By Carlo Wolff

Eileen Dorsey loved playing in the woods when she was growing up in Westlake. She and her brothers would build forts, horse around and get lost in that exciting but safe way unique to childhood. Those bygone activities, which evoke the excitement and safety of childhood, drive Dorsey. 

“The progression of my work has always been through what I needed to do or is therapy for myself, and I’ve been focusing mostly on trees the last four years because I used to play in them when I was a kid,” she says. “It’s like exploring as a child.

“I was kind of a tomboy,” she says, recalling the fun she and her younger brother had as they bicycled around their neighborhood, played in nearby woods and parks, and built forts. “I got a lot of scars from that time period.” And memories of beautiful, pristine nature.

In a forest, “everything affects what the colors are,” says the Cleveland resident. “You know the bark is actually brown, but depending on what is next to it and the time of the day, the colors are going to change. Colors bounce off objects like light bounces off.”

”Breakthrough 2” (2019). Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

Color interplay is what Dorsey is after. 

“The term ‘acid trees’ has popped up a few times,” she says, referring to commentary on her work. “I think that’s kind of funny. I’ve never done serious drugs and I’ve never taken hallucinogens, but if my work can put someone in better spirits, I think that’s a great thing, whether it refers to an old acid trip of theirs or not.”

While she loves to hike, Dorsey actually spends most of her time in her studio-gallery at 78th Street Studios, the artistic hive on Cleveland’s West Side where this year she is celebrating her 10th anniversary as a tenant – and was one of the first. 

Both fierce and dreamy, her nature “portraits” seem plucked from the earth itself. Color is a primary focus, particularly in the oil paintings Dorsey favors. The way she treats what she observes gives even her most realistic paintings a layer of abstraction. 

In her oils, “the colors stay the same especially when they dry,” Dorsey says. “Acrylics are great, and the pigment has gotten better and stronger over the years, but they dry several different shades.” She likes “the viscosity of oil paint; it has this quality of playing with mud, getting dirty, kind of a childhood sensation.”

Eileen Dorsey’s palette. Photo / Carlo Wolff.

Becoming an artist

Eileen Dorsey in her studio-gallery at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland. Photo / Carlo Wolff

Dorsey, 36, knew early on that she wanted to be an artist, but it wasn’t until 2002, her sophomore year at Kent State University, that she locked into painting as a career. Credit Charles Basham, a part-time fine arts faculty member at Kent State with whom Dorsey shared an exhibition this spring at the Massillon Museum. Dorsey was on academic probation, but all turned around for her when Basham told her, “You have a very good eye for things.” The praise “inspired me to take my studies seriously,” Dorsey says.

“Before I was a landscape painter, I was a figurative painter, and most of my early influences were figurative artists,” she says, citing Alice Neel, Egon Schiele, Cecily Brown and Willem de Kooning, who are “more Expressionist figurative painters. And certain periods of Picasso.”

Her work is not plein air. “I create sketches based off of a photo or photos I take, and then I exaggerate the colors or make up my own,” she says. 

“Self Portrait” (2019). Acrylic on canvas, 27 x 45 inches. Photo / Carlo Wolff.

Dorsey toggles between different styles, all realism-based. She has done some abstract work, and wants to do more, though recent shows have required her more nature-based work. While her favorite medium is oil, palette knife painting – she points to her palette, which seems to smolder with paints of various hues and blends – is her favorite technique.

Dorsey also creates “oil reductions,” smashing a “wet” oil painting against a “dry” acrylic. This aggressive process results in highly textured paintings very different from their originals. While not as radiant as her oils, they’re “kind of a positive and a negative,” she says, and they emit distinctive and substantial kinds of energy, as well as physicality.

Dorsey prefers producing paintings 30 by 48 inches in size on her easel. “I can reach these, and I can use my shoulders instead of just using my wrists; there’s more movement, more interactivity,” she says. That size also fits into her vehicle, and it’s great for hanging over couches and fireplaces. One young couple bought a Dorsey painting 4 by 6 feet in size – an inch too big to fit into their vehicle. The husband began to walk it home even though Dorsey warned him that wind can make a painting that large act like a sail. He nearly reached his house but couldn’t quite make it, returned to Dorsey’s studio with it, and picked it up the following day. 

