By Roberta Gedert, The Blade
TOLEDO, Ohio (AP) — Local muralist Chris Rodriguez had been drinking all day in January 2018 when he picked up the quarter stick of dynamite and decided to light it off.
“It didn’t have any wick, which in that state of mind I was like, ‘oh, that doesn’t matter.’ So I went and lit it and instantly it exploded,” he said. “I lost my hand completely.”
It was a hard lesson for this 29-year-old, who was trying to find his way both personally and professionally in the artistic community when his hand was amputated just above his wrist. But with a new perspective and a new challenge, Rodriguez charged forward.
“Within a week (of the accident) I was already back painting canvases,” he said. “As soon as it happened, it was obviously life-changing, but I was like, this is just one more thing I have to overcome. I’ve been overcoming obstacles all my life.”
It was his unequivocal love for public art that kept him moving. Rodriguez is part of a long list of artists who are contributing to what appears to be a public art renaissance in the Toledo area. This community has been here before, with public art at the forefront of cultural transformation, but within the last year, dozens of new murals have popped up across the city.
Nathan Mattimoe, art in public places coordinator for the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, said the difference this time appears to be a strong, collective embrace by local business owners and developers to bring more of the vibrant color and visuals to life.
“I think it’s expanding the reach of mural arts in Toledo, where these private businesses are using that media to tell who they are or what they do,” Mattimoe said. “We are not seeing a lot of the murals that are more for art’s sake. … I think it plateaued a few years ago, but this commercial art is great.”
According to a 2018 study by the advocacy organization National League of Cities, arts and culture as a vital economic development tool was listed in the top five topics discussed in mayoral addresses across the country. In the Midwest, it was the seventh most important topic of discussion last year, both in terms of expansion and support, and as a tool for job creation.
Murals are also a form of identification and recognition, Mattimoe said.
“It’s way finding, it’s landmarking,” he said. “I think of Adams Street and how you know when you see the (Toledo Loves) Love wall where you are. You know you’re in Uptown and it’s such an iconic mural.”
In downtown Toledo, Rodriguez and his business partner and artist Connor Degnan, painted a large American flag across the top of Chevy’s Place country and rock bar at the corner of Monroe and Erie streets. The mural reminds viewers of their spatial existence, both locally with the painted words Downtown Toledo and nationally, with the depiction of the symbol of the United States, the bald eagle.
Rodriguez has also completed murals on the Head Shed novelty stores on Airport Highway, Lewis Avenue and in Adrian, Michigan, on the exterior walls of the Seagate Food Bank of Northwest Ohio, and in Wilson Park.
Other businesses that have joined in on the visual journey include Infinite Art Tattoo, whose crimson red cardinal perched on a branch with bright blue leaves and holding a fiery torch in its beak could easily be a tattoo created on an arm inside the business.
On the south wall of a restored warehouse in the Warehouse District, artist Brooks Welker of Brooks Billboard Corp., Perrysburg, has restored an early 1900s Sunkist ad that will serve as the backdrop for outdoor patio seating at Souk, the Mediterranean restaurant that is scheduled to open there in the next month, said Joe Marck, director of development for IBC Corp. The painted advertisement, created for the S. Metzger Produce Building, by Central Outdoor Advertising Co., was eventually covered by a building addition in the 1940s.
Marck said IBC has found that public art has been a draw for photo shoot and selfies at several of their downtown properties, hence drawing attention to surroundings.
“A brick building can just be a brick building, but having this mural on the side, that’s when we started referring to it as the Sunkist building, and now it’s become such a strong identifier, it gives it that unique character that it might not otherwise have,” Marck said.
Business owners say the subject does not always have to jibe with the type of business to draw attention. When Craig Whitaker decided to have a mural painted on the side of his business, Craig’s Pianos & Keyboards, he chose something more personal. The result was an expanse of blue ocean containing a silhouetted scuba diver surrounded by colorful sea life.
“I am a diver, and this mural depicts some of what I see under the sea,” said Whitaker, who commissioned Ottawa Hills High School art teacher Hannah Lehmann to create the art. “I got a lot of comments about ‘oh, you’re the building that has the scuba diver on the side of it.’ “
About seven years ago was when the Sofia Quintero Cultural Arts Center became seriously involved in the mural movement, and eventually made it a way of professional life. Murals grace the landscape of almost every block on Broadway’s main thoroughfare and shoot off on side streets. The organization budgets $8,000 annually to go toward mural art.
“Getting that into our organizational plan was really important. It was strategic to make sure we kept this going,” said Taylor Burciaga, director of the cultural center. “I don’t know if we are trendsetters, but I’m definitely proud to say we are part of a group that pushes public art. And I don’t think it’s just the south end. It’s Toledo overall.”
Plenty of artists share the canvas that is Toledo’s architectural landscape, but there are some main players, including individual commissioned artists like Rodriguez, students from the Bowling Green State University art department under lecturer Gordon Ricketts, and high-school-age students who serve as art apprentices through the Young Artists At Work program under the Arts Commission.
Rodriguez, who has been sober since April 2018, has worked around his disability by creating a new way of drawing, painting, and climbing ladders and scaffolding to see the images in his head come to fruition.
For him, public art is both a way to make a living and a labor of love.
As he stands in front of one of his more recent works, a mural of slain rap artist Tupac Shakur, he talks about how the community came together to help and cheer him on when they saw him creating the mural on a blank wall on Junction Avenue. Rodriguez finished the piece for $300, which only paid for supplies.
“There’s just something about it, about public art, about painting murals for the city, for everybody. When I started doing this, I thought, wow, this is what I’m meant to do with my life,” he said. “There is nothing else.”
Information from: The Blade