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Latest Inter|Urban Mural Celebrates Tyehimba Jess’ “Olio”


Tyehimba Jess
is a strikingly architectural poet.

It makes sense that his 14-line poem, “Blind Tom Plays for Confederate Troops, 1863” inspired the new Anisfield-Wolf InterIUrban mural from the artist Mike Perry.

The new work braids along the right angle of two walls at Ford Drive and Hessler Road in Cleveland, Perry’s first project in this city. He created the 2015 wraparound mural at the Facebook offices in New York City and is probably best known for his colorful animation on “Broad City,” the Comedy Central series.

While navigating a week of Midwestern October weather, Perry dropped in on the Cleveland School of the Arts, where he spoke to a morning class on street art. Wearing a bright blue sweatshirt with his motto “Don’t Give Up,” Perry brought a relaxed, coffee-sipping presence. He is partial to creating flowers with a surrealistic bent.

“I kind of call B.S. on this notion that you have to choose to be an artist,” the 36-year-old said. “Some people can’t help but be weirdo creatives.” He encouraged students to sketch while he chatted about his own path from Kansas to Minnesota to the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., the same borough that, incidentally, is home to Tyehimba Jess.

Kelly likened his complicated art to meditation: “I can’t not do this.”

Jon Sedor, a second-year teacher at the School of the Arts, observed that “street art is a way to reach a lot of people without being too in-your-face.”

Kelly, his jeans splotched with paint, delivered this advice: “Make the work, put it out there, let people see it. Murals are a public forum for people to accidentally discover what you do – like the internet.”

The artist/animator read a brief from LAND Studio about Jess and soaked in several poems. “I felt inspired and tried a couple of drawings,” he said. “I don’t know what this mural is about yet; I haven’t finished it.”

Now it commands one of the most heavily-trafficked pedestrian corners of Cleveland. One source, “Blind Tom,” was the nickname for Thomas Wiggins. He was a musical prodigy, a slave, and one of the best known touring pianists of the 19th century. Kelly’s mural features a snaking keyboard.

Here is “Blind Tom Plays for The Confederate Troops, 1863”:

The slave’s hands dance free, unfettered, flying
across ivory, feet stomping toward
a crescendo that fills the forest pine,
reminding the Rebs what they’re fighting for –
black, captive labor. Tom, slick with sweat, shows
a new trick: Back turned to his piano,
he leans like a runner about to throw
himself to freedom through forest bramble –
until he spreads his hands behind him. He
hitches fingertips to keys, hauls Dixie
slowly out of the battered upright’s teeth
like a worksong dragged across cotton fields,
like a plow, weighted and dirty, ringing
with a slaver’s song at master’s bidding.

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