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Cleveland’s FRONT Triennial aims to help people heal through contemporary art

"Reconstruction" by Charmaine Spencer on view at Transformer Station in Cleveland. [Carrie Wise /  Ideastream Public Media]
"Reconstruction" by Charmaine Spencer on view at Transformer Station in Cleveland. [Carrie Wise / Ideastream Public Media]

Shortly after the death of her mother, Cleveland artist Charmaine Spencer built a sculpture using old wall lath designed to allow light to filter through as it does between trees in a forest. The process of creating the piece, titled “Reconstruction,” helped her both grieve and consider the idea of ancestry.

“[It] made me realize that I am still connected to my mother,” Spencer said, adding that death doesn’t “dissolve the connection.”

The ways art and art making can help people heal and bring about change are central to the second edition of the FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.

With more than 100 artists from near and far contributing to this theme, FRONT features works at roughly 30 sites around the region. Spencer's "Reconstruction" is on view at Transformer Station in Cleveland, a hub or launch spot for the exhibition opening Saturday.

The three-month festival cost about $5 million to produce and places work in public places like libraries and hospitals as well as art museums in Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin.

“The entire show, which is contemporary art in all of its different forms, from sculpture, painting, installations, video performance, music and more, is focused on art as an agent of transformation, a form of healing and a mode of therapy,” said FRONT Artistic Director Prem Krishnamurthy.

At the Cleveland Public Main Library Downtown, for instance, New York artist Jace Clayton designed an audio installation where people can play their favorite music through 40 speakers arranged in a circle in the library’s first floor gallery.

Jace Clayton, left, observes how Doug Westerbeke reacts to hearing his musical selection altered in Clayton's audio installation at the Cleveland Public Main Library Downtown.  [Carrie Wise /  Ideastream Public Media]

“In this sound system, I don't choose any sounds,” said Clayton, a DJ, artist and writer. “I invite the audience to come and play whatever they want, and then they'll hear their sound as it's transformed and mutated and spatialized by the sort of algorithms and software that I'm working with.”

This work is an example of artists “opening up power structures to other people,” Krishnamurthy said. “It's a pretty powerful gesture within a space like a library, which is public, but it's typically about silence.”

Inside the entrance lobby of the Cleveland Clinic’s main campus, a video installation by Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis features singers from area choirs counting to 524 from separate locations. This work acknowledges the ways musicians have come together during the pandemic even while separated.

Northeast Ohio choirs participated in "Five Hundred Twenty-Four," a video installation by Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis on view at the Cleveland Clinic's main campus entrance lobby.  [Lenka Clayton and Phillip Andrew Lewis/FRONT 2022]

“We've come off of two years of a world pandemic, a health crisis that we've never experienced before, and social unrest and social questioning, political turmoil that seems unprecedented,” said FRONT Founder and Executive Director Fred Bidwell. “We struggle as a nation, as a world, as a community, and we need answers. We need ways to heal and to come together, and I think art can be a very important way to recover.”

The FRONT Triennial's title for this year is “Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows,” from a Langston Hughes poem noting that “without the dust, the rainbows could not be."

“It's about how art can help us through trauma. That in some ways trauma even inspires art,” Bidwell said.

If you go:

FRONT 2022

July 16 - October 22

Locations around Northeast Ohio

Participating artists

Ideastream producers Jean-Marie Papoi and Dave DeOreo contributed to this report.

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