“The size of my paintings has changed over time depending on the vehicle I have,” Dorsey says.

“Hogsback Lane 1” (2016). Oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

A ‘creative’ develops

The fifth of six children, Dorsey is the only artist in her family; one brother works for a labor union, another works for a cable company and her one sister is a software developer. 

“I was the little artist type,” she says. “No one really understood me, and it was a ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ kind of deal” in dinner-table conversation. Still, her sister and mother encouraged her leanings. “Art was pretty much the only subject I was doing well in,” she says. “My mom was very crafty,” she notes, and could make a doll out of a two-liter bottle.

“I know I have to make art,” Dorsey says. “I’ve always had this insatiable need to create things.” 

Her love of nature, above all, feeds into that impulse. “I really like going on hikes. I just like walking around in the woods,” she says, especially in Colorado, where she hopes to revisit soon; she has relatives there. “I love to see the aspens change there. There’s something really beautiful about the way the bark takes on the light at different times of day.”

“Warming Up “ (2018). Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches. Artwork courtesy of the artist.

Christopher L. Richards, curator and collection manager at ARTneo: The Museum of Northeast Ohio Art in Cleveland, says he’s watched Dorsey’s art evolve into a more expressive body of work over the last five years.

“She has been able to blend reality with fantasy by painting the impressions places have on her, as well as reflections of her own personal emotional story,” he says. “One can see glimpses of Cleveland artists who have come before her, like how Abel Warshawsky captured light, or how Paul Travis expressed the wild activity of the jungle. While her flatter and more abstract paintings seem like a departure from the Impressionist-influenced work, they remain related through color palette, compositional structure and the subject of the natural world.”

“I become very moody if I don’t paint for a certain period,” says Dorsey, a restless and disciplined artist. “I paint as much as I can. This is my job, so I treat it as such, and I’m in my studio every day.” 

On view

• Visit Dorsey’s studio-gallery every Third Friday from 5 to 9 p.m. at 78th Street Studios, 1305 West 80th St., Suite 105, Cleveland. Her space also will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Black Friday, Nov. 29 and from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Dec. 14-15 during the Cleveland Bazaar.

Upcoming shows:

 • “52 Weeks/52 Works,” Fawick Art Gallery, Baldwin Wallace University, Berea. Through Dec. 6.

• “The heART of Cleveland,” Baycrafters Center for Fine Art & Education, Bay Village. Nov. 23-Dec. 22. Opening reception 7-9 p.m. Dec. 6.

• “Nature Preserved,” Gallery W, Crocker Park, Westlake. Opening reception Jan. 16, 2020. Through March 5, 2020.

• “Self Image,” Sandusky Cultural Center, Sandusky. Opening reception March 1. Through April 5, 2020.

• “Out of the Shadows: New Paintings by Eileen Dorsey,” Feinberg Art Gallery, Cain Park, Cleveland Heights. June through July 2020.

• Untitled exhibition, C. William Gilchrist Museum of the Arts, Cumberland, Md., August 2020

Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.

Darius Steward’s deeply personal art confronts society’s most pressing issues – and seeks to open an important dialogue

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

Darius Steward, "Baggage Claim (Portrait 1)," 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Portrait 1),” 2017, watercolor on yupo, 18 x 24 inches. Courtesy of the artist and MOCA Cleveland.

Mixed with memories of playing dodgeball and kickball in courtyards tucked inside the apartment complexes that defined the neighborhood are memories of two of his best friends being shot when he was 8 years old and of authorities discovering a dead body in nearby weeds when he was 10. Between those extremes were the sorts of challenges some may only read about or see on TV but for Steward were a daily reality.

“Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to make it out of this area, but I ended up outliving this area,” he says. “It’s kind of a depressing feeling. … It seems like you have your history wiped away. I guess that’s why they say your memory is best kept with you. You could take a photo or something, but what you remember is what matters.”

Those memories remain with him now as he creates art at his home studio in Cleveland’s Union-Miles Park neighborhood. His art – primarily in watercolor, minimalist, evocative, approachable and personal – tackles issues of race, objectification, social placement and social mobility through the lens of Steward’s experiences and family. His paintings draw viewers into his world, and in the process, challenge them to confront their prejudices and burdens.

His work is represented in the collections of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland and Cleveland Clinic, and his latest piece is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland. They all trace back to Page Avenue.

“Being here,” he says as he walks around his old neighborhood, “made me realize the value of being able to try, the value of having something else to hold onto, and for me, art was everything.”

Making it to art

“This place is a total ghost town now,” he says. “This is like a street that doesn’t exist. It’s crazy. There were generations of people who used to live here, and now it’s gone.”

During Steward’s generation, the area was active. When he and his friends weren’t playing games, they’d walk along nearby railroad tracks and sometimes get into the sort of harmless trouble elementary-school-aged kids get into. However, his brother – eight years his senior and at a different stage in life – would get into more serious trouble.

“He was in here selling drugs and doing all types of things,” he says. “I think him doing his thing and me being such a visual person, I got to take it in and realize it wasn’t for me.”

Steward turned to art at an early age.

“When I was 5, 6, 7 years old, I was drawing my own version of ‘(Teenage Mutant) Ninja Turtle’ comic books,” he says. “I actually had a friend named Leron who lived over here, too, and I used to go over to his house and we’d draw ‘Mortal Kombat’ stuff together.

“I knew right away that art had to be what I was doing,” he says, “but it took me a little longer to realize what I could say in art, and how I could talk and deal with some of the things I feel like I went through – or go through.”

Steadfastly fostering Steward’s creativity was his mother, Rhonda, who shouldered the responsibility of raising three kids (including Steward’s older sister) on her own. Over the years, when she wasn’t working one of her many jobs – cafeteria worker, bus driver, bartender, nurse’s aide – to make ends meet, she was driving her youngest back and forth to the Cleveland School of the Arts in University Circle to ensure he arrived safely.

The contrast between attending classes in the region’s well-manicured artistic hub and living in homes where the utilities were at times shut off wasn’t lost on Steward, but the juxtaposition prepared him for what was to come.

“Seeing how this side lives, seeing there are places like this, it was like we were by ourselves down here,” he says of Page Avenue. “There was a lot that went on that no one cared about, and then being able to go to another environment where people lived totally differently … I was kind of realizing I can do more, I can adapt and I can be in both (environments).”

Navigating new worlds

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Straddling parallel existences would be a recurring theme for Steward.

It came up when he attended a summer program at Interlochen College of Creative Arts in Interlochen, Mich., where he was surrounded by third- and fourth-generation students he felt were more talented than he was before realizing his life experiences gave him a perspective and edge they lacked.

It came up as he earned his undergraduate degree at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where people would tell him Little Italy was a “safe zone” and suggest he not pass the bridge – except that he was from past the bridge, and in his experience, Little Italy was “a scary place for all types of reasons.”

And it would come up again in 2010 as Steward graduated with his Masters of Fine Arts degree from the University of Delaware in Newark. At a time when he was exploring opportunities to be an artist or teacher on the East Coast, his close friend’s mom was discovered to be one of serial murderer Anthony Sowell’s victims, and not long after, that same friend’s sister died. He felt pulled back home.

“At that moment, I thought it probably wasn’t a great idea to go back to Cleveland, but there was so much going on,” he says. “I have such a closer tie to this place than I thought, so I came back home a week after I graduated. … When I came back here, it was the same stuff, but I had different eyes.”

Lasting inspiration

Rhonda Steward won the battle against cancer but lost the war. She died this past December, four days before Steward’s birthday, but remained selfless and nurturing to the end.

“The drugs they give you in chemo actually ruined her heart,” Steward says. “So she got through breast cancer – she beat that – but then she had heart failure.

“One of the last things she did was take care of my son while I was having my daughter, Emily. She was dealing with a 5-year-old when she was sick and wasn’t really able to take care of herself properly.”

It’s difficult for Steward to talk about his mom without his voice wavering from emotion. He explains she had a mother who drank, tells of how she was living on her own by age 14 and describes how she never had anyone to look out for her best interests. Mostly, Steward recalls the sacrifices Rhonda made for her children.

