In 1988, a trip to India changed local artist and Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project founder Linda Zolten Wood for the better.
Fresh out of college, the Cleveland native was familiar with conservation – or, at least, she thought she was. She had grown up with the gas shortages of the Jimmy Carter era, the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and the 1979 Oil Crisis, and like many Americans at the time she viewed the need for natural resource management through the lens of the Energy Policy and Conservation Act. The need to conserve water, however, was not something she had considered.
“I was heightened in my due diligence as a good guest,” she said of her seven weeks journeying with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship of Case Western Reserve. As a member of the arts team, she traveled from Cochin, Kerala, to the foothills of the Himalayas and back down to Delhi; she was able to visit a number of wildly varied cities and villages and even had a chance to teach a group of boarding high school students at Woodstock School in Mussoorie.
One constant, however, was the lack of water, which was no doubt heightened by the drought of 1987. “The municipal water system only came on twice a day if you were lucky, so you had to collect everyone to go and gather water,” she said. “Tubs of water, or you went without. No water to bathe or cook or clean with. You learned how to bathe in a bucket, which includes washing your hair.”
Not surprisingly, she said the experience was “very different from growing up here in Cleveland.”
Although her first steps were small, Zolten Wood began forging her path towards supporting water conservation about ten years after she returned from India. She began using collected rainwater for everything from gardening to washing her car, and soon she saw the benefits not only in strong, healthy plants and shining chrome but also in her pocketbook. Since she was using less tap water, she was also lowering her utility bill, bit by bit.
The barrels she would eventually use for the Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project came from Cleveland’s Summer Rain Barrel Program, which she was excited about from the very start. “It was so successful that we weren’t able to get our hands on one the first year. We had to wait until the second year – and it was so ugly.”
Being an artist, however, she knew just what to do. “I sanded and primed the exterior and started painting it.” To protect it from the elements, she clear-coated it with “about five coats of Minwax Helmsman spar urethane. It turned out nice.” And, of course, she painted the cinderblocks that it sat on as well. “Because I’m insane,” she added with a laugh, but it’s obvious that she really did it to extend the beauty of her project to its natural surroundings.
As for how the Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project took hold, Linda said it was merely a moment of pure initiative on her part, making cold-calls and trusting her instincts as a muralist and tutor. One “mini-grant” later became a group of 30 people with sanders, primer, and paint, sharing food and laughter at an outdoor venue on Waterloo Road. And with it, “something new was born.”
But Linda needed a way to continue getting people signed up for their free rain barrels, both for water conservation and to keep the Collinwood Painted Rain Barrel Project going. She took her project on the road, bringing in a team of local artists to create rain barrel visions of zodiac animals for an auction and, later, a tour of the Cleveland museums. She even improved on her original model with the aid of a hard-shell clear coat from Ohio Technical College to prevent any damage from being frequently transported. “They charged us half and gave us excellent service,” she said. “It’s a heat-curing clear coat that people can do themselves to make them more durable.”
Each time she set out on a venture, she sought aid in the form of grants and sponsorship, approaching her goals with an “I’m going to do this – you can help me fund it to make it better, but I’m going to do it either way” attitude. Over the years, she has received grants and support from several organizations in the greater Cleveland area, including Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the Cuyahoga Soil and Water Conservation District, the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD), and Neighborhood Connections.
Linda has struggled throughout Covid, however, as many artists have. “The first few months were dismal,” she said. “The lockdown was devastating for a self-employed, teaching artist, as well as for my husband (a touring musician.) We lost all our gigs.” The lack of options and backup income in times of crisis was also troubling. Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) funds were not only slow to roll out, but difficult or impossible for many gig workers, including Linda and her husband, to acquire. “When the whole world went online, those of us who did everything in-person, on our own steam, were left behind,” she said.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, though. Linda got back into the swing of things after her initial “immobilization” from the weight of the pandemic and her creativity began to return. “I painted pieces of clothing and shared the process on Facebook,” she said. It worked; she began selling these pieces, each purchase rebuilding the confidence that had been chipped away. She also coordinated some one-on-one painting lessons over FaceTime, which she found to be a manageable compromise.
From murals to craft shows, painting classes to pottery wheels, the business of being creative in-person is slowly but surely returning to Linda’s life. One thing she can’t wait to get back to, though, is teaching the importance of conservation and helping Clevelanders beautify their homes.
“My biggest message,” she said, “is that if I can help you love your pretty rain barrel, you’ll be more likely to use it, along with your family, and take pride in the improvements it offers your garden, your property value, and the health of our lake.”
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