Cleveland insider: the stories behind CLE's quirkiest public art

Most Clevelanders are familiar with the iconic Free Stamp in downtown’s Willard Park or Cleveland Venus in front of the Carl B. Stokes Court House, but those who look closely will find the 216 is peppered with unique and smaller works of public art, much of which was produced by Stephen Manka.

The native Clevelander draws inspiration from his hometown with pieces that at once evoke the area's gritty heritage while simultaneously shaping its future as part of neighborhood revitalizations. With a focus on urban design, Manka has become one of Cleveland’s most successful public artists, with installations spanning from Shaker Heights to Brooklyn Heights, and at plenty of points in-between.  

“My work is meant to bring joy and stir things up a bit,” says Manka. “I hope I can find an idea that provokes some thought or a feeling; it can be something mysterious or confrontational. Public art needs to have a little more grit and provocation.” 
Some of Manka’s noted works around town include giant dog chew toys for human seating at the Michael J. Zone Recreation Center dog park on W. 65 Street and Lorain Avenue, the Chorusline luminaries lining Playhouse Square, the Wave Length fencing in front of Cleveland Public Theatre and the Turbine sculpture in front of the Tower Press building in the Superior Arts District.

As his sculptural reach grows, Manka has been able to transform and define Cleveland’s public spaces in an occasionally subtle way, but more often in a spectacular and stunning display with offbeat Cleveland art.

“There are times when I want pieces to be a part of the environment, to be harmonious with it,” he explains. Then there are times when I want [a piece] to stand out as an odd, iconic object that is turning heads.”

Manka first realized art and design could be a rewarding career path while attending Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He then pursued and achieved a masters in architecture and urban design from Kent State University. He entered and won a few public art competitions at Kent, which provided the motivation to go out on his own to embellish Cleveland’s communal areas.

He started Manka Design Studio in 2004. Based in MidTown, the studio focuses on public sculpture. He is commissioned by area community development corporations and organizations such as LAND studio to create sculptures for Cleveland's neighborhoods.

Manka designs all of the sculptures himself then hires collaborators on a project-by-project basis. They might include metal fabricators, concrete specialists or electricians who have the equipment and expertise to help bring Manka’s designs to fruition. He wants to someday handle all of the aspects of his art, from design to construction, himself.

“My goal is to become a master of shaping things and it’s going to be a life-long pursuit,” he says.  

The biggest challenge in achieving that goal right now is designing art that can withstand the harsh Cleveland weather and the physical battering public art endures. Public sculptures are exposed to the elements year round. In Cleveland that means going from blazing heat to bitter cold, sometimes over the course of a day or two. To protect his pieces from the elements, Manka applies protective finishes on all of his art. The finish varies depending on the material. For instance, wood requires a different chemical finish than, say, a particular metal.

Making his sculptures withstand weather is only one aspect of his art’s durability. They must also be sturdy enough to stand up to curious climbing kids and vehicles scraping by as they are often installed in high pedestrian and traffic areas.

The pieces also must remain relevant over time as the city evolves around them. “I love how cities have built themselves layer after layer,” he says. “A public art piece may have been put in the 60s but it still feels right and has a place there.”    

One of Manka’s favorite projects demonstrates the necessity of durability - both figuratively and literally - in public art. University Circle commissioned him to make signature light fixtures for the neighborhood that would create a community tone. Manka completed Arc in December 2014, which is now installed on Euclid Avenue between E. 117th Street and Stokes Boulevard.

The piece is a series of metal arcs that erupt from the ground to form half circles. It represents the physical circle that is the namesake of the community and the connections between people and art that the area cultivates. During the day the metal arcs shimmer light off of their polished surfaces, while at night they are illuminated by blue and white lights, creating a streaking effect for those driving along Euclid Avenue.

“Each site demands something different,” says Manka, noting that the University Circle project had to be sturdy enough to exist among cars and people. Recently, a car did have a run-in with one of Manka’s silver arcs, but the piece withstood the hit and only required some buffing to remove the car’s red paint.

Manka enjoys seeing how people interact with and perceive his work in ways than he hadn't originally intended. “Some of the narratives try to touch on history, or some are abstract, but at the end of the day, they are what they are on their own,” he says.

One piece that has attracted many varying uses and interpretations is a hat sculpture by Manka meant to commemorate the historic Variety Theater and its renovation. The giant top hat is supported by an equally large cane and features an attached scarf, which serves as a bench for sitting.

Tentatively titled The Magic Hat, the work was installed adjacent to the Variety in fall 2015. Like the University Circle arcs, the hat sculpture has layered meanings that celebrate the neighborhood’s heritage, with nods to the area’s performance and cinematic history. The inside of the hat, for instance, is painted to model the original ceiling of the Variety Theater, which depicted blue sky and clouds. The interior of the hat can alsoserve as a projection surface.

“Layering in a bit of history, some interactivity, and then something iconic are all factors that helped shape the hat and my art in general,” says Manka. “Often there is already an aura or a psychology to a place and it has a direction it wants to go," says Manka, "so I’m simply a participant in that.”
Hilton Convention Center Hotel has commissioned Manka to produce Tresses for the lobby. The work is a sculptural metal screen that is a snapshot abstraction of Cleveland’s iconic bridges, depicting their crisscrossing connections.

“Each new project is an opportunity to be a little more provocative or to take a different angle on ideas,” says Manka, adding that the biggest challenge of the Hilton project has been working indoors when he's accustomed to creating in wide-open public places.

The screen must be engineered so it can be brought into the lobby in pieces, which has proved a challenge for Manka and his team. But the project is still on schedule for completion in April, in plenty of time to welcome Republican National Convention guests in July.

Manka’s projects have also taken him to Columbus and Chicago in pursuit of installing his work nationally. However, he will keep Manka Design Studio in Cleveland no matter how successful his work becomes.

“Cleveland is on track with other cities in providing places for public art to take place,” he says, citing the Cleveland Mall and Public Square as examples. Those opportunities coupled with calling Cleveland home are the reasons Manka has committed to making Cleveland his permanent studio headquarters.

“The best part I’ve found about being in Cleveland is that I’m helping shape it in my own small way,” he says, “It’s been great focusing my creative energies on public spaces and I have plenty more to do in finding different and interesting ways to engage people.” 

LAND Studio is part of Fresh Water's underwriting support network.