window dressing: cleveland storefront art aims to brighten up landscape one window at a time

Civic booster Robert Carillio is quick to silence locals who denigrate his fair city, but walking down Prospect or Euclid Avenue can be a dismal trek for even the most devoted Clevelander. And nowhere is the evidence of the region's economic hits to the chin stronger than along these historic thoroughfares.

Pedestrians hunker into their overcoats against the driving January wind, passing a glum parade of signs quietly announcing "Available" and "For Lease." They pay little attention to the dingy windows and murky interiors, the white shoe polish and plywood facings.

That may be how this movie begins, but Robert Carillio and Joan Smith aim to change how it ends. They are the dynamic duo behind Cleveland Storefront Art, a small but mighty collaborative that has already begun rewriting the script. By filling the windows of vacant downtown storefronts with works of visual art, the pair is crafting a brighter landscape.

Smith, who had left a job last spring, was looking to "do something positive." She soon found herself stepping into the role of Storefront co-founder Vicky Poole, who dropped out of the project to tend other obligations. Considering Smith's personal pet peeve was empty storefronts, it was an ideal fit to say the least.

"It's one of those things that bother you," says Smith of downtown's vacant storefronts. "Kind of like plastic bags in trees." While she admits that getting those irritating blue slips of plastic from branches isn't always possible, filling windows with visual interest is.

Smith describes the process as equal parts networking and housekeeping. "I start cold calling," says the native Clevelander. "I enjoy the puzzle of connecting [vacant] properties with artists and non-profits." From there it's a matter of coordinating installations, helping transport components, and preparing the windows and spaces. "To clean those windows inspires me. To remind people that no job is beneath someone; that it is a means to an end -- a better Cleveland."

Smith's effervescence is matched only by Carillio's unwavering civic pride. The local environmentalist and Cleveland advocate maintains that this town has paid its dues and deserves respect.

"These cities built the country," says Carillio of Rust Belt towns like Cleveland. While restoring self-respect for the North Coast and its denizens may sound a daunting task, the Lakewood resident believes the subtle art of window dressing is a small step that can produce big results.

Calling it a "win-win-win," he details the benefits of Cleveland Storefront Art. For the city, "it generates a much more vibrant look -- an alive, awake, happening look." Carillio adds that the artists enjoy free public exposure while the property owners get cleaner, more presentable spaces to market. Participation is free. All of Smith's and Carillio's efforts are done on a volunteer basis.

Installations include the Halle Building's "Mosaic Masterpiece," a collaborative effort of 70 artists that merges dozens of painted panels into one large Mona Lisa. Coordinated by Community Artworks, The da Vinci redux evokes the grandeur of Euclid Avenue's heyday.

At the Statler, the ultra-hip "Clevetion Glass" adds a bit of colorful glitter thanks to the Glass Bubble Project. And while there may no longer be platters of pasta puttanesca within the walls of The New York Spaghetti House, the restaurant's diamond-paned windows now shimmer with color and vitality thanks to Smith herself. The vibrantly hued tissue-paper installation, says Smith, is her way of "giving that Hansel and Gretel cottage a hug."

The largest effort to date, however, resides at 811 Prospect Avenue, where a two-story multi-paneled creation seems ripped from the pages of a comic book. That's because it is. The display features "Apama," a Cleveland-based superhero that is the protagonist of local artist Ted Sikora's comic book "Apama: The Undiscovered Animal."

The must-see installation is a feast for the eyes, where the real-world Apama battles streetside blight with ink and lines rather than slings and arrows.

Sikora says that his fictional creation began assisting unsuspecting Clevelanders as soon as he hit the streets.

"Within 15 minutes," reports Sikora, "two rappers came up [to the installation]. One guy started rapping and the other guy videotaped him."

"There's a righteous soul there," says Sikora of his Apama, "and if you're in trouble, that Native American spirit may swoop in and save you."

Saving the whole of downtown may be a tall order, Apama's efforts notwithstanding, but Cleveland Storefront Art is starting here and starting now. And starting to make a difference.

"I'm very pleased with what they came up with down at the 811 Prospect building," says Joe Ditchman of Ostendorf-Morris, the vacant property's owner. "It has stemmed a lot of conversations. And yes, we do have somebody interested in the building."

"It all works out for everybody's benefit," adds Ditchman.

Sounds like what Carillio might call a "win-win-win" situation.

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Photography by  Bob Perkoski
- Photos 1 & 2: Joan Smith at the Halle Bldg with work by artist Phyllis Bako
- Photos 3 &4: 
Joan Smith at the Halle Bldg with Mosiac Masterpiece by Community Arts Project Foundation
- Photo 5: Work by artist Charmaine Spencer at the 
Statler Building 1127 Euclid
- Photo 6: Windows by Joan Smith at the old 
New York Spaghetti House 2173 East 9th Street
- Photos 7 & 8: Hero Tomorrow/Apama by Ted Sikora at 
811 Prospect
- Photo 9: 
Access for All, several non-profits involved at 
1100 Prospect

Erin O'Brien
Erin O'Brien

About the Author: Erin O'Brien

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit for complete profile information.