Art is essential to society’s ability to progress. No other medium, no other manner of communication so effectively or powerfully prompts critical reflection while also envisioning what could be. Art can both protest power structures and lower barriers of entry to the marginalized. It can question authority and call for action. Certain art doesn’t just grab your attention, it sends a message, resonates and instills a sense of possibility. It compels viewers beyond knowing and understanding something to feeling and experiencing it.
Northeast Ohio is home to several artists whose practices take on matters of both local and global importance. These artists grapple with racial and gender equality, attempt to reframe issues of immigration and sound the alarm regarding the environment. These artists’ work is varied but shares potency and purpose. They’re on the front line of the debate. They’re educating viewers and evoking a response.
• Lives & Creates Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood • Degrees BFA in Printmaking and BA in History, both from Kent State University
Two series of work from April Bleakney framing America’s political landscape took shape during overseas residencies in 2018.
During her two weeks at Print Shop Aguafuerta Taller in Chile and six weeks at Dundee Contemporary Arts in Scotland, the printmaker would leave her phone turned off except for when she had access to WiFi.
“So, I was cut off from my newsfeed,” she explains. “When I’d get to WiFi, all of these notifications would pop up with an onslaught of shootings and civil liberties being threatened.”
That confluence of events helped push forward the 33-year-old’s “March Series,” which depicts scenes she photographed while participating in the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, the 2018 Women’s March on Cleveland, a 2017 anti-travel ban rally at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and a 2018 anti-deportation rally in Cleveland.
Through her drawings of those photos and touches of watercolor, Bleakney captures the energy and emotion on display during the demonstrations. The prints, she says, are a tribute to the protesters.
Bleakney’s “Idiomatic (Body Series)” is a collection of textbook-like anatomical diagrams that take on issues like immigration, mass incarceration and President Donald Trump’s brand of politics. In each, she deftly inserts symbols to replace body parts to convey her message.
For example, in “Body Politic,” which depicts a uterus and seeks to address attacks on reproductive rights, eggs inside the ovaries take the shape of U.S. Supreme Court Justices, five on the right and four on the left. Bleakney made the piece following the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy — often a swing vote on rulings over the last decade — to signify an anticipated shift in balance likely to come with a Trump appointment to the bench.
And in “Thick Skin,” arteries branching through the skin’s dermis and subcutaneous tissue are represented by blood-red long rifles, a not-so-subtle reference to mass shootings and American gun culture.
Receiving floods of news updates on her phone while abroad left her feeling “helpless” at times, Bleakney says. Back home, however, she’s better able to act – and is doing just that.
From each “March” print sold, she’s donating to a local organization. For Women’s March prints, $10 goes to Preterm, and from immigration-related prints, $10 goes to Los Niños De Corsos for children affected by the recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Sandusky. Donations aside, Bleakney hopes her art leaves viewers inspired to get involved.
“Maybe they don’t go to marches themselves,” she says, “but maybe they draw a broader inspiration to be active or remain active.” CV
Lead image: April Bleakney. Photo courtesy of the artist.
April Bleakney’s work will be on view as part of “Parallel Echos,” a printmaking group show that opened Nov. 16 at Survival Kit inside 78th Street Studios, 1305 W. 80th St., Suite 303, Cleveland. Her work will also be available for viewing and purchase at Morgan Conservatory’s Morgan Market on Dec. 1-2 at 1754 E. 47th St., Cleveland; Zygote Press’ Off the Wall Holiday Show and Sale between Dec. 8-22 at 1410 E. 30th St., Cleveland; and at Salty Not Sweet Boutique, 2074 W. 25th St., Cleveland.
• Live & Create Cleveland’s Cudell neighborhood • Degrees Laura: self-taught; Gary: associate degree in art from Cuyahoga Community College
What drew Gary Dumm to work with legendary comic book writer Harvey Pekar for 30 years was Pekar’s tenacity and honesty.
“There was the honesty of a life well-lived with all of the crap a person has to go through in their daily life – the idea that there are no superheroes, but every person has to do things that could be deemed heroic in the course of just getting through their day,” says Dumm of Pekar’s approach.
In that vein, encouraging people to make perhaps mundane yet heroic changes to their everyday lives for the sake of the planet is central to a series of environmental paintings Dumm and his wife, Laura Dumm, have worked on in recent years.
The couple uses recognizable fictional monsters – Dracula, Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster, Medusa, the Wicked Witch of the West – as light-hearted and approachable hooks. In “Saraband for a Sinking Fantasyland,” a mummy plays violin in front of Disneyland.
