Monday, December 31, 2007

What Will Become of Willson?

Driving down East 55th Street the other day, a route I take rather often, I was struck by the appearance of Willson school. Closed in 2005 to be rebuilt in a different location, the abandoned building is rapidly falling into disrepair. For more than two years now, local vandals have had ample opportunity to take what was once a solid old building, a Cleveland landmark, and destroy it little by little.

How long will the school district let this go on? Is the building for sale? Are they waiting until it is so far gone that the only option is demolition? Does a developer in cahoots with officials already have their eye on the land, but want it at a blighted bargain price?

The longer it sits, the cheaper it gets.

What if, instead, the city made this a small business incubator? For the first two or three years the lease would be paid for by elbow work, then once the business had a chance to start making money, the city could start charging a nominal rent, increasing it gradually until the tenents were paying market rate. In just a few years time, the building would be in better shape, and the city would have a number of new businesses.

Cleveland has been very generous to the big real estate developers over the past few decades, doling out financial incentives and tax abatements for projects that have had marginal to, debatably, negative economic impact on the Cleveland residents. Perhaps if city leaders were as generous to the entrepreneur and the small businessman, Cleveland could become a hub for start-up companies, fresh ideas, real ingenuity, and ultimately, real jobs.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Many people are uncomfortable with cemeteries, and do their best to avoid them.

I am the other type of person. I find cemeteries fascinating. The sense of history and the connectedness I feel with those who have lived before me draws me to wander along the quiet lanes pausing to read the names and contemplate what stories lie buried beneath the headstones.

Today, just like many other days, I drove through Lakeview Cemetery on my way home from downtown; not as a short-cut mind you, rather I took the long, scenic route, past Wade Chapel and along the narrow trail that leads to the bottom of the dam, then back up the hill to President Garfield's tomb.

I expected the cemetery to be dismal and dreary on this cold, wet, winter afternoon. But instead, I was struck by sight of red ribbon and holiday greenery adorning grave after grave.

Each wreath, poinsettia, tiny Christmas tree, or plastic Santa, represented a relationship that continued to be cherished, even after death.

During the first few weeks of December, I listened to several of my younger colleagues complain about the dreaded, obligatory, family gatherings.

Demanding fathers, intrusive mothers, kooky aunts, and annoying siblings. The stress of interacting with all of these relatives in such close quarters was said to be the sole explanation for the popularity of eggnog.

I used to feel the same way, until the first Christmas without my mom. Suddenly there was a hole in our family. Christmas would never be the same again.

Dad still puts up a tree, and my brothers and sister and I still gather together for a holiday meal and exchange gifts. But even after twelve years, the memory of my mother's laughter, her goofy little songs and dances, and the thoughtful way she took the time to make sure everybody felt special, still makes my heart ache from missing her.

My trip through Lakeview Cemetery today put me in touch with the ghosts of my Christmas past, and gently reminded me to cherish my family and loved ones who are here celebrating the holidays today, no matter how frustrating they might be.

Make the most of the time you can spend together.
Make good memories, because one day the memories will be all you have left.

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Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas in Cleveland: West Side Style

They can be spotted from blocks away, exploding with electric Christmas color, unfettered holiday spirit, and every brilliant bit of discount drugstore decor ever sold, illuminating the night these last few weeks of the year. Tiny city lots with hardly enough space for a bed of petunias in the summer, come December, sprout crops of candy canes and nutcracker soldiers, inflatable snowmen and giant snow globes. Every square foot that can be adorned is arrayed in festive glitz. The snobbishly aesthetic are horrified by the excess, but I am both amazed and intrigued.

Each year my best friend, Susan, and I dedicate one evening to our holiday light tour. Never interested in the placidly pretty, we steer away from the white mini-lights of the ever-so-tasteful suburbs and head into the city. For the most part, the west side of Cleveland tends to be more exuberant in their displays than the east side, although Slavic Village on the south side of town has a good number of folks who go all-out, layering their yards with decorations from several holidays. Who ever came up with that stupid concept of "less is more" ? I'm willing to bet they weren't from Cleveland.

We used to take our children with us, before they became teenagers and had cooler peers to hang out with, and now, occasionally, we will bring other people. But we often find it difficult to convince the less adventurous to veer off of Cleveland's main thoroughfares and into the neighborhoods at night. "You two are crazy" they say, as if that's something we haven't heard before. Last year we brought our friend, Plain Dealer columnist, Joanna Connors on our city lights tour, and she was so fascinated by this display on Pearl Road that she interviewed the homeowner later in the week for her column. The main point of curiosity (besides of course "Why?") being "Where do you store all this stuff?"

This side yard in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood, although not an ostentatious light show, I found was especially charming. Already full of lawn ornaments, even the decorations were decorated. The Christmas season for many people is a time of celebration and hope. We decorate our homes in an effort to make the personal spaces around us reflect the spirit of love, kindness, generosity, and joy, inspired by the season. Our homes mirror our attitudes. Ironically, neither Susan nor I have Christmas lights in our yards.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

Don't Want to Go Home for the Holidays

The last few days before winter break are my most favorite days of the school year, and this year was no exception. Many of my students were finished with their unit projects, and the rest had just a little more work to do before they turned their pieces in to be graded.

