Building Community Through Art

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The Edgewater Hill neighborhood on Cleveland’s west side sits on a bluff overlooking Lake Erie. The community is home to a mix of older, long-time residents, an influx of 20-somethings looking for an urban lifestyle, and about three dozen blue, plastic birds sitting on tree branches and attached to the sides of buildings.

CRYSTAL COAKLEY: Some people thought there was cameras in them --- that the Cleveland Police were putting cameras in them.

But, that wasn’t the case. Crystal Coakley says these translucent blue objects might seem suspicious to strangers passing through, but people in this neighborhood know they are part of a public art installation. It got started several years ago when Coakley and her neighborhood association decided to spend some community development funds on something other than home repairs

CRYSTAL COAKLEY: We set aside some for public art. And thus came the Bluebird Project.

They weren’t looking for a statue of some long-dead general on a horse, they wanted someway to add something fun and meaningful to the area streets. A regional arts agency, Land Studios, introduced them to sculptor Mark Reigelman, who hosted a series of meetings to hear stories about local history and culture. One of those stories told how the community was part of a bird migration path. Riegelmann then proceeded to mold 35 bird forms out of a tough resin.

CRYSTAL COAKLEY: The artist, Mark Reigelman, knows what works outside. That is indestructible. You can’t shoot it down with a beebee gun, it won’t fade, it won’t crack --- it’s beautiful.

On the city’s eastside, in the University Circle neighborhood, students at the Cleveland Institute of Art got an unusual class assignment. They were told to dress-up some of the non-descript metal utility boxes that you probably just walk by on city streets. These refrigerator-sized cabinets contain the electrical wiring that controls traffic lights, and Larry O’Neal says his students turned them into canvasses, illustrating community history.

LARRY O’NEAL: The students did their own research to find out what was in the area, first. One of the boxes depicts an old skating rink --- an indoor ice skating rink, which none of us even knew was around.

Rob Benigno is proud of what he and his fellow students accomplished --- turning Euclid Avenue into an illustrated history book.

ROB BENIGNO: Every time I drive by these boxes, I think, if I were a younger kid, and that was my route that I took every day, seeing that box would really stick in my head.

Brinsley Tyrrell’s sculptures have been sticking in the heads of Northeast Ohioans for a half century. The English ex-pat is an emeritus professor of Art at Kent State University. For one commission, he fashioned some bronze panels in downtown Akron into scenes from city history. In Cleveland Heights, his wrought iron figures illustrate a whimsical assortment of street characters.

BRINSLEY TYRRELL: Most of my stuff --- I think --- has a relevance to where it is. Very much site specific.

Tyrell’s particularly pleased that his college-appropriate sculpture of a giant brain with a library of books, has become a popular meeting spot in a once lifeless part of the Kent campus.

BRINSLEY TYRRELL: To me, it feels like art ought to enhance the experience of somewhere --- at least the things that I’m interested in making --- that they ought not to feel like they’ve been imposed on something; they ought to feel like they’ve grown out of it, or they belong.

Like those blue birds in the trees of Edgewater Hill. Crystal Coakley says, there was a community celebration once all of them had been installed.

CRYSTAL COAKLEY: We had like a little unveiling party, and the Cleveland Zoo brought birds down. It allowed people to come out of their house, introduce each other --- you know, that kind of stuff. It’s nice.

As a result, Coakley says she’s seen a marked change in people’s attitude towards the art. And towards each other.

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