“She wasn’t dealt a good hand from the start,” he says. “She was one of those people who were doomed to fail, so it was like, ‘Let me get my kids to not be in that situation.’

“She tried her best, and that’s a story you don’t hear about a lot. You hear about that rise to success. Right? They get this huge success. They go from living on the streets to being a multimillionaire. But what about those people who just try to pave a way for a future, or for someone else?

“Her whole life was looking out for our future,” he says. “Her life was never about her, and there’s something to be said about that.”

Opening up baggage

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Baggage Claim (Rise),” 2017, watercolor and ink on yupo, 60 x 46 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Steward is in fact saying something about that – through his art. He shelved work he’d completed shortly before his mother’s death and started a new series called “Baggage Claim.” The eponymous first public piece from that series – a larger-than-life two-part mural – is part of MOCA Cleveland’s regional group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun.”

Depicted are Steward’s wife and children – on one wall, Angela is carrying Emily along with three bags, and on another, Darius Jr. has a school backpack over his shoulder while extending a flashlight in front of him – but they’re meant to symbolize him and his mother.

“It’s this idea of him helping her get through this, him being me, watching his mom go through this and helping her,” he says. “We may have to see through and find our ways to that next spot. She’s carrying three bags on one arm, a bag behind her and she’s holding my daughter. It’s like this idea of this weight, but you still have to keep going. And the reason it’s purses is I feel like my mom did it with so much grace. It’s weight, but they’re different bags. These aren’t just trash bags.”

A. Will Brown, MOCA Cleveland assistant curator, was impressed with Steward’s work from the moment they met about a year ago.

“I was really taken by the use of repetition to talk about pressing social issues that are distinctly related to his life and his community’s life,” he says. “I thought it was really interesting that Darius was able to do that over and over and over again but with slightly different bodies of work, and that the issues never hit you over the head but are just below the surface in a way that’s effective.

“You don’t have to say much, you don’t have to read much, you don’t have to look much to know there’s something at play here that’s about searching and looking to the past and thinking about the future of Darius’ family, his community and some of the generational challenges they’ve faced,” Brown says. “It’s simple, in an elegant way, and a clear metaphor of baggage.”

Status symbols

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Pressure pt 4,” 2016, ink on yupo, 40 x 36 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Steward infuses other metaphors into his work. Notably, playground swings figure in a number of his pieces. Those in swings are in constant motion but stationary, a dynamic that surrounded Steward’s brother – who’s currently in prison – and friends who fell victim to the snares of Page Avenue.

“It was like being in here, using all of this force and this energy to end up in the same damn location,” he says. “All this stuff I used to see go on, and no one ever got away.”

Children, meant to represent a maturing process and explore intertwining themes of childhood and adulthood, also frequently appear in Steward’s work.

“I used to use kids to talk about a childhood that I never had, or to talk about how my adulthood feels similar in certain ways,” he says. “Now, I use primarily my son and daughter. Now, it’s literally me seeing moments and progressions in my (son) that mirror what I feel like or what I do.”

One of the most powerful artistic tools Steward employs is white space. The overwhelming whiteness that surrounds the African-American figures he depicts represents a form of dominance as well as the white space he lives in as a black artist. Regarding the latter, he often cites something novelist Zora Neale Hurston wrote: “I do not always feel colored. … I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”

“It’s about placement,” he says. “That’s a firm place. You can talk about whiteness as this very understood place. We know it exists, but at the same time, we don’t know. We don’t know how it really is. We don’t know how it affects who’s there. It’s this idea that I’m displaced but placed. That’s part of another series I’m working on where I’m building that up more. It’s like our segregated selves.”

Conversation starter

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

Darius Steward, “Back N 4th (The Motion),” 2015, ink and watercolor on yupo, 42 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the artist.

“Because I have this platform as an artist, I’m able to express things that I’d never be able to express if it was just me, which sucks,” he says, lamenting suppressive societal hierarchies. “But in that case, I feel like I have an obligation to help get people to at least think about this on their way home (from a gallery or museum) – to look at that black kid in that whiteness and think about what things they came up with while looking at that.

