An inside look at the 12 Learning Lab projects beautifying and inspiring Cleveland


Northeast Ohio’s nonprofit civic organizations and community development corporations are constantly looking for ways to make our communities safer, better, and more appealing. In turn, many area artists are also looking to make their own impact on their communities.

Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) created an intersection for these desires last fall when the organization partnered with the Center for Performance and Civic Practice (CPCP) to introduce the Learning Lab and unite artists and nonprofits in a common mission.

“At Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, we know artists have a unique set of skills that can help to transform our community,” says Jill Paulsen, CAC interim CEO and executive director. “We were so pleased to bring CPCP, a longtime partner, to hold a Learning Lab here because the Lab provides a space where artists and nonprofits can come together to learn and create.”

Twelve artists were chosen to participate in the CAC Learning Lab last November, during which they participated in three daylong sessions with members of 11 selected nonprofit groups for an opportunity to partner on creative projects.

Learning Lab also used local nonprofits serve as mentor organizations and provide local content and share feedback. Organizations included representatives from LAND studio, Cleveland Public Theater, Twelve Literary Arts, Djapo Cultural Arts Institute, and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress.

All 12 artists ended up pairing with a local organization after attending Learning Lab. Through a matchmarking process, both the artists and the nonprofits listed their top three choices and were matched by CPCP to co-create a civic practice project based on what they learned in the Lab.

CAC provided $7,500 grants for each of the 12 projects—with $4,500 of that grant going to the artist. The projects range from placemaking and public art to music and interactive dance. All the projects are transforming Cleveland’s neighborhoods into better places to live, work, and play.


Here’s a look at just a few projects that came out of the first CAC and CPCP Learning Lab.
(See the sidebar for the full list.)

Nature meets augmented reality

For years, Cleveland Heights residents have been trying to figure out what to do with a small bit of land that used to be Cedarbrook Road and now runs between the city parking lot between Cedar and Tullamore Roads through to Lee Road.

Most Lee Road shoppers use it as a cut-through to visit nearby Lee Road merchants like Boss Dog Brewing Company and the Cedar Lee Theatre, but conversations on how to beautify the strip have met little action.

Working on the Cedar Lee Mini-ParkFriends of the Cedar Lee Mini-Park was formed in hopes of promoting biodiversity in the strip and installing native plantings, but the money wasn’t there to do too much development, says Sruti Basu, director of community building programs with FutureHeights. “Friends of the Cedar Lee Mini-Park did plantings, FutureHeights did plantings,” she says. “It sat there, and nothing was done [to take care of it].”

But now FutureHeights has teamed up with artist and outdoor educator Tom Masaveg, who will work with a group of four Heights High School students to create an interactive, family-friendly space that incorporates augmented reality into murals and signage.

The partnership came about after Masaveg met FutureHeights executive director Deanna Bremer Fisher at Learning Lab. Basu says Masaveg “checked all the boxes” for what they were looking for in an artist who could really transform the mini-park once and for all.

The participating students are now considered ambassadors to the mini-park and are part of the newly-created Cedarbrook Society, which is raising money for the work that needs to be done.

Plans include a mural on the side of the Heights Arts building, that will simply resemble a painted mural at first, but will incorporate augmented reality. “It might grow, it might transform,” promises Masaveg. “I wanted a way to do something new. The plan is the tree will grow and we will add to it over time.”

Signage at the mini-park will also be activated with augmented reality, where visitors can point their phones at the signs to receive more information. “We’re trying to make it exciting,” Masaveg says.

Basu says smaller improvements for the space include regular plantings of native plants and flowers that attract butterflies, café tables and chairs, better lighting, and repairs of the stairs that lead into the park from the parking lot.

“It will definitely be incremental,” she says, adding that they are working on getting plant donations from nearby Home Depot and that City Architecture made renderings based on input gathered at the visioning sessions.

Other plans for the Cedar Lee Mini-Park include a stage for performances, an outdoor gallery for Height Arts shows, additional seating, and a programming area.
 

A once and future neighborhood

The Mt. Pleasant neighborhood was once considered the pride of Cleveland. It was the first Cleveland neighborhood where African-American homeowners actually owned the land that they built houses on, and prominent Cleveland leaders like Carl Stokes called the neighborhood home.

Mt. Pleasant NOW“Very prominent people came through the Mt. Pleasant area. Now, there’s poverty, unemployment, gang violence,” says Michelle Brown, Mt. Pleasant NOW Development Corporation’s (MPNDC) director of community engagement, arts, and culture. “But it wasn’t always like that. It was a vibrant neighborhood.”

