Murals throughout Cleveland’s West Side have helped Erin Guido achieve an international profile
Story by Amanda Koehn
Photography by Michael C. Butz
Erin Guido says she tries not to be “lawless” when she’s putting up her colorful, sometimes word-centric wheatpaste murals, but that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been.
The Cleveland-based artist remembers she and a friend were covertly putting up a “bunch of shapes” on a wall at a Cleveland Metropark, when a ranger caught them.
“It retrospect, it was a stupid place to put (a mural),” Guido says, laughing.
Although the ranger nicely asked them to take it down – which fortunately is doable with wheatpaste – he snapped a few pictures first and told Guido he wanted to show them to his art class.
“So I think he liked it,” she says.
Guido, 30, recalls another law-bending incident in which she unknowingly decorated a historic landmark barn in Michigan and had a run-in with a police officer. However, her experiences with such rule breaking seem to have a theme: They’re regularly well received.
Guido’s youthful, sunny demeanor and noted self-awareness likely help her avoid serious consequences for such indiscretions, but it doesn’t seem to be just that. After four years of making art, mostly wheatpaste or painted murals and smaller prints, in Northeast Ohio, Guido’s steady ascendance seems to have brought her to a moment to stop and take notice. Her momentum is best captured in two major undertakings she’s been a part of in recent months: “Please Touch,” an Akron Art Museum exhibition that featured two works she helped create, and the high-profile, Instagram-backed “Love Doves” mural in Ohio City, which she also co-created.
With art that is unabashedly cute and slightly unrefined, it’s taken Guido years to believe that just because her work doesn’t play by the rules of what art stereotypically might be – serious and impermeable to the average eye rather than approachable and friendly – doesn’t mean it’s not worthy of attention. And now, she has an audience that is growing far beyond her tight-knit Ohio City community.
In the neighborhood
Guido grew up in Rocky River and matriculated to Indiana University in Bloomington. Though she started as a cognitive science major, she found herself spending so much time working on projects for her art classes, she switched to printmaking.
“I think when I went into school, I didn’t think art would be a viable career, but then I was just like, ‘Well, but I’m happiest doing art-related things, so why would I not do that?’” she says.
During summers off from school and after graduating, Guido worked with Cleveland Public Art, a now-defunct nonprofit public art organization. That experience led her to get a master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Guido says working on a computer all day during graduate school made her interested in making wheatpaste collages, and eventually murals, as a way to get outside and experiment with street art.
Along with acrylic paint, Guido’s medium of choice, wheatpaste, is made by boiling flour and water together and is often used for papier-mâché or posters. Guido then cuts out intricate, colorful shapes and letters to place, often on a colorful canvas or wall. Wheatpaste’s impermanence allows her to create word-centric murals for spots like Phoenix Coffee’s Ohio City location, where she’s free to switch out the words. For example, she says last summer she pasted on Phoenix’s wall, “I get so excited to wake up!!” but after having to trek there in this past winter’s snow, she thought, “This isn’t true.” She hasn’t switched it yet, but could.
“It’s more of a surprise, and it will go away,” she says of her potentially temporary works. “People won’t get sick of it, and also if it is an important wall, I won’t, like, ruin it totally.”
After graduating with her master’s, Guido’s connection to CPA helped her find “the perfect job” at the newly created LAND studio, the result of a merger between CPA and another nonprofit, ParkWorks. LAND studio works with public art, sustainable building and arts programming to foster vibrant, artful city spaces.
Starting out at LAND, where Guido still works full time as a project manager, she says she didn’t anticipate doing her own professional artwork on the side. More than anything, living in Ohio City and meeting people who were interested in her work forced her hand. Guido’s focus on bright colors, pattern-oriented collages and murals with quippy phrases lended themselves perfectly to trendy small businesses opening in the neighborhood. Soon after moving there, she was approached to do a show at BUCKBUCK studio (now Canopy Collective) and create murals for Mason’s Creamery and the Beet Jar Juice Bar.
The Mason’s Creamery mural, which is the first painted mural Guido completed, shows bright letters on a dark green cement wall that reads, “Come over all the time!!!” Most phrases of hers out and about, on prints, T-shirts and elsewhere, are equally friendly, such as “We have the best time!” Some are a little edgier, like “I am a grown ass woman.”
When choosing her words, Guido says she typically writes about someone or something specific, but makes it short and general enough that other people can get the meaning they want out of it.
The vivid hues – there are at least 16 paint colors in the Mason’s Creamery mural – and sweet phrases, easily draw the eye as little pops of brightness in a still brick-heavy part of town. Specifically at Ohio City’s Phoenix Coffee, where one might walk into slightly lethargic and desperate for caffeine, Guido’s friendly and excited message can provide a hint of energy and positivity before even going inside. That’s likely part of why her murals keep getting requested – she has an ability to impart a type of aspirational happiness that doesn’t seem overbearing or exaggerated, and also fits well with the space for which it’s intended.
“I kind of like it to be a little friendly surprise, so notes are kind of nice outside,” she says. “Especially if they are temporary, kind of because it’s a note to anyone that walks around.”
Indoor art, too
Dropping by PopEye Gallery at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, where during the summer Guido’s work was featured in a group show called “Word Up,” one is immediately drawn toward the back of the exhibit. There, letters cut out of wood – and in colors and shapes instantly recognizable as Guido’s – are left out for visitors to express themselves by arranging, using magnets, 22-character messages.