“And it’s the same thing with ‘Baggage Claim,’” he says. “Yeah, I have these people carrying bags, (but) I want them to see that, ‘Hey, I have baggage too. Maybe we’re not as different as we think. Maybe there are some common threads there.’”

In addition to starting a conversation about these matters, Steward is making a statement – about himself, his past, his struggles and Page Avenue.

“For me, it’s kind of a way to showcase my position as a black man who lives in America. I think it’s important to show my spots because we’re different. There are a lot of us, and quite honestly, I deal with things and I have different opinions and different outlooks.

“There are a ton of African-Americans doing artwork coming from all different types of backgrounds. Me, coming from my background, I feel like I need to represent that. I need to talk about that. I need to talk about what I dealt with. I need to talk about what I deal with,” he says. “I need to show my experiences, because at the end of the day, this is all going to be part of this greater narrative. I want to be associated with that narrative. I want people to look back at this and see that this is what a lot of people were dealing with. I don’t want this spot to not be represented.” CV

On View


Darius Steward’s “Baggage Claim” is part of “Constant as the Sun,” on view through Sept. 17 at MOCA Cleveland, 11400 Euclid Ave., Cleveland.

A body of Steward’s new work will be on view in an as-yet-unnamed show from Dec. 8 to Jan. 20, 2018, at Tregoning & Company in 78th Street Studios,
1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland.

Steward also will have an as-yet-unnamed solo show from Sept. 4, 2018, to Oct. 28, 2018 at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Ave. N., Canton.

Lead image: Darius Steward stands in front off an abandoned apartment building on Page Avenue in East Cleveland, where he grew up. His childhood home, a building that once stood across the street, has since been torn down.

Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Justin Brennan has a lot on his mind, and as his thoughts take form, so does his art

Story and photography by Michael C. Butz

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Buenas Noches” (2017); 34.5 x 34.5 inches; enamel, spray paint, charcoal on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Reaching milestone ages often induces a certain amount of self-reflection – something to which 40-year-old Justin Brennan can attest.

When asked his age, the soft-spoken artist chuckles and immediately acknowledges he’s been “thinking about things.” Later, when asked what the future holds, he confesses, “Being 40, you start to question everything.”

But thinking about things seems to be a creative sweet spot for Brennan.

He draws inspiration from personal relationships. He churns day-to-day interactions in his head, ruminates on them in his studio – a long and narrow room carved out of the PopEye Gallery-curated Survival Kit space on the third floor of 78th Street Studios – until it’s time for paint to meet canvas.

Cerebral musings fuel his work, and at the moment, his artistic tank is full. His evocative new series of portraits, some 20 of which will be on view starting in July at HEDGE Gallery, is evidence.

Greeted at eye level, these Francis Bacon-inspired paintings invite viewers in for a conversation about what’s on their mind. There’s a directness to them that way, but they’re simultaneously elusive. Bright colors mask potentially darker themes, and the ways in which facial features are blurred and distorted suggest an emotionally charged static interference that never quite lets the viewer connect with the solitary figure portrayed.

The tension is palpable.

“I did portraiture before, but it was more realistic. This is completely abstracted,” he says, highlighting their ambiguity and indefinability.

“I always leave the viewer to determine what they want from the piece, to take what they want from it,” he says. “I want it to affect them. I want them to look into it. I want them to remember it.”

He wants those who view his art to think about things, too.

‘No second thoughts’

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Justifiable Fear” (2017); 34 x 32 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

Brennan was born and raised in Lakewood, the second oldest of four children. He credits his mother Maureen’s side of the family – her father drew and collected art, and her grandfather was a vaudeville dancer – for his creativity.

For his drive, determination and work ethic, Brennan credits his father Sean’s entrepreneurial side of the family. Brennan’s Catering & Banquet Center on the west side of Cleveland is the family business. It’s also where Justin Brennan holds a title of manager/chef.

As a child, Brennan was both good at and interested in art but admits he “never took it seriously.” It wasn’t until his senior year at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland that his interests and talents started to take shape. It was then that he learned of abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning, whom he credits with leading him to painting as his art form of choice. He also gives a nod to some formal arts education he received.

