"I think it takes a lot of nerve, a lot of guts, to be here," says artist Katherine Chilcote. "You need to really believe that your creativity is meant to survive in a vast gray space, and that your creative energy is able to take you somewhere else. Cleveland has a very steady heartbeat — not like New York or other cities that are constantly having heart attacks. If you listen to that, it sustains you. But it's hard to hear at times."
I'm talking with the 30-year-old artist in the middle of the reinvented west-side area called Gordon Square Arts District. We're around the corner from Katherine's one-bedroom home (purchased in 2008 for $5,000 and rehabbed with the help of friends), talking about her art — including a show of her smaller, more nuanced paintings and drawings that opens Friday at Perimeter Gallery.
But that's the least of what she's been up to in the last few years. Since returning to Cleveland in 2005 following graduate studies at the New York Studio School, she's founded a nonprofit organization called Building Bridges, putting together funding, expertise and workers for more than half a dozen ambitious projects. The group has a double mission: pursuing a jobs-and- education agenda while beautifying the large, blank inner-city spaces she talks about.
It's all about making meaningful passages in the city and hopefully binding some urban wounds. Chilcote designs large-scale murals and employs inner-city kids, as well as other arts educators, to work with her. The murals are executed in sections, usually on large metal panels that are reassembled onsite. Most Clevelanders have probably glimpsed a couple of these gigantic scenes. One is located across from St. Malachi's Church at the north end of West 25th Street. Completed in 2006, Chilcote's panels there are mounted on the banked concrete highway overpass. The painting, which measures 12 by 40 feet, was completed by high-school-aged students — paid interns in Chilcote's Bridges Summer Mural Institute. Other murals are at Case Western Reserve University's Interfaith Center and St. Paul's Community Church at West 45th and Franklin. Fairmount Presbyterian Church in Cleveland Heights commissioned a work titled "Gathering Knowledge" to celebrate its 90th anniversary in 2006.
Chilcote's palette tends toward blue and muted shades of green, brown and red: a fluid, rainy range of colors. Often, water imagery is present in her works as gushing streams or broad rivers. Her current projects include a painting titled "Words of the River," which incorporates poetry into public murals. It will be installed at the waterline of the Cuyahoga River basin.
Another 48-by-36-foot mural was placed along the waterline of the Cuyahoga at Settlers Landing this past June. "It's about the building of the Erie Canal, the progressions of our river and the contradictory nature and movement of water — how it sustains us, yet can drown us," she says.