Voices of CLE murals create space for healing and expression

On May 30, when peaceful demonstrations in downtown Cleveland escalated into riots, Heather Holmes felt torn.

By Hannah Miao

Photos courtesy Voices of CLE

On May 30, when peaceful demonstrations in downtown Cleveland escalated into riots, Heather Holmes felt torn.

As Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Downtown Cleveland Alliance, Holmes had fostered intimate relationships with many downtown business owners. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she saw the challenges they faced in providing for their families and employees. To see their property destroyed and business shut down again was heartbreaking.

“But on the flip side, as an African American woman and a mother to a Black son, I totally understood this generational feeling of systemic discrimination, of fear, of all the emotions,” Holmes says.

Holmes began brainstorming ways to beautify the boarded-up storefronts while creating space for healing and expression. She reached out to partner organizations and together they decided to launch a program to connect business owners with local artists, particularly artists of color, who would paint murals for the damaged buildings. Within a week, they launched a website and got the word out. They named the project Voices of CLE.

So far, the program has generated about 20 individual murals across the downtown Cleveland area — and the demand keeps growing. 

Voices of CLE emerged from a global movement for racial justice reignited in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Since its inception, the initiative has evolved into a multidimensional program that has spread public art across the city. Voices of CLE has revealed a need to uplift local artists of color, particularly Black artists, that will continue long after downtown storefronts are repaired.

At first, the program centered on an immediate need to address the aftermath of the riots for downtown businesses. Local restaurants, bars, stores and other property owners suffered an estimated $6.3 million in losses from the events of May 30. 

Voices of CLE helps facilitate the relationship between artists and businesses, provides best practices for setting artist rates and offers funding to businesses who want to participate, but face financial barriers. Individual artists or collectives apply to join Voices of CLE’s database, then interested businesses browse available artists and commission their work. 

Emily Appelbaum, Artistic Director of Ingenuity Cleveland and an organizer for Voices of CLE, says the project has sparked meaningful discussions between business owners and participating creators. “We had a lot of difficult conversations with artists about what it means to paint over a window that has been shattered because of decades and centuries of pent-up frustration,” she says.

When Shawn Freeman, general manager of The Chocolate Bar, heard about the program, he immediately knew he wanted to get involved. He was excited by the opportunity to have art that represented the diversity of Cleveland, including staff and guests at The Chocolate Bar. 

Freeman commissioned artist September Shy to paint a temporary mural on plywood for their storefront. He says the painting drew many visitors, with people stopping to take pictures of the work. “If you saw September’s artwork, you could see it all the way down 4th street. It was pretty amazing,” he says. 

Shy also contributed to a project sponsored by Voices of CLE that is not directly connected to downtown businesses. The outdoor gallery consisting of ten 8-foot-by-8-foot pieces is currently in Public Square and will rotate around different locations in the city. 

Having artists create and display their work in such a highly-trafficked and central area opened up a dialogue between the creators and the public.

While working on a painting that addressed the representation of Black people in media, Shy says a woman, who was white, approached her and broke into tears. “I’m a healer, so I had empathy for her in that moment, and I think she had it for me,” Shy says. “That is what gives me hope that maybe not now, but eventually, we can change if people just keep being brave enough to point out what’s wrong.”

Stina Aleah, another participating artist, created a painting that drew from her personal life, portraying her son held in the hands of her father. Aleah described the interactions she had with passersby as multifaceted.

“For me as a Black woman artist, people aren’t used to seeing people like me out there painting and being skillful,” she says. “I really appreciated the conversations I was having surrounding my work and also the confirmation I received that I’m on the right path.”

Artist Isaiah Williams painted a tribute for Desmond Franklin, who was killed by an off-duty Cleveland police officer in April. “I felt like as an artist, it was my duty to amplify the voices of Cleveland and shed a light on the things actually going on in our city,” he says. After Williams completed the piece, Franklin’s father reached out to him and expressed gratitude for his work. 

While the response to Voices of CLE has been overwhelmingly positive, the initiative has not been without criticism. The artists say that community members across racial identities worried that the work would incite more rioting or unearth more trauma, particularly for families who have lost loved ones at the hands of racial violence.

A couple of participating artists also expressed some concern over the curation of the murals, particularly pieces by non-Black creators that they felt missed the mark in adequately addressing the racial implications of the current moment. 

Beyond the actual artwork itself, some in the Cleveland area have challenged the efficacy of art projects in actually making a difference when it comes to racial disparities. “They think painting pictures is stupid and doesn’t fix the problem,” says Shy. “They want the abandoned houses in their communities to be fixed and painted so people have places to live. And that’s understandable.”

Yet the artists and organizers of Voices of CLE understand the power of art in providing healing, processing emotion and offering representation. 

Jerome White, whose mural is on display at North Shore Harbor, says, “Art is that one powerful universal language. It’s a vehicle that allows us to come together and communicate our ideas.” His work depicts a protest fist against a backdrop of gold leaf, red, black and green, celebrating Black culture and resistance.

Shy pointed to the importance of art for young people, especially young Black people, in seeing themselves portrayed in a beautiful way. She says art is critical to validating the feelings of young people grappling with the complexities of racial injustice in the world today.

The continued demand for Voices of CLE demonstrates the value it has brought to the community. “As long as we continue to get inquiries from businesses or places and artists, that to me says this is not going away,” Holmes says. 

Looking toward the future, Voices of CLE organizers plan to continue supporting local artists of color by connecting them with relevant organizations and helping them secure funding for projects. They also see potential in using their website to promote artists’ work as a virtual gallery or online store.

“We had an opportunity to move very quickly to create the kind of program that all the partners recognize is needed regardless of what happened on May 30,” Appelbaum says. “What remains relevant long into the future is simply the amazing talent we have here in town that should continue to be showcased and continue to be part of the conversation.” 

Aleah similarly hopes that Voices of CLE has helped Clevelanders recognize the talent and perspectives of Black artists. “I don’t want to see Black artists only being commissioned for Black topics because that’s expected,” she says. “I want to see the door open for us to be commissioned for all topics. There’s nothing that should stop me from being in the same place as anyone else.”

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