Because we are a public school, I never have a Christmas project. Instead, just before the holidays, I pull the card stock, ribbon, jingle bells, paint, and lots of glitter, glue, and scissors out of the store room, and I let kids, who are finished with the last unit, create as many festive baubles, paper snowflakes, ornaments, and greeting cards as they wish ...or not.

It's a sparkly free for all. I also bring out my palette of face paint and decorate the cheeks and noses of the kids who flock to my classroom, that has somehow transformed itself into Santa's workshop. It's funny how many of these high schoolers who spend most their public lives trying to act tough, and wanting to be treated like adults, become like children again at Christmas time.

Of course the conversations always turn to Christmas plans.

"What are you doing for Christmas Ms. Matt? Are you going any place?"

"No. But my kids will all be home on Christmas day, and the rest of my family will get together and celebrate later in the week. I've been invite to a lot of parties this year too, so I'm really looking forward to the next couple of weeks. How about you guys? How will you be spending your holidays?"

A few kids chatter happily about Christmas dinners, some talk about church services, and about traveling to visit relatives. Then there are the kids who candidly share stories of family festivities that resemble a gathering of Jerry Springer's' most obnoxious guests. The class is regaled with tales of inebriated family feuds, trees catching fire from tossed cigarettes, shoplifted Christmas gifts, requisite celebratory gunfire, and the annual trips to the police station to pick up drunk and disorderly family members. The room rocks with laughter, and a few kids remark how relieved they feel to hear that other people have crazy families too.

Finally, there are always the few students who fall silent. One-on-one conversations with some of the kids reveal sad, lonely holidays. No tree, no gift, no party. Parents or close family members who are ill, addicted, imprisoned, absent, or have recently died. There is very little joy in the holiday season for these kids.

The last day of school before the two week vacation always ends with a fire bell. No activities or detentions are scheduled that day, and we have what is called a "fire drill dismissal". Before the last class period, the principals' voice comes over the loud speaker telling students to gather their coats and belongings, as they will not be admitted back into the school after the fire drill. You see, it's hard to get some of these kids out of the building on the last day of school.

It is so very, very, sad to discover the number of kids who don't want to go home for the holidays. It reminds me not only how fortunate I am, but also how important we are as teachers in the lives of these young people. For some of these kids we are the only ones in their lives who care.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Cleveland Graffiti: Off the Wall - Part 1

I met Jon Carlo Vega a couple of years before he was scheduled into my art class. Students had been asking,

"Do you know JC, that Puerto Rican kid who can really draw?"

"No, I haven't met him yet. Tell him to come up and introduce himself."

Our first meeting went badly. I don't recall who brought him up to my room, most likely it was Po-Po. I do recall he brought some artwork for me to admire, and I made the unforgivable mistake of suggesting something he could do to improve his composition. I immediately regretted my faux pas. He glared at me and walked away, giving me the cold shoulder when I saw him in the hallway for the remainder of the school year.

Like all students at Max Hayes, he eventually had to take a fine arts credit to graduate, and being the only art teacher in the building he was assigned to my class. Having learned from our first encounter, I was always very careful when critiquing his art. His work was consistently superior to most of his classmates, and he seemed to thrive on praise, which I was always happy to bestow. After a month or two of cautious observation, he let down his shield of self-defense, and we became friends. JC was especially good at portraits, and having a strong streak of entrepreneurism, he kept himself in pocket money by commissioning portrait drawings. He found that celebrity portraits were very popular, and had a steady stream of customers for images of rap stars and Hollywood icons. The graffiti I always heard about, or looked at the drafts for the pieces in his sketch book, but I never saw the finished work unless he brought me a photograph. To this day I've not seen any of his graffiti in person.

I rarely ever give out my phone number to my students because I don't particularly enjoy being pranked. I've broken my rule only a few times, and JC was one of the kids I gave my phone number to once when I needed to get in touch with him regarding an art exhibit.
He has been pranking me ever since.
...I kinda like it

JC is currently working to complete his bachelors degree at Kent State University, and when I told him I would be writing this series of posts, he sent me pictures of some of the paintings he has been working on lately. The graffiti influence still dominates his art work, and it is interesting to see how he has begun to form his messages around political themes.

Jon Carlo Vega is an emerging young artist with lots of talent, energy, an opinion, and a head for business. He's one to watch.
And remember I told you so
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Cleveland's Secret Gallery: Part 6 - Learning on the Wall

From the time I began teaching high school in Cleveland in 1988, students would talk to me me about painting graffiti. I would listen to stories of their escapades; roaming the train tracks, climbing walls, and running from security guards. Occasionally I would hear about an arrest. Having grown up in the ex-urbs of greater Cleveland, I was intrigued with this renegade art culture of the inner-city.