And hope still remains in Mt. Pleasant. When Brown attended Learning Lab, she met mr.soul, a graphic artist and a member of CAC’s 2016 Support for Artists Planning Team, formed to ensure equity in the arts. The two realized they had a common vision for Mt. Pleasant’s renaissance involving art, and both designated the other as their "first choice" during the Learning Lab matchmaking process.

“We do know that art brings vibrance,” says Brown. “We do know that art in other cities has brought investment. This is a catalyst—not just for the community and our agency, but for the artists.”

mr.soulmr.soul is now one of four artists working to create change in Mt. Pleasant via the Asomdwee Arts project.

“’Asomdwee’ means 'peace' in the West Ghana language," explains Brown. “By injecting African-American history into the mural, the artist is reminding the Mt. Pleasant community of its rich history within the City of Cleveland.”

The mural will cover the walls of the entire MPNDC lobby at 13815 Kinsman Road. Throughout the mural, mr.soul will depict Mt. Pleasant’s rich history and culture, the current conditions, and, most-importantly, the hope for a bright future.

“MPNDC is excited to work with local African-American artists to provide a catalyst of hope for major art projects that will enhance the Mt. Pleasant community and bring back private investment, highlight the rich African-American culture, and empower the community to know that their best days are not behind them, but are soon to come to fruition,” says Brown. 

Movement meets textiles

Thanks to two separate CAC grants, FrontLine Service will be working with two different artists. FrontLine is Ohio’s largest continuum of care agency that addresses mental health issues and violence among the homeless, and also runs Cuyahoga County’s crisis hotline.

Jordan Rush, FrontLine’s volunteer coordinator, says the agency wanted to incorporate the arts into its programming and Learning Lab was the perfect opportunity. “CAC brought together an interesting mix of artists,” he says. “I was expecting just visual artists, but that’s not the case.”

Elaine Hullihen at last year's Rooms to Let eventMultimedia artist Elaine Hullihen explores movement and ties it into creating physical works using texture. Her project is titled Stitching the Fabric of Community with Movement and Art.

“The whole goal of the project is to create a sense of community within the permanent housing units, while [providing] a way of de-stressing,” she says. 

In a seven-week program, Hullihen begins with fun relaxation classes. “It’s a combination of mindfulness, breathing, relaxing, and creating with some kind of silly and fun [exercises] mixed into it,” she explains. “Halfway through [the course], I’ll bring in fabric. I do crocheting, which is mindful artwork, as a way of relaxing.”

Hullihen says ultimately the students will create a fabric mural, which will be installed on the walls of the FrontLine lobby. “That way, there is a sense of community in seeing something they did together,” she says.

Rush says the impact Hullihen has made at FrontLine has been invaluable. “It’s been interesting to see how clients respond when Elaine is here,” he says. “They are incredibly engaged.”

Sharing stories of homelessness

Meanwhile, through a separate CAC grant, storyteller and affiliate co-director of the National Association of Black Storytellers Oluremi Ann Oliver has also paired with FrontLine. Oliver works with clients within its permanent housing units by hosting storytelling circles in a safe, trauma-informed space, entitled Creating Community by Hearing Each Other.

Oluremi Ann Oliver


Oliver works with groups of 30 people to tell their stories—not to relive their traumas, she emphasizes, but to see what is in their cores and has helped them exist.

“What is amazing is the willingness of people to do that kind of introspection, to be vulnerable, and expose themselves to the group,” Oliver says. “Often, they’ll say, ‘This is the first time I’m sharing this with anyone.’”

Oliver says that while storytelling is often thought of simply as entertainment, the value in sharing a personal story allows people to make themselves vulnerable and open up within a safe space. “I’m not a therapist, but storytelling has the potential for that,” she says. “My aspirations have always been to be a service. Learning Lab was fabulous for that."

Rush says Oliver had agreed to write down some of the stories told in the circle and publish a book for the agency to use for future employees as an introduction to some of the struggles their clients face.

Next steps

The benefits of the Learning Lab have been two-fold: organizations learned the value of working with local artists, and artists are now equipped to more effectively market themselves for civic projects.


“The result is not only artists and nonprofit leaders who are better positioned to collaborate and serve residents, but [starting] new projects that we never could have imagined,” says Paulsen. “Now, with a grant from CAC, these co-created projects are improving public spaces, intentionally supporting more artists of color, and challenging us to see the world around us in new ways.”

Overall, Learning Lab has been so successful that CAC will partner with CPCP again this November. “We look forward to holding a second CPCP Learning Lab later this year,"  says Paulsen, "and to supporting more artists in using their creative abilities to make change in Cuyahoga County."

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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