“Ignatius wasn’t known for its art program back in ’93/’94,” he says. “I had to wait until my senior year to take drawing or painting. I really enjoyed painting a lot, and it just kind of took off from there.”

He matriculated at Kent State University to study graphic design. He took studio art for a semester but ultimately stayed at the university for only two years.

“Then years later, I went to Tri-C, and I took Painting I,” he says, clarifying that was about 2004. That class would mark the end of Brennan’s formal art education – he’s largely self-taught – and the beginning of his artistic career.

“When I was 28 is when I really decided, ‘Hey, I want to be serious about this,’” he says. “It’s only been about 12 years that I’ve been going strong at it – completely focused on it, no second thoughts and 100 percent devoted to it.”

Hitting his stride

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

“Unforeseen Monster” (2017); 24 x 24 inches; oil, enamel, spray paint on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

What led to his shift in focus?

“I had some life-changing experiences,” he says. It isn’t a topic Brennan wishes to dwell on or discuss in detail but he concedes he wrestled with anxiety during that time.

“There’s a cliché that abstract expressionism is expressing emotions,” he says. “I had trouble expressing my emotions … so it was a way to kind of, not communicate, but yeah, express how I (felt) and what was going on.”

Brennan channeled that energy into his creativity. His early work involved stylized portraiture, and his first show was an ARTMart: SPACES Members Show and Sale at SPACES Gallery.

He later shifted to nonrepresentational abstraction. A July 2016 show entitled “Turbulence” at Maria Neil Art Project in Cleveland‘s Waterloo Arts District showcased that later phase.

“The term ‘turbulence’ refers to my psychological state, thoughts, emotions and the interactions throughout the past eight months of creating this work,” he said at the time.

The abstract portraits he produces today are a combination of those two approaches. Those “thoughts, emotions and interactions” are now taking form – a dynamic he admits he stumbled upon while pushing himself to do something different.

“When I do a big series or body of work, usually around the 15th or 20th piece, I’m usually like, I’m painting this and it’s kind of repetitive,” he says. “People like them — they’re good paintings sometimes – but I’m not satisfied as an artist. So I always change it up.”

Brennan’s willingness to experiment is what drew the attention of HEDGE Gallery’s Hilary D. Gent, who started representing him at the outset of 2017.

“As a painter, I think that’s important because as a gallery representing him, it shows promise for new bodies of work in the future,” she says. “That’s what excites me about showing an artist like Justin. He’s adventurous. He’s willing to mix new mediums into his work and … to experiment with them to develop new bodies of work.”

Brennan’ s place

Brennan lives in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, but his home away from home is his 78th Street studio – a space he’s quite enjoyed since moving in back in late 2015.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

Brennan applies spray paint to “Gaia” (2017); 24 × 30 inches; oil, spray paint, enamel on panel. In Greek mythology, Gaia is the first female as well as the personification of earth. Brennan named this piece “Gaia” because it was the first woman he depicted in his latest series of portraits.

“Once a month, hundreds of people come through my studio – and it’s great,” he says. “I love being here. It’s super inspirational.”

His paint-splattered studio floor and paint-caked A-frame easel – both of which suggest an artist who feverishly capitalizes on that inspiration – are favorites of Third Friday Instagrammers, he jokes.

“It was immaculate (when I moved) in here, and this is my second thing of cardboard,” he says, pointing to a layer of cardboard meant to protect the floor from said paint. “Yeah, this is all my paint.”

A Miles Davis “The New York Sessions” poster that hangs on the back of his studio door also provides inspiration. Whether it‘s Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk, jazz is in the air every time Brennan works. Actually, he considers it more “superstition” that inspiration.

“Back when I first started painting – I like rock ’n’ roll, too, a lot – so I would drink and turn on the Rolling Stones, paint – and think I was Jackson Pollock. And then I’d realize 20 minutes or half an hour into it that I was drunk, my painting was complete shit and I’d wasted all these supplies,” he recalls with a smile. “Now, I don’t really drink when I paint and I listen to jazz. I love it, and it keeps me focused.”