“The element of humor, I think, is important – so that it doesn’t seem rather pedantic” Gary Dumm explains.
Upon closer inspection of each piece, however, environmental tragedy unfolds. In “Saraband,” Dumbo flies away to escape the approaching storm, and Mickey Mouse has to row to and from work at the Magic Kingdom because sea levels have risen. The violin-playing mummy, at first humorous, feels more like part of the orchestra that played as the Titanic sank.
Through it all, no lifeguard is on duty in “Saraband.” In that, the artists reveal the true monsters in the environmental equation: humans.
“We want to start creating some kind of conversation,” Laura Dumm says. “We want our art to have a message and teach without preaching too much to sort of let people know, ‘Hey, this needs attention.’”
And pay attention they have. One example: Some of the couple’s friends stopped buying bottled water as a result of “Burning in Water, Drowning in Plastic,” which depicts the Creature from the Black Lagoon up to his waist-high inflatable duck in water pollution.
“I don’t think we do this series or that we do these paintings if we didn’t want to make a difference,” Laura Dumm says. “I think we always want people to sort of think a little bit more.”
Self-described children of the ’60s, Laura and Gary Dumm, 68 and 71, respectively, say they’re no strangers to protest. They also feel it’s incumbent upon them as artists – and upon all artists – to serve as “reporters of what’s going on in their time.”
“What’s going on in our time is we have global warming. We have water and air pollution. We have a government that doesn’t care about the environment,” Laura Dumm says. “So, maybe we have to get out there and scream.” CV
Lead image: Laura and Gary Dumm. Photos courtesy of the artists.
• Lives & Creates Schaumburg, Ill. • Degrees BFA in Painting from Cleveland Institute of Art; MA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Columbia College Chicago
Martinez E-B grew up in “105” — or, as outsiders may know it, Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood. And ever since, the 35-year-old multidisciplinary artist has mined the cultural, social and political landscape of his upbringing to build his body of work.
Present-day surroundings and goings-on also inform his art. Take, for instance, “Farewells Toys Inc. Kid Youth,” a 2016 series of 32 oversized LEGO-like action figures that depict characters loosely based on those involved in the Tamir Rice tragedy but that also exist in similar police shootings of African-Americans across the country. Personas such as Kid Youth, Inept Guardian, Excuse Screamers and Elected Powers indict all players in these all-too-frequent killings, challenging viewers to examine their own roles.
“There’s a certain social responsibility that I push for in my work. … To me, being socially responsible means you have to challenge ideals. Things you put as powers, you have to challenge them,” he says. “Whether it’s visual art, a video, how you raise your family, the conversations you have with your lover, we have to challenge some of these things —– and in most of my work, I think I take that approach.”
Among his latest works, the “Philanthropic Patchwork” series may best accomplish that. Each acrylic-on-foam-wallcovering painting depicts bandages on brick walls to challenge the effectiveness and cyclical nature of many nonprofits’ grant-issuing process — especially as they pertain to serving communities like that in which he grew up.
“Oftentimes, you have an issue, you put money toward it. If it’s still an issue, let’s see if we can find more money to put toward it,” he explains. “I think I have to question our strategy. Going for a grant and getting the grant doesn’t exactly mean my problem is going to be fixed. It just doesn’t.”
“Insert Inclusion” shows a single black brick in an otherwise gold wall, a juxtaposition that questions what E-B calls nonprofits’ “inclusive moments” of diversity; “Well If It Worked Once” places a second, newer bandage next to an identical but older, more faded one, communicating failed past attempts; “Throw a Little More on It” shows one bandage on top of another as if to reinforce the approach to mending a problem; and “For the Kids” shows a colorful, more decorative — yet no more effective — bandage, suggesting deception of success.
The works are subtle in delivery but powerful in messaging. With all of his art, E-B hopes his message leads viewers to alter behaviors on a personal level to effect broader change.
“I can do stuff in my little space, and someone else can do stuff in their little space, and now we’re moving a community,” he says. “In time, we can expand to the point where we’re making changes. Those little spaces get bigger. I don’t want to say, ‘power to the individual,’ but those individual decisions go a long, long way.” CV
Ali Black • Lives & Creates Shaker Heights • Degrees BA in English and Literature, BA in Communication and MA in English Language and Literature, all from The University of Toledo
Donald Black Jr. • Lives & Creates Shaker Heights • Degree BS in commercial photography from Ohio University
Gabriel Gonzalez • Lives & Creates Cleveland’s Clark-Fulton neighborhood
Many in Northeast Ohio likely got their first taste of acerbic at moCa Cleveland’s summer 2017 group exhibition, “Constant as the Sun,” where visitors were absorbed in the trio’s installation exploring life in Cleveland’s so-called Forgotten Triangle, a long-neglected swath of Kinsman.
