Tales of the Regional Art Terrorists

Art renegades of 1970s Cleveland say signs like this symbolized how stifled they felt in the local cultural community
Art renegades of 1970s Cleveland say signs like this symbolized how stifled they felt in the local cultural community
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The lips are gone. For years, they floated on an abutment at the base of the Detroit-Superior bridge in the Flats: a big pair of shiny, red enamel lips, framing a mouthful of teeth. It was a Cheshire grin that greeted patrons stumbling out of the old Flat Iron Cafe….or passing by on the Rapid, heading to the airport.

They first appeared sometime in the late 1970s, covering up an obscene tag someone had scrawled on the wall with an aerosol paint can. Below the lips was an equally mysterious signature announcing that this bit of whimsical graffiti was the work of some so-called “Regional Art Terrorists”.

“Terrorist” spokeswoman, May Midwest, told a Cleveland Press reporter in 1979 that the group was about 300 strong and had been responsible for other aesthetic attacks, including huge strands of silver Mylar that showed up one morning, wafting from the girders of the same bridge.

And then, there was the billboard on Mayfield Road near Little Italy, which featured the TV-8 news anchor team. The Regional Art Terrorists had added sunglasses to each face, and beneath the sign’s request to “GET TO KNOW US BETTER” was the handwritten counter-suggestion: “Ignore Alien Orders”

May Midwest was the pseudonym of a young art student named Melissa Craig who led one group of art terrorists that operated in downtown Cleveland.

CRAIG: I had no manifesto. It was just adventure… you were in your twenties

Another group of operating out of Cleveland Heights was responsible for altering the billboards. They were led by the late Bruce Banzak who went by the name of Fred Mertz. Melissa Craig says all of these aesthetic renegades were frustrated by the gatekeepers of the local arts and culture scene who kept a tight control over:
what art was…. and where it got shown

CRAIG: There was no place for us. Just May Show. We wanted to leave evidence of our existence.

And so… the city became their exhibit space. Well-known Cleveland gallery owner William Busta was never an art terrorist, but admits he certainly sympathized with them.

“I think we all felt a little bit marginalized by the city,” he says, “but we also cared very deeply about the city --- maybe more than a lot of the people who ran it. At that time, there were even some Cleveland City councilmen who actually lived in the suburbs.”

Busta himself was a product of the suburbs, but as a young person, he felt the pull of downtown.

“When you told your parents that you were getting an apartment in Cleveland, your parents and everybody you knew looked at you as if you were crazy, and discouraged it.”

Melissa Craig was the daughter of a commercial artist who encouraged his kid to draw. But, she says there wasn’t much other nurturing at home.

Craig’s comic strips were populated by assorted talking hamburgers, rats, chickens and vegetables making off-the-wall commentaries about urban life. Always lurking among this cosmopolitan crowd was a resigned and slightly sad-looking female character with a radioactive hairdo. It brings to mind Melissa Craig’s weirdly-colored hair, when she was a 13-year-old runaway in the mid-1960s. She’d had a bad run-in with a bottle of peroxide in an attempt to disguise her identity from county authorities. Craig laughs at the memory of those early years: “The only thing close to it was David Bowie. I didn’t look like myself anymore, but in 1964 I looked a little strange. Plus, the only clothes I had were a neon-orange shirt and black pants.”

Craig says she became so well known around the Juvenile Detention home that the matrons nicknamed her “Neapolitan”, after her distinct hairstyle.

She spent most of her early teen years alternating between the detention facility, foster homes and the street.

For a two-month period, she and two friends lived in the cavernous women’s washroom in the bowels of the Terminal Tower, sleeping in the stalls between cleaning shifts.

Long-time friend Bill Busta says such roots gave birth to a long and distinguished artistic career for Melissa Craig.

BUSTA: “She really grew-up on the streets of Cleveland. By her own scrappiness and her intelligence, and with a brave and strong heart, she created a whole life for herself. She had no access to anything. She had to create a lot of things from scratch.”

