Story by Sherry Gavanditti
Photography by Amanda Koehn
When creative vision, a collective driving energy and a desire for expression are put into action, anything can happen. Waterloo Arts, a 20-year-old nonprofit arts organization located at 15605 Waterloo Road in the Collinwood neighborhood of Cleveland, came to fruition as a result of all of those factors.
Its group of founders had the vision and mission of enriching and invigorating a neighborhood by introducing artistic culture and a stimulating arts environment with quality exhibits, performances, special events and educational programming for people of all ages. Today, the area is referred to as the Waterloo Arts District.
Waterloo Arts executive director Amy Callahan tells Canvas, “(Waterloo Arts) was founded by a small collective of neighborhood artists, residents and business owners who saw the value in working together and using the arts to revitalize a small commercial corridor in a previously divested Cleveland neighborhood.”
Callahan became involved with Waterloo Arts first as a volunteer.
“My kids attended art camp here and I was recruited as a volunteer,” she says. “I loved the energy of the people involved and the magic of making things happen through collaboration, creative problem solving and sheer will. For the past 15 years, I have had the privilege of working with many smart, talented people who have deepened my relationship to art and taught me much about community building.”
She says since its arrival, Waterloo Arts has worked with other businesses on the street, like the Beachland Ballroom, and a plethora of other art galleries and studios to help release the vision of a walkable, vibrant art scene. At the organization’s 20th birthday, Canvas looks back at its beginnings and history, and what’s ahead.
20 YEARS IN
The spark of Waterloo Arts was ignited in 2002, when an art show was held in a renovated storefront and was widely well received by hundreds of community members. In 2004, funding from the Cleveland Foundation’s Neighborhood Connections allowed for educational arts programs, giving Waterloo Arts initial life.
The same year, its present building was donated and helped birth the Waterloo Arts and Entertainment District. Renovations made the building into an art center with showings from local, national and international artists, Callahan says. The gallery hosts up to eight exhibits a year, and the adjacent cafe space is also used as an annex gallery. Both spaces are also used for concerts and other performing arts.
“Waterloo Arts is now a creative hub for the presentation and exploration of thought-provoking art and design,” she says. “Our past programs have been responsive to the community and have ranged from gallery exhibits, concerts, visual art youth educational programs, hosting international artists-in-residence, public art and mural projects, film screenings, festivals and hosting a resident theater company.”
She says they’ve taken a pause from some of those programs to work on building a sustainable model with adequate staff to manage various programs.
The intent of the gallery and the district was to build an arts community and enrich the economic stability of the area, she says. Today, the district boasts 15 arts-related businesses and over $6 million in direct investment. An area that once had more boarded up buildings than active, thriving businesses, now attracts hundreds of community members who can find enrichment in all that the area offers, according to Callahan.
“We advocate for a neighborhood where artists live and work, and their contribution is regarded as vital to the health of a community,” she says. “We look forward to a neighborhood where creativity is nurtured in every child and artistic expression is a part of our everyday lives.
Over the last several years, Waterloo Arts has also updated its spaces. In 2020, funding from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District allowed the organization to install a green roof on its second-story roof, Callahan says.
“We are planning the second phase of the project now which will include a deeper, extensive green roof of native plants on the first story portion of our building and a deck for additional outdoor program space,” she explains.
It also received American Rescue Plan Act funds from Cuyahoga County last fall to install interior supports, strengthening the roof deck to bear the additional load of the green roof.
Since Waterloo Arts’ founding, the district has attracted about 4,000 artists to work, show their art or reside in the area, thus contributing to the area’s economic base and introducing more art to thousands of people throughout, Callahan says.
“Soon we will be engaging in an architectural and strategic planning process to think critically about our space, our programs and how we can align both to best serve the Collinwood community for the next 20 years,” she says. “The neighborhood is always changing and it is hard to know exactly how until one has some distance.”
And, the organization will work with an artist advisory group to develop programs and make improvements in the future, and hire new staff, but plans are not fully formed yet, she adds.
Artist Judy Giera’s signature sculptural paintings debuted locally at Waterloo Arts April 7. Her show, titled “And it can give some joy,” will be up until May 20 in its main gallery.
Giera, a Northeast Ohio native who currently resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., creates mixed-media works that explore the psychological stakes and cultural realities of surviving as a transgender woman in the present. Her work challenges anti-transgender hostility and embodies a sense of transgender joy, in spite of hatred and bigotry, according to her artist’s statement. The precise, bright sculptures she has on view are fitting for a celebration – like a 20th birthday party or any happy event – utilizing materials like glitter, rhinestones, sequins and fringe. They also have more explicit references to experiences of transgender people, incorporating items like needles used for hormone replacement therapy and witty titles like “Peep Show,” and “Butt Pad.”
A show by artist Elena Masrour, titled “Bingo, I’m the King Now,” was also up last month. Masrour used elements of American comic books to convey her wish for contemporary Iran to become a peaceful, safe place, which were juxtaposed well with Giera’s show, Callahan says.
“I love the contrast of Giera’s exuberantly colorful mixed-media compositions with Masrour’s bold black and white ink drawings,” Callahan says. “They are both technically meticulous artists, with Giera transforming campy, mass-produced materials and medical debris into brilliant 2D sculptures she refers to as paint(h)ings, and Masrour using a comic style to depict oversized women in domestic settings torturing small mischievous male creatures. They both use humor to take the upper-hand against oppression.”
A new exhibit was to open April 22, showcasing Fatima Al Matar’s work, Callahan says. She is a lawyer, activist, writer and artist who fled Kuwait in 2019 when she faced persecution for her work defending basic human rights. Al Matar paints inspirational sayings in Arabic calligraphy and traditional decorative patterns on old windows, Callahan notes. The fragility of the window panes and the strength of the sayings are descriptive of her experience trying to deal with the challenges of being an immigrant in America.
And in June and July, the gallery will feature artists M Coy, Lindsay Martin Gryskewich and Jennifer Masley, with details to be announced.
Shows can be viewed during regular gallery hours on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from noon until 4 p.m., and by appointment on other weekdays, as well as during the Walk All Over Waterloo art walks on the first Friday evening of each month. To request an appointment, email email@example.com or call 216-692-9500.
Looking to September, the 20th anniversary Waterloo Arts Fest will be from noon to 7 p.m. Sept. 9. A neighborhood staple, the festival will include multiple stages with a mix of local music, art vendors, food trucks, street performers and unique art activities for visitors of all ages. Attendees can also visit artist studios, galleries, shops, eateries and bars throughout the walkable district.
“The Waterloo Arts Fest is a significant program managed by Waterloo Arts which provides an opportunity for residents to come together in celebration of their neighborhood while also drawing visitors from across the region to experience this special lakeside creative community,” Callahan says.