Donald Black Jr. and Gabriel Gonzalez’s wall-sized photographs enveloped viewers, placing them shoulder to shoulder with neighborhood regulars in Mt. Pleasant and Clark-Fulton, their respective home neighborhoods. And Ali Black’s poetry – displayed on suspended Plexiglas in front of the photos – vividly and earnestly shared accounts from the streets.
Their installation was a highlight of the exhibition, and the three artists, all now 38 years old, consider it a recent highlight of their seven-year partnership. But they aren’t actively pursuing opportunities like that, as other artists might. They’re thinking bigger.
They want nothing less than to shift the power dynamic of Cleveland’s art world.
Sense of place
All three artists say they’ve often been the only person of color involved in a show or in attendance at a gallery. Black Jr. likens the experience to being in a fish bowl. He questions where – or if – he fits in, and wonders whether he wants to.
“I think I was developed in the Cleveland art world as a kid, (but I’m) realizing there isn’t a place for me as an adult in Cleveland’s art world,” he says. “So, I don’t know how much I really want to be a part of it, but I’m already a part of it.”
Black says she feels ogled when she’s the only black female (or one of very few) at an arts event. She penned essays in response asking, “Why is the art world so white?”
When conversations of inclusion and exclusion are discussed in terms of only black and white, Gonzalez is quick to remind his acerbic collaborators he’s often the only Puerto Rican in the room or on the walls.
“When we go to art shows, I’m not seeing myself,” he says. “And artistically, I don’t see many people documenting Puerto Rican culture – or depicting that there’s a Hispanic culture in this city.”
The trio’s response has been multifaceted. For starters, they’ve opened their own space in Mt. Pleasant, called Balance Point, where they’ve held small workshops and worked with children from the neighborhood.
“We want to be over here where people are. We want foot traffic. We want young people – we all teach,” Black Jr. says. “(In) a lot of what we’re doing, we interact with young people on a regular basis.”
Secondly, they were involved in “Just Like Riding A Bike: Photography Exhibition,” which opened Nov. 1 in a pop-up gallery at ThirdSpace CLE in Glenville, a space recently vacated by FRONT International. The opening reception was attended by scores of young people, predominantly African-American, some of whom rode their bikes in an indoor open space. The atmosphere was fun and relaxed – precisely the opposite of what the artists typically experience at openings.
“It was so home-like. It felt so good,” Black says. “You didn’t feel like an outsider, you didn’t feel out of place. It was a good time, and it was a beautiful thing to see. … There was powerful work on the walls – meaningful work on the walls – and young people were having a good time.”
In the same way they want their actions to shift dynamics, they want their art to resonate.
Gonzalez wants to turn his lens further toward documenting and showcasing Puerto Rican culture. Ultimately, he hopes his imagery will be used for murals in the West Side’s Hispanic communities the way Black Jr.’s imagery is used on the East Side.
“I think that’s one thing that’s missing,” he says. “I grew up in this neighborhood – why don’t I see me? Why don’t I see us? … I go (to Ohio City) and there are all of these murals that have nothing to do culturally with the neighborhood – and they’re painted by white people. What can they tell me about my neighborhood?”
Black Jr. admits to not caring whether viewers take away any insights from his work but says he hopes acerbic’s imagery – visual or word-based – gets seared into their memories.
Black, on the other hand, hopes her audience – “black people, poor people” – takes some reassurances from her writing.
“I always want them to feel a sense of relief that there’s someone out there documenting their experience,” she says. “I always want my audience to feel satisfied and relieved they’re being captured and remembered and talked about.” CV
Lead image: acerbic is Gabriel Gonzalez, Ali Black and Donald Black Jr. Photo by Michael C. Butz.
• Lives & Creates Cleveland’s Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood • Degree BFA from the Cleveland Institute of Art
Like the human condition, much of Dexter Davis’ work in recent years has been multilayered and multifaceted. It demands viewers look closer, deeper, repeatedly — and then reflect on the experience.
That introspective formula has helped Davis, 53, navigate some of life’s challenges, like growing up in Cleveland’s riot-heavy Hough neighborhood in the 1960s and ’70s and losing his mother at an early age. For viewers of his art, he hopes it might lead to increased understanding of the themes he explores, including police brutality, poverty and widening socioeconomic gaps.
