Riders heading to downtown Cleveland on the RTA’s Red Line may have noticed quite a few more pops of color adorning the city landscape over the past two weeks. The colors have a story, and each story comes from a work or writer in the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award canon.
Inter|Urban, the collaboration among the City of Cleveland, the Cleveland Foundation, North East Ohio Area Coordinating Agency, RTA and LAND studio, has filled the 19-mile stretch from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and into downtown Cleveland with bright, vibrant murals. Coming up in time for the Republican National Convention in July will be two photo installations. All the art is inspired by Anisfield-Wolf texts and writers.
Seventeen artists from around the world converged on Cleveland in June for a public art blitz, creating an outdoor gallery and anchoring installations at the airport and Terminal Tower. Eight artists are based in Cleveland, with the others representing South Africa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, California, Hawaii, and Florida.
“This marvelous project moves the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards out into the city, showcased through original art spaced along the everyday paths of thousands of commuters,” said Karen R. Long, who manages the prize. “We expect the murals and the photography to start important conversations and serve as gateways to the books themselves, and the galvanizing ideas they contain.”
View the artworks below and hear from the artists in their own words how each piece came to be. Photos, unless otherwise specified, taken by Brandon Shigeta:
San Francisco muralist Aaron De La Cruz drew inspiration from a selection of Dolores Kendrick’s “Sophie Climbing the Stairs,” about an enslaved woman sneaking off to read. The passage evoked a memory of his parents speaking in Spanish to keep their conversations a mystery to the young De La Cruz and his brother. Drawing off the theme of literacy, his mural features deconstructed letters and punctuation marks.
Cleveland artist Alan Giberson’s mural came from a brief scene in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when a New York Times reporter meets the civil rights leader for the first time. “Noblesse Oblige” is a French phrase referring the responsibility of those with privilege to extend generosity to those less fortunate. The artist, who specializes in hand-painted signage and gold-leaf lettering, was eager to tackle this project. “This was a big challenge, being the largest thing I’ve ever painted.”
Amber Esner, a Cleveland illustrator, was struck by Alexander’s ode to the dissolution of a relationship, as she lists the items left behind after a breakup. “My concept is based around the process of how people deal with loss by letting go of — or holding on to — specific objects,” she writes.
Cleveland illustrator and writer Margaret Kimball drew upon Martha Collins’ White Pages, a collection of untitled poems that explore white privilege and the ongoing racial divide in America. Kimball latched on to the repetition of the phrase “Yes, but” within the poem and used a minimalist color scheme to make one word prominent—YES. “The word is inclusive and strong and in this case has no strings attached, nothing to interrupt it,” Kimball writes.
If you happen to be in the passenger seat as you’re driving to and from Cleveland Hopkins airport, take a look around to see if you can spot these 35-foot tall overpass pillars, designed by Detroit artist Louise Chen. “The totem pillars are a celebration of the way cultures represent themselves in the language of ornament, with design inspired by many different cultures spanning the world,” she writes.
The Philadelphia-based artist describes this piece, titled “Unmask,” as “a visual metaphor about self-awareness, self-reflection and perception.”
Cleveland artist Osmad Muhammad used his mural to make a statement about national and global atrocities. The burning woman in foreground is a reference to Hiroshima and the burning ships depict the slave trade throughout the Americas.
Published in 1951, Langston Hughes‘ Montage of a Dream Deferred reads like a jazz record, full of conflicting rhythms and short bursts of animation. Cleveland artist Ryan Jaenke took Hughes’ melody and translated it to this mural on Cleveland’s west side. Hughes won his Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1954.
Jasper Wong, Hawaiian artist and co-curator of the Interurban project, explored the themes of luck that featured prominently in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He peppered his mural with black cats and broken down cars (symbols of bad luck) and rabbits (symbols of good luck).
Detroit artist Ellen Rutt used bold geometric patterns to transform these underpass pillars. Her “Patchwork Cleveland” mural was inspired by Adichie’s call to avoid “making generalizations about culture based on a singular experience or limited knowledge.” When Rutt moved to Detroit in 2011, she quickly realized the broader narrative about the Rust Belt city was flawed. “It was in Detroit, surrounded by amazing street art, that my interest in murals grew from awefilled admiration, to an unstoppable desire and ultimately, an incredibly important part of my art practice,” she writes.
A Cleveland native, Darius Steward is a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art. His mural features yellow as a primary color, the prominent color from John Edgar Wideman’s short story, “The Rain.”
South African artist Faith47 brought her international murals to Cleveland as part of her Psychic Power of Animals series, which attempts to “bring the energy of nature back into the urban metropolis.”
“There’s an inherent irony in recreating nature on cement, so the series is a nostalgic reminder of what we’ve lost but also an attempt to reintegrate that into the present,” Faith47 writes on her website. “We have become so distanced from nature, so these murals are an attempt to reconnect us with the natural world.”
