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June 09, 2016

CIA alums Steward, Esner bring work to new canvas

CIA alums Steward, Esner bring work to new canvas

Red Line projects enliven urban railway

By Karen Sandstrom

For a fine artist, a large blank canvas is one thing. But a 30-foot-wide concrete abutment presents a new world of challenges.

So say artists Darius Steward ’08 and Amber Esner ’13, who this week completed murals on overpass supports along the Regional Transit Authority’s Red Line rapid transit route. The line runs from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport to downtown Cleveland, where the urban landscape meets wildflowers and gold finches.

The CIA alumni were among 19 artists who installed a dozen new works this month as part of Inter|Urban, a public art project coordinated by Land Studio and sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency and the Cleveland Foundation.

Esner and Steward were selected from more than 300 applicants worldwide to contribute to a series of murals that liven up the Red Line trip. The works are based in part on writing by winners of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, which honor literature that addresses issues of race and diversity.

Neither Steward nor Esner had previously made work that required the aid of a mechanical lift, but they needed one this time; their working space here stretched more than 15 feet high.

“For me, the challenge was kind of trying to still be me even at this kind of scale,” Steward says. His painting, based on a short-short story called “Rain” by John Edgar Wideman, features an image of a young child moving on a swing while two young boys stand together in a lower corner, one holding a blank sign.

The sign, Steward says, “is a way for me to talk about how sometimes we’re voiceless, but also how people bring their own judgments and stereotypes to the table. When they fill in those blanks, they get to think about what they’re saying and why. For me, it’s about starting the conversation.”

The artists used a projector to help them position their sketches on the wall, and then went to work with cans of exterior house paint. “Mixing became a challenge,” says Steward, who couldn’t rely on using a mixing palette as he would on a regular canvas. “I’m putting two colors on the brush and seeing how it looks on the wall. I did a lot of altering.”

For Esner, the biggest challenge was simply estimating the amount of time it would take to paint all of the objects that are part of her composition, which is based on a poem called “The End” by Elizabeth Alexander, which concludes with the lines:

in the rain
in the wind
it holds tight to its branches
then one day
it is gone.

Esner selected the text as inspiration because it “related to all my other work in general – relationships ending, relationships in general.” The objects in her mural are things that are symbolic of ended relationships. A flag pin represents a friend’s late grandfather. A pinecone alludes to a lost romance.

After about a week of painting, Esner says, “I’m feeling great. I’m super excited that my style was able to relate from paper onto a wall.”

Steward, who was born and raised in East Cleveland, said he was eager to meet the challenge of a large-scale public work. He applied, he says, because he knew that “to be one of the artists representing Cleveland would be a great thing. I felt I needed to be one of the artists, honestly.”

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