The common denominator is his focus on the human element.
“All of my work is different … but when it comes down to it, it’s about humanity,” he says. “That’s what I’m concerned with – humanity itself.”
Davis’ art challenges. His newest work, “SOS, Blackface,” on view in the Full Fathom Five group show at Progressive Insurance in Mayfield Village, consists of nine portraits of unnamed identities in a tight grid formation. The multimedia prints require viewers to examine their reactions to Davis’ color combinations, intricate designs and wide range of materials (charcoal, wood block prints, watercolor and graphite).
“Most of the work, when I put it together, it’s made up of many,” he explains. “When you look closely, you see the faces are made out of people – all types of people. Each face has several different parts to it that make it what it is.
“Many makes one, sometimes. The force of many makes one,” he adds. “‘SOS, Blackface’ … basically, it’s about if everybody works together, things can happen.”
The piece evolved from several of Davis’ previous works, including “SOS,” a series of prints about the interaction between police and African-American communities; “White Light/Black Face,” a piece about black-on-black crime; and “Twelve Dead,” a series about shooting victims.
Davis feels the personal suffering inherent in those societal problems goes largely unnoticed, but he hopes his art helps plug that hole in a way that builds better understanding of the issues and brings about meaningful change.
“My art communicates something to people, but it’s up to the people to embrace it or look at it,” he says. “I don’t really want to be preachy, because I don’t like when people preach to me, but I want to give people a space – a bridge, I always say, so they can come across slowly and see what’s going on.” CV
Lead image: Dexter Davis. Photo by Michael C. Butz.
• Lives & Creates Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood • Degree BFA in Photography from The University of Akron
Photographer Shane Wynn isn’t just a storyteller, she’s an advocate for those whose stories seldom get the attention they deserve.
“All of my work surrounds protecting people’s right to dignity, safety and access to opportunity,” says the 42-year-old Wynn.
And her art doesn’t whisper, it shouts. Each of her large-scale portraits is a life-like 6 feet tall by 4 feet wide, and each series of portraits is installed in high-traffic locations around Akron.
For example, “Overlooked,” can be found on the Towpath Trail Bridge over Route 59 in Akron. Those portraits depict empowered women set against the backdrop of underutilized spaces in the city. The women and spaces share an unfortunate quality: neglected potential.
Another series, “Pride in Our Neighborhood,” consisted of portraits of residents of Akron’s Summit Lake neighborhood, which Wynn describes as a “marginalized population,” and was positioned along the Towpath Trail there to connect residents with Towpath users.
Wynn’s most recent series chronicles the journeys of immigrants and refugees now residing in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood. Her interest was piqued by a desire to learn more about the cultures and countries represented by the ethnically dressed pedestrians she’d see along the neighborhood’s East Tallmadge Avenue.
What she found were refugees from Bhutan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, immigrants from Mexico and Italy, Hmong asylum seekers from China by way of Laos, and multiple people originally from Myanmar (Burma) who came to America from a refugee camp in Thailand.
Wynn’s portraits of these families – again 6 feet by 4 feet, this time installed throughout North Hill – group older family members, many of whom still dress in a manner traditional to their country of origin, with younger, more assimilated family members whose style is modern American.
Wynn met with each family and found there were seldom one-word answers to “Where are you from?” In many cases, like that of the Myanmar natives, the circumstances surrounding their journeys were harrowing.
“The daughter said, ‘The soldiers tried to kill us. They didn’t want us living on their land,’” she says. “There was no place for them to go, they saw a lot of people die, and with all its simplicity, (that response) really drives home why people are refugees and have to find new lives.”
As the daughter of a first-generation Austrian immigrant, the topic hits close to home for Wynn. Through this portrait series, she hopes to shift the narrative on immigration.
“I’m aware of people’s pushback against immigration. It’s a complicated conversation, but that’s why I do the work,” she says. “I understand the negative connotations associated with immigrants and refugees; I’m trying to counter that with positive representation.” CV
Lead image: Shane Wynn. Photo courtesy of the artist.
North Hill Portrait Series: Trolley tours of Shane Wynn’s North Hill portrait series showcasing immigrants and refugees are scheduled for 2 and 3 p.m. Dec. 1. Each tour is led by the artist and will depart from The Exchange House, 760 Elma St., Akron. For more information, visit facebook.com/exchangehouseakron.
• Lives & Creates Cleveland Heights • Degrees BFA major in Painting, minor in Printmaking, Parsons School of Design, New York; MFA in Painting from Kent State University
Painter and printmaker Corrie Slawson thinks a lot about the environment. More specifically, she’s interested in questioning systems – like land-use practices – that as a matter of routine lead people, or entire societies, to harm the environment or disproportionately restrict access to economic opportunities for segments of the population.
