Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Hung Out to Draw

At the crossroads of Cleveland’s often usurious relationship with local artists

Posted By on Tue, May 27, 2014 at 9:35 AM

art-5.JPG
I’m sitting in my editor’s office and I’m talking about THIS LOREN NAJI THING and how there’s some real shit going down in the Cleveland arts scene right now and how we need to jump on this. Cleveland is on the verge of some very heavy backlash from its most favorite little marketing subjects, the artists. The pitch, which I was supposed to spend more time massaging and fleshing out and generally explaining, is entirely half-baked, but I’m saying that the full ramifications of this thing have yet to remotely come into focus. This is the wave, I’m exuberantly saying, the wave that’s gonna keep pitching skyward until either something brutish and monolithic or something natural like gravity crashes into it and sends the whole thing cascading into the earth.

We’re discussing the matter in our own brand of weekly multifaceted discussion, as magazine writers and editors are wont to do, and my idea of covering in first-person the sixth annual Drawn and Quartered event in Ohio City is sidelined into either the void or, worse, the blog. A broader piece on the arts and their role in neighborhood evolution is tentatively agreed upon for later this year (we decide to hone the angle in the coming days/weeks), and I look down at my calendar and attempt to ward off a newfound sense of ambivalence about the May 24 event at Loren Naji’s gallery: “Drawn and Quartered VI,” taglined on Facebook as “Think World Wrestling Federation meets Art School meets Cabaret.” Still, I can’t help but remain intrigued. I decide that I must go.

The big news rests on everyone’s tongues. Michael Salinger, the emcee at Drawn and Quartered VI, recognizes this. He mentions through an oddly too-small bullhorn how we’re all “pissed off at Cleveland” and how this event is really gonna be where it’s at. It’s a great introductory note. The crowd eats that line up, of course, because the most recent raid on Loren Naji’s gallery happened not even 24 hours prior — it had been maybe two weeks since my initial “arts scene” pitch — and we are all on some level just totally seething with commentary about what in the world is going on here.

But before all of that I’m sitting in my editor’s office, and we’re debating how to cover this thing. Here’s one way: You show up at the biggest competitive arts event of the season and you show Cleveland’s “civic leaders” what in the world they’re missing. None of the city’s leaderati are going to be there, duh, so it likely falls to some local writer to finesse the thing and show these dimwits what sort of fun actually happens in this town.

#thisiscle, as it were.

Slideshow
Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery
Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery

Drawn and Quartered VI at Great Lakes Brewery

Click to View 15 slides

Drawn and Quartered VI was supposed to take place at Loren Naji’s Studio Gallery on West 25th Street, like it usually does each year. But on May 23, Naji’s spot was raided and the closing reception of the exhibit “Undercurrents" as well as the concurrent launch party for Michael Gill’s CAN arts journal were summarily shut down by the Cleveland Fire Department.

"I'm just doing my job,” fire department inspector James Ruffin was quoted by The Plain Dealer as saying. What he was referring to was Naji’s lack of an official occupancy permit, which is a whole separate issue from that time earlier in May when state liquor agents raided his gallery and stole more than $600 worth of retail-bought alcohol. That first raid and a series of other building inspections by the city of Cleveland were all initiated by a man named Henry Senyak, who lives across the street from Tremont Tap House and, by all accounts, despises fun. Senyak’s name now comes up in about three quarters of all conversations about Cleveland’s arts scene, which, judging by Senyak’s cringeworthy Facebook page, makes the old guy really happy.

Since then, Naji has been working to fix various compliance issues that were also brought to his attention. He says that he had recently brought in fire extinguishers and installed “EXIT” signs at the doors to comply with the fire code. He also says that his certificate of occupancy was being processed, and that he was given to understand that this was enough to cover him. Naji adds that he was assured “by city officials” that he was all good for the weekend ahead: CAN’s launch on Friday and Drawn and Quartered on Saturday were copacetic, as far as city bullshit goes. The problem is that the fire department showed up on Friday night and shut everything down.

