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From abandoned industrial buildings to vibrant murals: Springfield, Ohio transforms through public art

A decade ago, artists broke into Springfield's crumbling industrial buildings to create images that might appear in a Rust Belt autopsy. They’re now creating vibrant murals adding splashes of color to a reviving downtown and elsewhere. WYSO Clark County reporter Tom Stafford tells us the transformation began on a chance bike ride through a town on Hudson River.

Tom Stafford: Six years ago, Springfield artist Jerri McDorman traveled to Kingston, N.Y. for a workshop in the specialized field of encaustic painting. Her husband, Mike, took his bicycle along. With a ride on his mind,

Mike McDorman: I found this brochure with 28 pieces of art to see… I went on a scavenger hunt trying to find every one of these pieces. By the end of the week, I had done that.

Stafford: And when he returned to his job as CEO of Springfield’s chamber of commerce…

McDorman: I told our vice president of Destination Marketing, we’ve really got to do something with this.

Stafford: Soon, Springfield institutions – including the Turner, Wilson Sheehan and Springfield foundations – were on board, and Marta Wojcik, executive director of the city’s Frank Lloyd Wright Westcott house, was organizing the Springfield Public Art Committee.

Marta Wojcik: It started with a small group of people, and it grew to be a very diverse and wonderful committee and we continue thinking about what voice is underrepresented.

Stafford: Its first mural on Main Street downtown celebrates Springfield’s past as the Rose City, a mail-order floral center. Colorado Artist Mariah Kaminsky rendered it, collaborating with Project Jericho, whose at-risk youth poured in 300 hours of work and their hearts.

Then, a “Greetings from Springfield” postcard was added around the corner by a national group that’s done dozens in cities from Anchorage to Bermuda. While welcomed, it also led local canvas and mural painter Pete Hrinko to call on the Public Art Committee.

Hrinko: He kind of expressed some concerns how it was installed.

Stafford: The mural had been painted on interior brick that was exposed to the elements after an adjoining building was demolished. With interior brick, he said...

Hrinko: …You're not getting that much adhesion with your primer to help prevent any moisture building from the back in the paint from peeling, cracking as the years go on.

Stafford: The committee not only took his advice, but this summer tapped Hrinko, and local artists Kelley Booze and Nathan Conner, to help Columbus artist Jeremy Jarvis paint the Transformation Butterfly mural on the back of Springfield’s State Theater. When Jarvis contracted Covid, the locals were on their own. Here’s Hrinko.

Hrinko: I’d worked on large scale murals, but this was larger than I’ve really done myself.

Stafford: Its successful completion – on time – left the artists and 30 volunteers feeling as tall as the 45-foot butterfly they created. An opportunity they had because the Public Art Committee existed. As Wojcik explains.

Wojcik: Project Harmony and ABC Disney were producing this program to be aired in December. They were trying to identify a project that would leave a permanent mark on the community. Some kind of mural was kind of an obvious thing to consider. And we happened to be willing and available and collaborate with the team.

Stafford: Murals backed by the committee, businesses and artists now celebrate a variety of Springfield successes: Entertainer John Legend is on the side of the State Theater. A block north is a flapper girl Springfield artist Cole Phillips painted for a 1927 life magazine cover. Another mural honors the city’s late, great vibraphonist Johnny Lytle. In it, the artist Shush incorporates metal bars from a vibraphone Lytle actually played.

Stafford: Those and other accomplishments crescendoed October 11, when a crowd gathered at Main and Limestone Streets to celebrate internationally known artist Gaia’s mural of Springfield Civil Rights icon Hattie Moseley. The mural also allowed assistants Hrinko and fine art photographer Shem Schutte to do what all the involved artists have done: re-envision their own futures.

Shem Schutte: To work with someone that’s so distinguished in his field but such a laid back, beautiful person. It just reall inspired me because a dream became a reality that was in grasp.

Stafford: The lesson here? That if artfully done, community development – so often associated with bricks, mortar and institutions -- can develop the talent and potential of the human beings who live there. And it can all start with a bike ride. In Springfield for WYSO news, I’m Tom Stafford.