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A Long-Lost Mural Returns to Downtown Cleveland

Julian Stanczak's monumental mural is back in the Cleveland skyline (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

A mural by a world-renown Cleveland painter is back in downtown Cleveland after it fell victim years ago to Northeast Ohio winters.  The late-Julian Stanczak’s 12-story, optical-art painting was part of an effort to brighten up the dingy downtown landscape in 1973.  The long-lost mural at East 10 th Street and Prospect Avenue was refurbished as part of this summer’s FRONT Triennial for Contemporary Art.  Watching a paint crew finishing up the restoration, Stanczak’s wife Barbara recalled its origins.

“Cleveland in the early 70s had a project that was called City Canvases,” she said.  “It commissioned several of the artists living in the Cleveland community to make a painting on the wall and cheer-up Cleveland.  Cleveland went through ups and downs economically and psychologically, and it was a wonderful project. 

Once Julian Stanczak was assigned his wall, he had it measured and made a painting that would fit the proportions of this large canvas. To keep things simple, Stanczak just used three colors: green, blue and red.  But, there is another kind of color consideration that goes on with optical paintings.  Barbara says the technical term is ‘fusion’.

“Fusion is the optical mixing of colors, in comparison to the physical mixing of the colors that most painters use,” she said.  “Julian, just like the expressionists, put one color, bright color, next to the other and let the eye do the mixing, instead of mixing it in the pot.”

But, the oil-based paint applied to a brick wall didn’t have a long life when subjected to some harsh Northeast Ohio winters.  Slowly, the Stanczak mural and the other City Canvas paintings began to flake away.

“It lasted about five years, then you saw pieces missing, until it was totally eliminated,” Barbara said. 

Over the past few weeks, the Stanczak piece was reborn, thanks to the restoration skills of the Thomas Melvin Painting Studio, a Chicago firm that specializes in such work.  Cleveland’s hometown company Sherwin Williams supplied the paint.

“These ones are now acrylic paints,” said Barbara Stanczak.  “Sherwin Williams swears that they are so much better and that they will stretch, expand and contract with the wall.”

Barbara said her husband knew that his out-sized mural would only have a limited lifespan.

“It’s the history of mankind; everything we do will vanish,” she said.  “Yes, you may have it in a museum and prolong the extinction, but we are here, we act and we do, and we disappear.  Perhaps and artist is more blessed to have someone take care of it for a little while, but nothing lasts forever.”

How does it make her feel to see her husband’s long-lost work restored?

“I love it,” she said.  “And I see Julian smiling.” 

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.