San Francisco artist Brendan Monroe took cues from the dangerous sea voyage in Nam Le’s The Boat as he created this expansive mural. Look closely and you can see a child overboard.
“My father and I had a complicated relationship like the one in the story,” Kosman wrote, “and he died when I was fairly young, but he taught me most of the lessons I use now in my everyday life.”
If Edith Anisfield Wolf were alive today,” Detroit artist Pat Perry wrote, “I think she’d be encouraging us all to take direct aim at the great moral and social crises of our time. I can earnestly say that I think she’d be proud to see folks employing ideals taught to us by the past, in order to tackle issues of the present.”
A 200-page book on the untimely death of a spouse hardly seems like it would make for light summer reading. But as I’ve devoured Elizabeth Alexander‘s new memoir, The Light of The World, I’ve discovered that there’s beauty in loss, there’s sparkle in remembrance.
The poet lost her husband, painter and chef Ficre Ghebreyesus (pronounced Fee-kray Geb-reh-yess-oos) in April 2012, days after his 50th birthday. Their 15-year union produced two sons, Solomon and Simon, and a cozy life in Connecticut, where Alexander is a professor at Yale University. She composed “Praise Song for the Day” for President Obama’s 2009 inauguration; a year later she won the 2010 Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement prize.
Light does not begin with her husband’s passing, with Alexander preferring we get to know the man before we get to know the ghost. We get to peek into their daily courtship, the mundane aspects of a relationship—leaving for work, waiting up for a partner to get home—taking on a heightened importance. She paints a portrait of a man filled with pride for his Eritrean heritage and an extended family that spanned the globe. Still fresh from her loss, she decided to write this memoir to “fix him in place, to pass time in his company, to make sure I remember, even though I know I will never forget.”
Alexander insists that she knew she would marry her husband at first sight, confiding that she felt a “visceral torque” after laying eyes on her future beloved. But perhaps more powerfully, Alexander is able to show how much her husband loved her, how much of his life was dedicated to bringing light to hers.
Readers holding their breath for the details of Ghebreyesus’ death should know that it comes quickly. Here, the pain and uncertainty of death arrive fresh, even though we know what story we signed up to read. Alexander wrestles with the brutal unfairness of it all: “The slim one who eats oatmeal and flaxseed is the one who dies, while the plump one who eats bacon unabashed stays alive.”
Their story is overwhelmingly and achingly beautiful, with passages that elevate ho-hum Sunday dinners to love-drenched culinary affairs. (The inclusion of a few of Ghebreyesus’ best recipes only tease the senses; I’ve got my eye on the shrimp barka.) Their whole lives were art, from the music to the food to the telling of it all—it is a fitting tribute that one of her husband’s paintings adorns the cover.
“What are the odds that we would end up in the same place and fall in love?” she mused. “Once upon a time, halfway around the world, two women were pregnant at the same time in very different places and their children grew up and found each other.” What are the odds, indeed.
For the first time in history, two inaugural poets shared the same stage and spoke about what the experience meant for their lives. Earlier this month, 2009 Inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander (also an Anisfield-Wolf lifetime achievement winner in 2010) and 2013 Inaugural poet Richard Blanco spoke at Yale University, with Blanco making his first public appearance since inauguration.
“I felt a little less exposed with 800,000 people than I do right now,” Blanco joked in front of the small Yale audience. The two spoke about feedback after delivering the poem, Blanco’s writing style, and what role poetry can play in the political realm. The conversation between Alexander and Blanco begins at the 29:30 mark.
On the eve of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, Yale University hosted a live chat with Elizabeth Alexander, whose “Praise Song Of The Day” was her selection at his first inauguration. Watch the video above for her thoughts on what it’s like to be selected to have a part in such a tremendous day.
We talk about all things dealing with race and diversity here at Anisfield-Wolf but there is one subject we haven’t explored much — the rise of hip hop. In this quick video from Big Think (one of favorite sources of videos of all the people you’d want to hear from), 2012 winner Elizabeth Alexander talks about the nuances of African American poetry and the link to hip-hop music. Check it out and let us know what you think.
Because it is more appealing to hear from the authors themselves, we’ve rounded up some of the best quotes we’ve heard this year (even if they’re a bit older) from some of our distinguished Anisfield-Wolf Award winners. Enjoy!
“I want you to show them the difference between what they think you are and what you can be.”
— Ernest J. Gaines, A Lesson Before Dying
”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”
— Toni Morrison
”Art, after all, is – at its best – a lie that tells us the truth.”
— Nam Le
”Poetry is what you find / in the dirt in the corner, / overhear on the bus, God / in the details, the only way / to get from here to there.”
— Elizabeth Alexander, Ars Poetica #100: I Believe
“One of the things I love about writing novels is that you realize that you’re not all that interested in the bottom. You’re more interested in things that are bottomless. You become fascinated by the questions, and the answers to those questions are secondary, if they become important at all.”
— Nicole Krauss
“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.”