A jazz-infused soundtrack isn’t Brennan’s sole self-professed superstition.

“I don’t like violet,” he says unwaveringly. “I like pinks, reds, blues, browns, yellows. I just don’t go near violet – and rarely green. It’s superstitious – I’m a superstitious painter at times.”

Less eccentric are Brennan’s commitment to craft and his ambition to improve as an artist.

“My last piece is always inferior to my next piece. I feel like I can always do better,” he says. “It keeps me driving, it keeps me painting.”

And one thing he doesn’t have to think too much about – or question even at the milestone age of 40 – is his creative future.

“I know I don’t want to stop. … I can’t stop and I won’t stop,” Brennan says. “I don’t think about it anymore. I just do it all the time.” CV

On View

Justin Brennan

Justin Brennan will take part in “Free Style: Tease and Tension Between Abstraction and Representation” from May 12 to June 24 at Zygote Press Gallery, 1410 E. 30th St., Cleveland. Other artists in this group show will be Dave Cintron, Jamey Hart, Michael Lombardy, James March, Kelsey Moulton, Patricia Zinmeister Parker, Scott Pickering and Grace Summanen. An opening reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. May 12.

“No Expectations,” a solo show featuring 20 to 25 of Brennan’s paintings and drawings, will be on view from July 21 to Sept. 1 at HEDGE Gallery, 1300 W. 78th St., Cleveland. An opening reception will be held from 5 to 9 p.m. July 21.

Lead image: Justin Brennan in his studio at 78th Street Studios in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.

Northeast Ohio’s market for art is rising; for those who haven’t yet navigated the challenging but rewarding landscape, now is the time to buy in

Story and photo by Michael C. Butz

High-quality art has become increasingly popular in Greater Cleveland. Art lovers swarm 78th Street Studios every third Friday, art walks in Tremont and Waterloo clog the streets, and even the artists themselves are justified in congratulations, both self and to each other.

But do the traffic and art’s newfound popularity translate to sales? It’s one thing to create art, and there’s no shortage of that in the region. It’s another to market it, and that’s gotten easier, with new galleries popping up and increased arts coverage in weekly newspapers and magazines like this one.

But there’s a bottom line to art, too, because after the artist creates – the painting’s ready to hang, the sculpture screams for a living room to call home – he or she has to sell it. Art is an expression. It’s a profession. It’s also a business.

With the quality of the art escalating and the outlets proliferating, the Cleveland art scene seems to be thriving, even booming. Artists are eager to sell their work. Are Northeast Ohioans buying?

Anecdotally, at least, the answer seems to be “yes,” according to two longtime keepers of Cleveland’s art scene.

“I’m going to say more people are buying local art just from the sense I get from artists,” says Joan Perch, exhibition coordinator at the Stocker Arts Center at Lorain County Community College. She also once owned a commercial gallery, ArtMetro, in downtown Cleveland, and founded the RED DOT Project, a nonprofit that sells and markets the art of its artist members.

“A lot of artists I knew and represented are doing well with selling their work,” Perch says.

Dan Bush, owner and developer of 78th Street Studios, a veritable beehive of creativity in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, sees the same trend.

Bush – with encouragement from Bill Scheele of Kokoon Gallery, who said to him several years ago, “This place is boring, we need to have a party” – helped launch Third Fridays, a regularly recurring arts bazaar.

Third Fridays quickly grew from a quarterly event to a monthly event, and in terms of participation, 78th Street Studios has seen it grow from “a couple of hundred” people visiting 30 to 40 businesses to “between roughly 1,500 and 2,000 people” visiting the building’s more than 60 businesses.

“I’m constantly astounded by two things,” Bush says. “One is that people keep coming, which is great. … The second thing is that people are buying art in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s beyond good – it’s astounding. And being someone who enjoys that, I certainly enjoy the fact that there are other people like me out there.”

But are there ever really enough art sales? Certainly not, and accordingly, both Perch and Bush see room for growth ­– if not necessarily in terms of quantity of pieces purchased, then in terms of the volume of buyers – and have advice for those who haven’t yet made the leap from art socializer to art shopper.