“There’s not an occupancy permit. There’s no argument, there’s nothing we can do without the police coming here, and we don’t want that,” Gill said as the fire department trounced the night's fun.

Afterwards, Naji told Scene that he’d been visited twice by Cleveland police that day. The first time, he says, one officer came to his gallery and said Naji “may or may not” have a warrant out for a parking issue unrelated to his recent gallery troubles. Naji said he took care of that issue right away. Later, he said he was visited by a pair of cops asking if everything was in order for that night’s event. At the time, the police seemed satisfied.

I got a text from another Scene writer that night as I was hanging out at the Trey Anastasio show at House of Blues telling me that Naji had been raided again. The news only confirmed the two-fold concern that we all had been mulling over: a) Naji is being targeted by building code puritans and b) the city, which as an entity has remained silent on this matter, unequivocally is not taking a stance on the artists living and working here, who are now converging on either full-on revolt or full-on timidity. Some artists are gathering publicly to protest the raids; others are pulling back and falling in line with the notable chilling effect running around town these days. Both concerns - the individual THIS LOREN NAJI THING and the broader community ramifications - are major, undeniable problems for a city that thinks of itself as so culturally aware and creatively intriguing. “Never mainstream. Never meant to be,” Positively Cleveland’s outsourced cohorts in Kansas City recently described us. Pretty cool-sounding, huh? But without action from People Who Aren’t The Artists Themselves, Cleveland stands no chance of rising above this storm and actually settling its score with the artists who built its most beloved neighborhoods.

There’s a policeman stationed outside Great Lakes Brewing Company’s tasting room, which is where Drawn and Quartered VI has been moved to in light of the raid on Naji’s gallery. He’s there to keep the order and make sure that people aren’t, like, carting Dortmunders out onto Carroll Avenue. There’s a short staircase up to the room, coasting by the brewery’s massive and overall odorous vats, and then attendees burst into a sunny room filled with chairs and artists and generally fun-loving peeps.

There are five teams competing tonight, because Drawn and Quartered is a competition, after all: Dr. Sketchy Cleveland, the Murray Hill Life Drawing Group, N.O.I.S. (Northern Ohio Illustrators Society), the Pretentious Tremont Artists of the Literary Cafe and newcomers the West Side Markers, which is probably the best team name of the year, I would say. They’re all decked out in team-based garb, though some artists from, I think, the Dr. Sketchy crowd are also sporting some wild-ass masks — luchadores, etc. — which gives the scene a sometimes-Halloween feel. (The Dr. Sketchy people are also playing up their own motif by wearing lab coats.)

The team thing really grants Drawn and Quartered is this competitive angle. By the end of the night, we’re all going to be hopped up on energy and quite literally screaming at the judges — in a most positive manner, of course — that that particular artist deserved at least one more point just to be fair! I mean, come on, look at that drawing! Before we’re all well lubricated with Great Lakes’ most desirous mid-range brewskis, though, we’re all kind of gently mingling in the fading Saturday evening light. The brewery’s tasting room draws some fine exterior lighting from its Ohio City environs, and nearly everyone I talk to is quick to point that out. By the time the sun has disappeared, we all begin lamenting the twilight.

Seriously, the sunlight streaming into this old brick building was no joke.

I’ve arrived solo and, because whatinthehellelse am I supposed to do, I amble toward the bar and order their finest pour of Elliot Ness. I have at least one and probably two Xavier Rudd tunes stuck in my head this particular evening, so I’m kind of bobbing along outwardly silently as I wait for the buzz to kick in. I would highly recommend his 2010 album Koonyum Sun, which was recorded with South African duo Izintaba. The melody to “Fresh Green Freedom” was undoubtedly just chugging along in my dome as I sipped that first Ness.

There’s not much happening at first, though I give a handful of hellos out to people I’ve met before and I kind of take the emotional temperature of this thing prior to its official start. I’m still not clear what’s scheduled to take place. In fact, for a few minutes, I’m staring around at the artists milling about and I’m wondering if, in fact, this is it and the whole event is just some sort of in-the-moment experiential thing. I’m assured otherwise and I continue nursing my Ness with vigor.

