What the World is Learning from Cleveland

This article first appeared on the Cleveland Foundation website August 21, 2013

More than 2500 Clevelanders – artists, students, and the public, had direct and meaningful contact with six international artists, in residence here through Creative Fusion – the Cleveland Foundation’s Global Arts Initiative. Many of these Clevelanders developed deep and extended relationships with these artists, working hands-on to co-create work and to share cultural ideas and perspectives. Many thousands more had the chance to know these artists and their work through lectures, exhibitions, informal gatherings and their contributions to Parade the Circle and other events.

In a week or so we will welcome the third group of foreign artists for a three-month residency. They will come from Senegal, Vietnam, Poland, Chile and Taiwan. We can’t wait.

Our experiences of the artists who have already been part of this program have been rich beyond our expectations. We are learning that our visitors feel the same way. I’d like to share a few of the comments that our artists from the just finished Spring residency shared about their time in Cleveland and what it meant to them and their work.

Alka Mathur, from India, was hosted by Art House, a community arts organization on Cleveland’s near west side. Alka uses conversation, teabags and quilting and collage techniques to document her daily life experiences. Until her residency here, this was a relatively private exercise – sort of her personal diary. But here, she worked with other artists, neighborhood residents and with children, employing her creative approach.  Here’s what she had to say:

“This is the first time doing something like this – reach(ing) out to the community. … There were so many people who joined into my work. …When I said I worked with teabags, nobody laughs about it here. … I said I want your teabags and your stories and so many people were sending me – and still are asking me – do you still want teabags and stories? … I said, of course. …The dialogue continues.”

Yun Sabi, from South Korea, wanted to experience an atmosphere of freedom for his work which uses multi-media to comment on the human condition. He was hosted by the Ingenuity festival and created a fascinating installation at the Cleveland Public Library. A quiet and very thoughtful artist, Sabi reflected on his experiences here, especially the openness and support of the people he met and worked with in Cleveland:

“In Korea, it is not so used to meet someone so very open and kind. … In our culture to be like that we need a lot of time. … But here, people are very open. … I could learn a lot from this kind of attitude.”

Mely Barragan and Daniel Ruanova, a husband and wife team from Tijuana, Mexico, who also maintain a studio in Bejing, China, were hosted by Zygote Press. These artists were very comfortable working in community and had a wonderful experience with young children from the downtown International Baccalaureate School, creating an amazing 60 foot long Lake Erie Monster for Parade the Circle. But they had their own exhibition of work at Zygote as well and were very clear about what they saw as Cleveland’s assets and attributes:

“..things we like about Cleveland – it has work ethic. … It is not like capital cities where the work ethic is conceptual. … Here, work ethic is – how we say in Spanish – get your hands (in it) and work. But I think that is the history of the city. Here there is common cause. Maybe you guys don’t see it, but we see it. I think (this is) something we can learn a lot from.”

All the artists we have hosted have expressed their gratitude about what they learned about “the real America” from their time here. Mely and Daniel said it this way:

“The history and presence of Cleveland opened our minds about life here in the States. That is important. …The people are the ones who make Cleveland. Working for community, working together. …Tijuana, where I’m from, has to learn about this.”

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