“It’s OK to take a while, it’s not like walking into a grocery store,” says Perch of the virgin art buyer.

Perch, whose background includes arts education and nurturing new art-buying clients, suggests newcomers engage in a process they’re likely already good at: making acquaintances.

“It’s all about relationship-building. It’s about personal relationships and trusting the artist and the dealer,” she says. “In the galleries at Lorain County Community College, I often talk to anyone coming in. You really need to start a conversation and a dialogue. That’s where art is – the art is telling you something.”

That dialogue – that exchange of thoughts and emotions – can continue for years as the art hangs on the buyer’s walls for years. What develops following a purchase is a symbiotic relationship between art and buyer, as well as artist and buyer.

“Those pieces of art remind you of the people you know and the things you’ve learned about them and learned about their art,” Perch says. “If you purchase something that’s made by hand, and you get to know (the artist), and you’re helping someone making a living in a creative endeavor, there’s a sense of accomplishment.

“When buying a piece of jewelry or ceramics, a small print, a painting, you’re not only supporting the artist, you’re supporting the gallery,” she adds. “It’s important to support those galleries, too.”

Of course, when supporting artists and galleries, one’s financial ability to do so comes into play. After all, art isn’t functional – not in the same way furniture or a home appliance is. As a result, some struggle with justifying a potential art purchase.

“It really just goes back to the fact it’s art, you can’t eat it,” Bush quips. “Technically, you could heat your house with it if you had to, but people don’t have to enjoy it and they don’t have to engage in it, and I’m just thrilled that they do – and that I get to be a part of it.”

Set a budget but be prepared to exceed it, if only slightly. In Northeast Ohio, many galleries and events offer works at a wide range of price points.

“Not everyone is going to be buying a $3,500 or $35,000 painting, but we’ve got anything from those price points down to a $35 pair of earrings – and everybody can walk away with a piece of art in their hands,” Bush says of Third Fridays. “It’s a good experience for everybody.”

And while “you can’t eat art,” there’s a monetarily unquantifiable value to it.

“Don’t be afraid to get in where you’re comfortable, and look for a price point at which you’re willing to get in,” Perch says. “Once you have some successful acquisitions, you’re ready to build on it. A lot of times, clients like to start with something smaller.”

Starting small helps some overcome what might be considered an intimidating process, from figuring out what you like to knowing the tricks of the trade. Unless you’ve been raised in a family that buys art, you might not know where to start. Is there a right or wrong way to buy art?

“If you like something, there’s not a wrong approach,” Bush says. “I actually have sold art here; I’ve just talked to people. It’s not my business, by any means, but it’s certainly exciting to see somebody walk away with something you can tell they really enjoy. I have a handful of friends I’ve gotten involved with and it’s really fun to see how engaged they are in collecting and learning about the artists they enjoy.”

Some consider buying art risky, and in a sense, it is – but so is making art. Artists take risks, as do those who buy their work. But with risks come rewards.

“I was just talking to some art students about doing something different. We’re working with different technology that artists can use, and they’re a little uncomfortable. And I told them to step out of their comfort zone; that’s what artists do,” Perch says. “People need to trust themselves a little more. Just trust yourself. People can get to know a whole lot more than they think they can.”

“I enjoy seeing people buying art, not purely for selfish reasons,” says Bush, who’s been collecting for 30 years and focuses on Cleveland School art. “I know how much I enjoy it and how it makes me feel, and I want to share that with people. I know a lot of people who have that same itch. So it does my heart good when I see somebody pulling the trigger on something.”

From first-time buyers to “loyal customers” eagerly awaiting new work from artists they’ve long targeted, Northeast Ohio’s art scene is gaining traction.

“Cleveland is a very solid hometown town, and yes, people do support their friends, and they do support their artists and they do support the scene,” Bush says. “There is a really solid art scene in Cleveland right now. It’s not bringing top dollar, it’s not bringing New York or LA figures. I would venture to say, however, that it should be.” CV

Lead image: Some observers indicate more red dots like this one, which indicate a piece of art has been sold, are popping up around Northeast Ohio.