Jessica Newell blends past, present in work that in ways mirrors Cleveland’s current renaissance
Story and photography by Michael C. Butz
When people think of Cleveland’s past and present these days, they often do so through the lens of its gritty industrial heritage and the present-day Rust Belt Chic movement it’s begotten – understandably so, considering how dominant smokestacks and third shifts once were in fact and in folklore.
But go back to an even earlier golden age in Cleveland’s history, and you’ll recall a slightly different city – a city that over the course of about 20 years in the early 1900s welcomed iconic cultural institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, and the theaters of PlayhouseSquare, and in many other ways enjoyed the spoils of being the fifth-largest city in the country.
It’s this bygone era of Cleveland that Jessica Newell captures in her most recent – and quite public – work: the mural that adorns the arched ceiling of the United Bank Building’s lobby in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.
Newell pulled inspiration for the mural both from the 1920s-era building itself, which is diagonally opposite the West Side Market at the intersection of West 25th Street and Lorain Avenue, and from its surroundings.
“I was fascinated with the history of this building and the fact that it’s in a market district,” says Newell, herself an Ohio City resident. “I wanted to try to blend those two ideas together. I did a lot of research on the building itself but also on the neighborhood, and I thought, ‘This is really a place where it’s an urban, walkable neighborhood.’ I wanted to capture some of these different historical sites in Cleveland and kind of go off the idea that market sites are where you really see a lot of people of all different walks of life coming together.”
As a result, Newell combined images of Parisian street life and open-air markets with her old-photograph-based depictions of Cleveland’s past, including a pre-Terminal Tower Public Square, Millionaire’s Row, Doan’s Corners (Euclid Avenue and East 105th Street, where the first streetlight was installed), the former Alhambra Apartment Building at Wade Park Avenue and East 86th Street, and an eastward look down Euclid Avenue that features the Hippodrome Theater and Euclid Avenue Opera House.
Her Impressionist scenes capture a vibrant, flourishing city – the type of city that features elements touted and sought by those who emphasize walkability and arts-and-culture offerings in crafting Cleveland’s current renaissance.
“I want people to put themselves inside the painting,” Newell says. “As they’re standing in the lobby and they’re looking up, I want them to envision themselves in a place that almost was Cleveland and what possibly could be Cleveland again as we start to see a transformation.”
The project was commissioned by Skylight Financial Group, which moved from downtown Cleveland into the Ohio City building – also home to Crop Bistro & Bar, Penzeys Spices, Bonbon Pastry & Cafe and Piccadilly Artisan Yogurt – not long before Newell started her work in April.
Skylight also has opened a rooftop event space, which not only offers a 10-stories-tall view of downtown Cleveland’s skyline but also currently serves as home to Newell’s initial renderings for the mural. There, one can see the creative process evolve from 16-inch-by-20-inch sketches to what would later be painted on the lobby’s 8-feet-by-16-feet panels.
The mural isn’t Newell’s only recent work. When not working on it – which she often did seven days a week – Newell retreated to her gallery and studio in the Fifth Street Arcades (itself undergoing a renaissance in recent years) to compose evocative shoreline landscapes that use both light and dark tones to bring about senses of calm and unrest.
“Being a creative type, you can’t put it down. You constantly want to work, and you have these things that are inside of you that you want to get out. So, it was nice to have something to come home to,” she says. “I was looking for something different from being precise. With the mural, there’s a lot of measuring and making sure the perspective is correct. So I really desired something more fluid and peaceful and that would bring me a different sense about it. I didn’t have to be so careful.”
Those paintings are on display at Jessica’s Gallery as part of “Coalesce,” an exhibition that also features the work of Italian fine art photographer Simone Zeffiro. Newell and Zeffiro’s efforts were a featured stop along Downtown Cleveland Alliance’s Sparx City Hop in September.
Newell’s path to painting professionally wasn’t a straight one. Though she exhibited an early interest in creative ventures – from watching her mom work on commissioned paintings to writing and illustrating her own books – she pursued psychology as an adult. That eventually landed her a position teaching cognitive psychology at Cleveland State University, which in turn led to her living at nearby Tower Press.
Much of her workweek was consumed by research and lesson plans, but her spare time was spent painting. Surrounded by a community of like-minded artists at Tower Press, though, the tide started to turn – to the extent she ultimately decided to purse her passion. Fast-forward to today, and her painting now defines her workweek.
“I’m exactly where I wanted to be,” she says.
In more ways than one, it seems. In the same way she invites those who view her Cleveland mural to put themselves in that painting, she put herself in one of them – literally.
“I put myself at the art museum,” says a smiling Newell, referring to her depiction of the Cleveland Museum of Art. “You don’t see it on the sample (upstairs at Skylight), but downstairs, there’s a female painter with her easel set up.
“That’s me.” CV
*Lead image: Jessica Newell stands below her Cleveland-themed mural in the lobby of the United Bank Building, which is now home to Skylight Financial Group, in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood.