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Ashtabula Parachute Mural Project Promotes Artistic Pride, Community Placemaking

Ashtabula Parachute Mural Project Promotes Artistic Pride, Community Placemaking

A new mural in Ashtabula is not only adding to the downtown landscape, but it’s also changing how some residents view public art in the city.

Designed by Minneapolis-based artist Greta McLain, the 500-square-foot parachute cloth mural features imagery that celebrates Ashtabula’s history as a northern port city and terminus on the Underground Railroad.

The mural, located on the side of the Ultimate Appearance Salon building (4702 Main Ave.), received an ArtsNEXT grant during the Ohio Arts Council’s (OAC) initial and major FY 2018 funding round

"When I heard that ‘Ashtabula’ is a native term that was translated as ‘River of Many Fish,’ I immediately heard ‘abundance’ or ‘more than enough,’” McLain said. “I thought of what’s there, like the natural resources, rich history, and the people and their relationships.” 

Throughout the mural creation and installation process, McLain said she had the opportunity to personally observe the formation of a special relationship between the city and the idea of largescale public art. But, she added, it wasn’t immediately clear how the project would be received.

“When I first presented the sketch, I felt like I was being fed to the wolves, in that (many people were) not interested and not smelling what I was cooking,” McLain said. “It was my role and job as an artist to be open to letting that go with the understanding that the goal of the whole thing was to invite everybody along for the ride.” 

Getting everyone on board turned out to be a hands-on endeavor, said Ashtabula Arts Center Executive Director Meeghan Humphrey.

“In this community, we don’t have a tradition of public art in that way,” she said, recalling the skepticism that surrounded the initial review process. “(One individual) was really angry and very negative. When I got the OK to do it, she got up and walked out of the room.” 

However, Humphrey said her demeanor changed as soon as she picked up a paintbrush at the community painting party, an event that attracted more than 70 participants. 

“She came to that public painting party and halfway through it pulled me aside and said, ‘I take back everything I said. This is a fabulous event. I can’t believe you got all these people here to do this,’” Humphrey said. “I think, to me, that’s the power of what we’re doing. You can change a mind.”

The 10-day mural creation process introduced the technique of creating a 30-foot-by-25-foot image out of the same material used to make parachutes. The design was projected onto smaller pieces of cloth, painted in sections, and then adhered by hand to an acrylic gel-coated surface.

Humphrey said the collaborative nature of the project was what initially drew her to this art form.

“From the very beginning, I wanted to do this parachute cloth method because there’s that community component,” she said. “I think it’s nice when artists do decorative things in public spaces, and I think it has the power to create a transformation. But when it’s a community project, that power is doubled.” 

Jane Haines, past president of the Ashtabula Downtown Development Association (ADDA) and the property owner of the building on which the mural was placed, said she was excited, albeit slightly nervous, to be a part of an artistic placemaking project. 

“When Meeghan came to the ADDA board and asked ... I immediately said, ‘Sure, you can use (my building),” said Haines, who also owns Ultimate Appearance Hair Salon. “When they were circulating the advertisements (for the paint party), it said it was a ‘giant paint by numbers project’ and that ‘no talent was required.’ And I was like, ‘OK, I just want to pass out now!’”

Luckily, Haines’ apprehension was short- lived, almost immediately dissipating once she saw the dedication and pride showcased at the community painting party. 

“I think there are moments in life that, I guess, are perfect moments,” she said. “(The paint party) was one of those perfect moments. We were all doing art and it was beautiful.”

Looking back at a week and a half of long hours and hard work, Humphrey said she is pleased that the mural has the power to change the city both physically and philosophically.

“We have people who worked on (the project) who are going to drive by and say, “Oh yeah, I worked on that mural!’” she said. “I changed a mind with this project, which is, to me, stunning. That’s like the best possible outcome.”

As Ashtabula celebrates its mural, McLain said she would not be surprised if more art was in the works.

“There was one community member who was like, ‘Yeah, this is like the best public art that we have locally—so far,’” she said. “There is that feeling that this is just the beginning ... Local residents are getting pumped about investing artistically in this place. It’s so powerful, and I think there was a seed of that that was sowed through this project.” 

Additional information about the Ashtabula Arts Center can be found at ashtabulaartscenter.org.

To learn more about opportunities available for arts organizations through the Ohio Arts Council, visit oac.ohio.gov/grants

ABOUT THE OHIO ARTS COUNCIL
The Ohio Arts Council is a state agency that funds and supports quality arts experiences to strengthen Ohio communities culturally, educationally, and economically. Connect with the 
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Photo credit: Photos courtesy of the Ashtabula Arts Center

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