum about the history of Irishtown Bend, a community kitchen connected to Ohio City farm, and a large rooftop viewing platform where both visitors and residents can enjoy some of the best views of the city.

Although specifics about the welcome center are still being developed, project leaders are hoping to test program ideas out of the existing Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority (CMHA) community center. In an upcoming exhibition, "OUT Print / IN Print," set to debut August 1st, Elgemiabby will wrap the building in photos taken by Ohio City residents. The project is based on the global art project “The Inside Out Project” by the French artist JR.

“We’re hosting an exhibition by members of the community, which will allow them to explore the meaning of dignity through their own lens,” she says.

Lee Chilcote
Lee Chilcote

About the Author: Lee Chilcote

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.