Omid Tavakoli, owner and director of PopEye Gallery, said among the three text-based artists who were part of the show (Amber Esner and Katy Kosman were the others), Guido had by far the most positive, feel-good work, which helped bring the show together. He says Guido’s word-based work evokes a sense of universality.
“I get a feeling of things that are going on in all of our lives,” he says of Guido’s work.
That day, the cutout words read, “It’s all happening so fast!” The same could be said for Guido’s exposure. Just months before her PopEye exhibit opened, Guido co-created two pieces for the interactive “Please Touch” exhibition at Akron Art Museum: “Today I Feel” and “It’s Going To Be.” Her collaborator on those works was artist and woodworker John Paul Costello, who is also her boyfriend.
Alison Caplan, director of education at the Akron Art Museum, said she followed Guido’s work online and knew she could create something fun, positive and engaging.
“It had a DIY, handmade quality to it that I found really cool and friendly, and I wanted to see how that translated from, like, the streets of Cleveland to a museum environment,” Caplan says.
Guido and Costello’s pieces include several colorful wooden structures that allow visitors to arrange Guido’s signature shapes and letters to build out words and designs of their own.
The Akron exhibit is her biggest show to date. She’s enjoyed visiting it and seeing kids and adults alike moving pieces around and “being playful.” It also came at the perfect moment for collaborating with Costello in the sense that they had just recently started combining Guido’s words and designs with Costello’s structures and ability to construct mechanical, movement-oriented components.
“We just took down the show and it’s a little bit dirty and scuffed up, and I think that’s a testament to how much people played and interacted with it,” says Caplan of “Please Touch,” which was on view from March 2 to July 16. “The thing that I really liked about it was that it was quippy and fun – that art doesn’t necessarily have to be pretentious or high-brow, that it can be friendly and fun and will engage you in a new way.”
Sitting in Guido’s bright, neat studio, on the third floor of an Ohio City duplex she shares with a roommate, she discusses how working at LAND and getting to know successful artists who focus on public art has helped her learn and develop her own work. She admits that when she was younger, she thought her work wasn’t technically good enough to put on display.
“I wouldn’t show as many people my art and was maybe scared to put it out in the public,” she says.
These days, she’s more confident. If any lingering apprehension existed, though, it had to be put aside quickly one evening in May when Guido received an unexpected email while hanging out at Jukebox, a bar in Ohio City. In the email, Guido was asked to paint a large mural, along with her coworker and frequent collaborator, Joe Lanzilotta, as part of an international Instagram campaign.
In the spring, Instagram began “Kind Comments” – meant to play off of a popular “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” segment in which celebrities read “mean tweets” about themselves – to celebrate the LGTBQ community with positive messages. As part of the campaign, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Nashville, London and Madrid were selected as host cities to roll out the project via public artwork. Guido says Cleveland was selected partially because last year’s Creative Fusion mural project grabbed the social media giant’s attention. Instagram then worked with Ohio City Inc. to find the right artists for the job.
Guido and Lanzilotta had just a week and half to complete the project. What came out of it is a mural on the West Shoreway retaining wall north of the intersection of West 25th Street and Detroit Avenue that features two rainbow-decorated doves – or “Love Doves” – whose conversation reads, “I love you very much,” and “I love you very much also.”
Guido says despite painting the entire project in one day, it’s special to her. It also received local media attention and is difficult to pass by without paying attention to the bright colors and caring sentiment.
“It was really cool to be part of it,” she says.
Although Guido laughs talking about how she and Costello had to pull an all-nighter to finish the “Please Touch” installation and jokes that it tested their young relationship, the informal collaboration has turned into something more concrete. They recently started So Fun Studio as a platform for their collaborative work.
“It’s kind of fun to have a different perspective,” she says of Costello’s ability to create three-dimensional, interactive pieces.
Also, Guido says working at LAND and being close to interactive public art on a regular basis has piqued her interest in doing larger-scale, interactive work herself. She says a goal is to work on such a project at a major Cleveland location, such as Public Square or Edgewater Park, and to get paid for it.
However, in the short term, Guido looks to events like the Ohio City Street Festival, where the “Please Touch” works will show next. In addition, she and Costello are planning new projects for that festival and others, and Guido is working on a new mural that will appear on the rooftop of The Cleveland Hostel. She’s focused on continuing to produce work that shows her personality and style – especially since she’s found it also resonates with an audience.
“I’m finding that when I really enjoy making something, and just like it a lot, then other people end up liking it too,” she says. CV
Erin Guido will speak on “Surprises and Nice Things in Public Places” at the Weapons of Mass Creation festival on Aug. 20 at Mahall’s, 13200 Madison Ave., Lakewood.
Guido’s collaborative work with John Paul Costello as part of So Fun Studio will be on display Sept. 24 during the Ohio City Street Festival along West 25th Street in Cleveland.
So Fun Studio’s work to date will be on view at “So Fun So Far” during Walk All Over Waterloo! on Nov. 3 at Pop Life Studio, 15619 Waterloo Road, in Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts District.
Lead image: Guido presents “Love Doves,” a mural she co-created with Joe Lanzilotta on the West Shoreway retaining wall in Cleveland.