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Artists to Spotlight Environment in 2019 for 50th Anniversary of Cuyahoga River Fire

Participants in the Wick Juniors Writing Club Summer Camp 2018 wrote poems about the Cuyahoga River [Photo: Wick Poetry Center]

Expect to see an environmental thread in the local arts and culture scene this year in connection with the 50 th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River burning. There will be celebratory events, as the fire made way for environmental protections and improvements, but artists also seek to provoke change around this occasion.

The  River Stanzas project is one of the creative efforts. It organizes "river walks and river talks with community members of all ages to get them to write expressively... to express their relationship with the river,” said David Hassler, director of Kent State's Wick Poetry Center. 

Last summer, kids at camp took guided hikes in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and then sat down to write about the river. As a group, they wrote a poem in tribute to the Cuyahoga River – its mosquitoes and all.

I pledge allegiance to the never-ending hum of insects playing a melody only they can hear. I pledge allegiance to the mosquitoes that make me itch with annoyance. ­– Excerpt of “Pledge”

Students have been writing poems about the river as part of the River Stanzas project, and the Wick Poetry Center invites anyone, local or not, to do the same online. The idea is to share those in exhibits this summer at the national park and in communities along the river. 

Program manager Charles Malone says even though kids didn’t live through the river burning 50 years ago, they understand the environmental significance.

“I start telling them, ‘this is going to be your river longer than it will be mine. What do you want it to be?’ And that often generates some really emotional writing,” Malone said.

A member of the Wick Juniors Writing Club Summer Camp 2018 by the Cuyahoga River, Tannery Park, Kent, Ohio, [Photo: Wick Poetry Center]

Other artistic projects in the works include Cleveland Public Theatre’s revival of “Fire on the Water.” The production features a series of short plays that both look back at history and consider the future.

“Fire on the Water” focuses on how people feel about their surroundings, said Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre.

“With the idea that those feelings and how we think about it can change actions in much larger ways, both in simple ways like, you know, recycling, but also in bigger ways in who we elect,” he said.

One way the production calls attention to how people relate to the environment is by using gendered pronouns, like referring to nature, as her.

“Or a river as she, or a fire as he,” Bobgan said.

"Fire on the Water" runs February 14 until March 2. 

Cleveland Public Theatre’s "Fire on the Water" (2015) [Photo: Steve Wagner]

The number of artists and organizations focused on this anniversary is exciting to Lillian Kuri, VP of strategic grantmaking and arts and urban design initiatives for the Cleveland Foundation.

“I think it just speaks to the strength of how important arts and culture is to Cleveland and how important creative professionals are to innovation,” she said. “If we want change in the community it requires embedding new ideas.”

The Cleveland Foundation is funding several artistic projects around the anniversary from photography to sustainable design.

This effort, Waterways to Waterways, pairs local and international artists.

“We want this cohort to be forward looking,” Kuri said. “What is the future of waterways? How does it relate to things that might be happening in another country that have a very different context, but still are struggling with the same issue[s] ­– clean water, habitat for fish, still allowing to coexist with industry and using the infrastructure of a river?”

The international artists will work with five local organizations: Cleveland Institute of Art, Cleveland Print Room, Kent State’s Cleveland Urban Design Center, LAND Studio and Praxis Fiber Workshop.

For instance, Ethiopian photographer Michael Tsegaye will work with local artist John W. Carlson on a exhibition of aerial photos of the river. 

West Creek Conservancy is also leading Xtinguish Celebration, which features various events and community conversations. It also includes a photography and interactive media exhibit, Crooked River Contrasts, which will travel to different venues in the region, such as the Cleveland airport and MetroHealth’s main campus.

People can expect to see these works and others throughout the year, and a Cleveland initiative,  Cuyahoga50, lists many of the 2019 community events.

Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.