Steven Smith is another close friend of Craig, and is himself something of an underground legend in the Cleveland art scene. For twenty years, his publication, Art Crimes, was a compendium of some of the region’s major poets, painters and collage artists. Smith met Melissa Craig at an art show and they became fast friends.

SMITH: “Melissa is the most talented person I know, across categories,” he says. “I mean, most visual artists are bad with words. She’s good with words, she’s good with painting, she’s good with sculpture, and as a teacher --- she’s just good with everything she does.”

This is a group of artists who took some inspiration from the late poet and publisher d.a. levy --- another outcast artist who saw beauty in the remnants of the city’s industrial past.

Steven Smith has recently written a memoir which includes tales from the days that he and Melissa Craig were part of an itinerant group of artists who moved around Cleveland in search of cheap rents in abandoned neighborhoods. Craig had a loft space in the Flats, and Smith was a pioneer in the Warehouse District, when it was truly a district of warehouses.

SMITH: “I was paying $300 a month for 3000 square feet on the fourth floor,” he recalls. “I had four windows overlooking the lake. I had nine windows overlooking Cleveland. I stayed there five years.”

It was a Spartan existence. You entered through a huge metal fire door into a room with 20-foot ceilings. There was a toilet, a work sink, and a previous occupant had put in a fiberglass shower. Smith and his friends hauled in a refrigerator and a stove and created a kitchen. And the rest of the place was filled with art, parties and philosophical discussions into the night. He smiles at the memory.

SMITH: “I had always admired Hemingway in 1920s Paris. Well, the Warehouse District was my ‘Hemingway in Paris’ era.”

That era came to an end when city officials learned he was living in a space that was zoned for commercial activity. Years later, those zoning restrictions were lifted, and the neighborhood became a hotbed for young urban professionals, looking for a unique address near their downtown offices.

SMITH: What I was paying $300 a month for in the Warehouse District, is like $2500 or $3000 now. The artists always go to the cheapest place possible, because artists don’t have any money.

Steven Smith moved to what was then a different, low-rent neighborhood: Tremont. And the pattern was the same --- the artists were the pioneers, followed by people with higher incomes who, to this day, continue to move into the community’s growing number of condos.

SMITH: However, in Tremont, the difference is, many of the artists bought their own places. … so they can’t be forced out.

Smith was also an occasional member of the Regional Art Terrorists, and he has fond memories of one of their most enduring and most dangerous escapades. Commuters on the rapid transit line coming into Cleveland from the eastside can still see remnants of this daring art attack.

SOUND: Rapid

If you look carefully as the train is about to enter the Tower City station, you’ll see the worn remains of a mural, done in the style of Egyptian temple paintings, humorously depicting a line of commuters from several thousand years ago, bearing brief cases and heading to work.

This painting was designed to be started and completed quickly, late at night. The large mural was executed with stencils and has lasted for decades.

SMITH: “It’s been 30 years,” says Smith, “and no official has taken it off, and no other graffiti artist has tagged it. That’s respect.”

Melissa Craig eventually left Cleveland for Chicago where she earned an MFA and now teaches. She returns occasionally to exhibit her work, and to conduct workshops at the Morgan Conservatory --- a local organization devoted to the art of papermaking.
Bill Busta says the renegades of Cleveland’s past have become vital members of the current arts establishment.

BUSTA: There was really a sense in the city in the ‘70s that people were abandoning it. [Ed Sanders said da levy was like a Sioux warrior tying himself to the land…] I think that a number of us felt that way. If you want to look at that generation, you see people like Cindy Barber creating the Beachland Ballroom or James Levin doing his work with Cleveland Public Theater. When Jim started, the idea of creating an arts district at 65th and Detroit --- everyone advised him against it.

And Cleveland itself has gotten national notice for a downtown rebirth, as a current generation of 20Somethings continues to move into an urban core once thought to be dead. Those who gave up hope on Rust Belt cities like Cleveland didn’t count on the fact that rust….never sleeps.

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