Subtle Force 

Cleveland Public Library's restored Coltman mural is worth a closer look.

"Dominance of the City," detail of the center panel.
  • "Dominance of the City," detail of the center panel.
Library art is a little like elevator music: bland, nothing too rad or gross, and certainly nothing sexy. It's there to furnish ambiance and calm the patron/public.

At first glance, that's true of the Cleveland Public Library murals. But Ora Coltman's recently restored 1933-'34 mural "Dominance of the City," now on the third floor of the Main Library, has more going for it than that. It actually makes a moral judgment in a politely metaphoric way about old-time Cleveland commercial interests and the city's need for the spiritual vitality of immigrants.

Not that Coltman said so in so many words. He described the work as a "glorification of the city of Cleveland, which, contemptuous of the obstruction of the river and its valley," had built bridges to link the "mercantile" East Side with the "foreign" West Side.

This was the first mural commissioned in Cleveland by the newly created Public Works of Art Program, which morphed into the WPA within a year and became one of the cornerstones of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal "quick fixes" to bolster an economy rocked by the Great Depression.

Although several other local artists were later commissioned to do WPA art for the library, Coltman's stands out as more subtle, more European, and less American Primitive than the others.

At 75, Coltman wasn't a naive painter. Respected in the local American Scene Movement (a tag given artists at the beginning of the century who painted to celebrate the country's rapid economic development), he had studied art in Europe and spent his summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, producing Impressionist landscapes, generally in oils. The work he proposed for the Cleveland PWAP's approval tackled a safe enough subject to pass the committee's screening: the need for community unity.

It's how Coltman's striking mural depicts that need that makes it a wry observation about the limitations of commercial interests. He makes his point in part by the placement of objects in the three oil-on-canvas panels that make up the triptych. The center panel (79 by 136 inches) shows a drawbridge suspended over the Cuyahoga, its strong steel bars and beams angled at two o'clock between the east and west sides of the Flats, with the larger stationary bridges distant behind it. The canvas's soft shades of brown, blue, and green oils suggest tranquility, with the moisture over the Cuyahoga giving the scene a veiled, otherworldly hue, like a French Impressionist landscape.

On its left, a slender panel shows the chunky Ohio Bell Building looming in the haze behind much smaller city buildings in the foreground. Sunlight shines on the Bell Building, emphasizing its blocky, powerful, masculine contours (this is said, after all, to have been the inspiration for Superman's Daily Planet building) and throwing deep shades into city streets. On the right is another slim panel, this one showing a hilly area with rows of Easter egg-tinted homes in Tremont and, rising behind the houses, the dreamlike presence of St. Theodosius Cathedral. The light falls softly on the church, which turns feminine in the glow, its globular round domes swelling like lush exotic fruits with points tipping heavenward.

In the Ohio Bell panel, rectangular sections of dark color suggest crouching weight, heavy blocks; in contrast, the panel with the cathedral has light tones and lifts the eye upward, following the onion domes of the Russian Orthodox church and suggesting spiritual concerns.

(Coltman had created a similar contrast in "Monuments." In one panel, he again has a looming Ohio Bell Building, this time behind the gates to the Erie Street Cemetery. Everything on the canvas looks dead and heavy. But on a second panel, depicting home and church, he's made a habitable and hospitable environment.)

In "Dominance," the city -- via the lowering bridge that will span the gulf -- reaches out to the cathedral and the softly verdant slopes around it. The angle of the bridge is that of assault; it's poised like a battering ram. The conventional view is that the mural advocates city/laborer cooperation, so that workers could supply the city's material needs. An alternative view suggests that this mural really represents a hunger on the part of the city for values not dependent on money -- values represented by Old World churches and industrious immigrants, who bring new energy and spiritual strength to a town bankrupt in more than cash.

The work leaves it up to the viewer. Its action is frozen (the center bridge remains suspended, not quite uniting the two facets of Coltman's metaphorical city), but its intent is clear: Cleveland should be united, apparently because East, not West, needs it.

Hidden in storage since a 1970s library remodeling, this pastel mural, now cleaned of dirt and layers of varnish by the Intermuseum Conservation Association Laboratory in Oberlin, can charm and intrigue a new generation.

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