“If you look at the last three years of my work, there’s been a progression of always using place as a matrix to talk about issues of social justice, environmental justice and environmental degradation,” she explains.
That body of work culminated in May when her series “Artifice and Persuasion” was on view at American Greetings’ Gallery W in Westlake. One piece, “Lawns are a monocrop that diminish biodiversity (or, Thanks a lot, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown)” namechecks the 18th century English landscape architect responsible for scores of well-manicured lawns at country houses and estates in Britain. The concept of lawns exists to this day, of course, and in some communities, they’re overtly separatist.
That this series was on view in Westlake, an outer-ring suburb that by nature and geography is responsible for a large carbon footprint, was no accident. But Slawson isn’t necessarily trying to access blame in her art.
“As soon as I point my finger, I just point it right back,” she acknowledges. “I sit up here (in my studio) and grapple with my culpability, with my own decisions.”
She wants her art to effect change. While she welcomes people changing individual behaviors, she’s aiming for something greater.
“One human being, yes, you can make a difference. I don’t disbelieve that. But I’m more concerned that if you see it happening in the system, that you do more to change the system,” she says. “I think I read in Scientific American that recycling is the same as a skyscraper collapsing and you have one nail. It’s not that we shouldn’t, it’s that the bigger issue is the system.”
Slawson is already working on her next body of work. In their early stages, the pieces are collages that juxtapose symbols of domestic luxury, like an image of a wedding bouquet clipped from Vogue magazine, with pictures of endangered species, extinct species and even anthropomorphized animals.
“It’s this idea of all of this natural beauty – gardens, flowers, food, delicious food – in all these luxurious magazines, but it’s not an ecosystem, or if it’s an ecosystem, it’s a different kind of ecosystem than the ecosystem that cheetah needs or that polar bears needs or even that we need,” she explains. “I’m playing with those conversations between our manufactured nature — which people accept and love, and frankly, it’s gorgeous, it’s seductive. But the golden toad, there, he’s gone. Last seen in 1989 in Central America.” CV
Lead image: Corrie Slawson. Photo by Michael C. Butz.
Michelangelo Lovelace knows some viewers of his art might not be familiar with the world he exposes them to in his paintings: his world.
So, he introduces them from a bird’s-eye view and allows them to lower themselves in for a closer, more thoughtful look at his colorful, expressive pieces at their own pace. There’s plenty to take in.
“The Daily Grind,” for example, shows a Cleveland street littered with distractions, from police cars and passersby to merchant signs and signs from God. The piece is about Lovelace’s own daily grind trying to make a living as an artist, but many may recognize the potential pitfalls. Through relating to viewers that way, Lovelace hopes to bridge longstanding disconnects related to race, culture and socioeconomics.
“Hopefully, they’ll have a conversation with themselves and the painting about how they feel about being in that environment,” he says. “Hopefully, they’ll get to understanding what it’s like for people that grow up in the inner city and have to live in this kind of environment, where you’re dealing with poverty, dealing with drugs, dealing with alcohol and dealing with crime when you’re trying to make your way and just have a happy life.”
Once Lovelace’s viewers become comfortable with where he’s led them, he hopes they then begin looking deeper into individuals – a courtesy he hasn’t always been afforded.
“I remember, coming up, I would go to art shows that I would have my work in and people would not associate me with the work. They see me as a black guy, and they’ve built their walls once they see you,” says Lovelace, who in May had a solo show at Fort Gansevoort in New York City. “Then, when they find out I’m the artist who painted the paintings, they would be like, ‘Oh man!’ You know? It’s a different world. So, I’m hoping that from my work, my viewer can take himself to another level in seeing people, judging people and allowing people to have opportunities.”
A similar hope is inherent in “The Deportation Wall,” a powerful painting Lovelace completed for “The First 100+ Days: Artists Respond to Trump’s Immigration Policy” group show at SPACES Gallery in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
The 58-year-old grew up in Cleveland but his parents are from the South, so he was raised on stories regarding divisiveness in Mississippi and Georgia.
“I interpret that wall as being another form of racism – like the signs they used to have in the South, ‘Whites only’ or ‘Negro over here,’” he says. “For every brick they put into this wall, no matter how big they build it, there’s another person who’s just looking for what most people wanted when they came to America: a better opportunity.” CV
Lead image: Michelangelo Lovelace. Photo by Michael C. Butz.