I first learned about the wall on West 26th about eight or nine years ago when I was transferred to Max Hayes High School on Cleveland's near west side. My students would show me their sketch books; prized journals, filled with designs for what they called "throw-ups". They would practice the elaborate lettering and characters, working on developing a piece for the wall.

Jon Carlo Vega and Misriam Calderon graduated from Max Hayes in 2004. Best of friends, they were creative, top-notch students with excellent drawing skills. Called JC and Po-Po for short, these two honed their painting technique on West 26th and Swift, often competing with each other for the title of "Best".

So often, people like to lump all graffiti into the catagory of vandalism, or at best, art crime. These kids were never taggers, running around defacing property. In Cleveland they had a place to express themselves without having to cross that line.

Even now that they've gone on to college, they stay in touch with an occasional visit, phone call, or text message. JC sent me these pictures of some of his work on West 26th a couple years ago, and also some shots of a recent collaboration he worked on with Po-Po.

We have some amazing talent growing up here in Cleveland. Too bad our civic leaders would rather invest tax dollars in the convention business than in our kids.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cleveland's Secret Gallery: Part 4 - How to find it.

I won't keep you guessing any longer. You will find the Free Wall at West 26th and Swift. Go ahead and Map It.

You get to Swift off of West 25th Street, but you have to look carefully or you will miss it. The road is south of Lorain Avenue, look for it on the right, immediately after you drive over this bridge. The road is in very bad shape, as it hasn't been maintained for a long time. If you don't see Swift, you can also turn right on the next side street - Queen , which also gets you to W.26th. Turn right on W.26th and if cars aren't blocking the street, drive to the end.

You may be able to catch a glimpse of the Free Wall from West 25th if you watch the west side of the street and pay attention. It also goes by other names in the neighborhood. I've also heard it referred to as "Fun Wall", "the Plaza", and simply "26th".

Have fun.
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Monday, December 03, 2007

Cleveland's Secret Gallery: Part 3

Urban blight and graffiti; the term evokes the image.
Somehow, the graffiti in this place seems different. It feels like it belongs here.

This graffiti reminds me of weeds, or more specifically, dandelions. Considered intruders in an obsessive suburbanite's green patch of perfection. Lawnlords wage never ending battles to keep them at bay. Instead of dandelions, this city lot spawned graffiti, and like the weed, it spread, organically transforming the blight of an industrial wasteland to a visual feast.

An urban gallery with no curator.

There are no rules here. Images of one artist invade, or completely cover, the work of another. Sometimes the message or the picture will be visible for months, or it may only be seen for a few days. Never intended to be a legacy, this is ephemeral art, lasting only until the next painter claims the space.

In speech and writing, this is a word is so easily overlooked as to seem insignificant. Yet, it's inclusion can modify an ordinary noun to make it an object of prime importance. Here on the Free Wall, this three letter particle of speech is elevated from supporting cast to star.

Beginning at the gap where a door swung many years ago, the sprayed line moves off the wall and along the remains of the concrete slab which once was a floor, tracing a new path. A maze going no place.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Cleveland's Secret Gallery: Part 2

In all directions, on every flat expanse…graffiti. Vibrant crimson, brilliant yellow, chrome, black, tangerine, and teal - color, escaping from the confines of the ruined factory has spread to the bricks and concrete of adjacent properties. Retaining walls, bridges, dark brick buildings; blackened by a century of industrial residue are now vividly adorned in a chaotic Krylon rainbow.

Although I could see more painting beyond these pillars, I reined in my curiosity in favor of safety. That type of exploration is best done with a companion.

Art, defined and stripped to it’s most basic essence, is visual communication.
In this lonely place, spray paint becomes the voice of Cleveland’s forgotten young people. What are they saying?
Most are simply stating, “I was here!”
Others messages are funny, some are dark, a few are sad, and occasionally they are spiritual.
To be continued...
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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Cleveland's Secret Gallery: Part 1

The kids call it The Free Wall.
Barely off the beaten path, thousands of gentrified Clevelanders drive within a few hundred feet of these industrial ruins each day, yet few people even think to look past the old cars and brush adorned with litter, beyond the old tires. The surrounding neighborhood is what the politically correct call "disadvantaged", and the Crocker Park set would never venture into. I visited yesterday afternoon on my way home from work, and as I got out of my car for a moment, even I felt a bit apprehensive.

Apprehension was quickly eclipsed by intrigue, and then amazement. "Free Wall" is definitely a misnomer. This was not a solitary wall, but the remains of a demolished factory, or warehouse complex. The concrete foundations left behind have been turned into murals, not by a lone artist funded by some benevolent philanthropy, but rather by local kids armed with aerosol paint and a desire to leave their mark on the world. However, the Free Wall is indeed free. The Cleveland police will not interfere with the kids while they practice their art. Here graffitti is not art crime

Every surface covered in Krylon. Layers and layers of paint, image on top of image. Tags and 'toons, messages and scribbles, planned compositions and random splatters. A feast for the eyes, an explosion of colors in the midst of our dreary gray city on a gray lake.
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