One of Cleveland’s oldest downtown murals is being brought back to life as part of a celebration of the role of public art in the city. “Life is Sharing the Same Park Bench,” a mural by artist John Morrell at East 9th Street and Rockwell in downtown Cleveland, will be restored this month along with the city-owned mini-park around it.
The artwork was originally commissioned in 1969 by Mayor Carl Stokes, the first Black major of a major US city. Now, the nonprofit LAND Studio is helping to revive the work as part of its 10th anniversary celebration.
The public art and placemaking organization has selected a handful of projects around the city it will use to thank Cleveland for its support, according to director Greg Peckham. In addition to Morrell’s historic mural, which was last restored in 1993 and is now marred by fading and chipped paint, the park around the mural will also be spruced up with new benches and plantings.
Peckham told the Cleveland Planning Commission at its meeting on Friday, September 3rd that now is the perfect time to restore Morrell’s work. “A lot of his work dealt with social justice, inclusion, and tolerance,” Peckham said. “He was quite prolific, but this is one of his only, if not the only, remaining work in Cleveland.”
The mural depicts four people on a park bench, an elderly white man, a middle-aged white man, a Black man, and a woman holding a baby. There is one empty spot that seems to invite someone to sit down. When the mural was dedicated by Stokes and his administration, the mayor said, “This mural will be a symbol of what we want this city to be about — and that is brotherhood.”
In 1993, a proposal to paint over the mural stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and ultimately Morrell’s artwork was saved. At the Sept. 3 meeting, Cleveland Planning Commission member Diane Downing recalled that she was tasked, as an employee of then Mayor Mike White’s administration, with finding a way to refurbish the mural.
Peckham said the mural needs work and so does the park. “The park is a bit of a leftover space,” he said. “Irony of ironies, there are no park benches in front of the mural. There were originally, but they were removed at some point. We want to bring them back.”
LAND Studio plans to kick off the project this month and have it completed in time for a dedication on October 9th. Although the muralist and Stokes are no longer living, Peckham said the organization plans to invite their families.
For more information about the Cleveland Planning Commission visit https://planning.clevelandohio.gov/. For more information about the mural restoration visit https://www.land-studio.org/projects/life-is-sharing-the-same-park-bench-mural-restoration.
Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.