I think aloud to myself that I shouldn’t be calling it “my Ness.” From across the room somehow, a woman hears this and gives me a terrible look.

Eminent emcee Michael Salinger gives the 10-minute warning and there’s a vague sense that we should all be getting into place, but for most of us that means just continuing to drink our beers and perhaps looking around a bit aimlessly as the sun kicks off its western descent through the windows and - Oh, goddammit! I forgot my pen in the car! But, and here’s the thing, because Ohio City tends to be such a traffic wormhole on even its bad days, I’ve had to drop my car off on something called Carthage or Chatham Road and that seems to me a hike at this most pivotal hour. I opt to check out the pen-like offerings at Dave’s Supermarket. I down my Ness and I give the bartender a look that says, in my mind at least, Holy Shit I Hope They Sell Pens Across the Street.

This was my first experience at a Dave’s Supermarket. I know that they’re all over the place, I just haven’t had the pleasure. But I walk in and immediately start looking for that one aisle in every supermarket that features, like, school or office supplies. Dave’s Supermarket’s selection is abysmal, but I settle for a two-pack of clicking ballpoints because there were no single-pen packs available somehow. The guy ahead of me in line is buying three cartons of caramel ice cream and he makes sure that he’s getting the three-for-$11 deal that he was promised back in the ice cream aisle. (He got the deal.) I appear weird for buying just pens at the supermarket on Saturday night, but I explain to the clerk that I’m a journalist working a very important assignment across the street and that I need these pens right now. To be clear, I go on, I prefer to work with straight-up audio recording equipment and leave the notebook for just observational meanderings during interviews, but I’ve decided to go native and use nothing but good ol’ pen-and-paper tonight. Eventually, I leave Dave’s with goal achieved.

Loren Naji, center, joins the contest.
  • ERIC SANDY/SCENE
  • Loren Naji, center, joins the contest.

Outside, I pass by the police officer again and cast a slight nod his way. He’s smoking and mostly probably trying to forget that he’s been granted Drawn and Quartered VI detail for the evening.

Inside, Salinger is telling everyone that this is now the one-minute warning, and I hustle back to the bar. Photo opportunities will abound when this thing starts, I realize, and I’ll be damned if I go in empty-handed. This time, an enthusiastic brunette pours another Ness for me. She smiles, and I pay in cash. The Xavier song is still clawing at me as I rifle through receipts and handbills and pen packaging to gather a fistful of one-dollar bills from my pocket and melodically toss them on the bar. I smile back.

Salinger begins laying out the rules of the night, which are few and far between, except for the fact that the artists on these teams must pretty much follow the one guideline they’re given per contest (draw with your non-dominant hand, for instance; draw blindly; draw these models as they just ceaselessly move before you). Then he points to the other side of the room, which is where the Long Draw is happening. Those artists are just going to draw/paint/etc. one model sitting in one position for the whole event, which will in sum take about two-and-a-half-hours. The model’s name is Carmen and she’s wearing a white tutu and occasionally will take breaks to down fine Great Lakes beer and talk shop with the artists and non-artists.

He — “he” being Salinger again — is telling everyone now, through a small bullhorn jutting out from his moustached face, that you are all free to walk in front the artists and even jostle the artists and, hey, to a point even give the artists a bit of good-natured hell as they attempt to draw models who just won’t sit still. “They are not breakable,” Salinger says, seeming to egg on the whole jostle-the-artist bit. “This is art as competitive sport.”

As Supriya Nair recently wrote in a feature for Sports Illustrated, “When the World Cup came, it came as a festivity; a time when the joy and misery of an intense, ordered, artful universe could come to co-exist with, and often supersede, the burdens of a chaotic real world. Sport is a way of ending one routine and beginning another.” We could easily drop the World Cup connotations and just focus on how sports drive a line of demarcation through fans’ day-to-days. One routine ends, and another, ever so briefly, begins and overtakes all with which it connects.

Well, artists, like athletes, dwell in their routines. Now, at events like Drawn and Quartered VI, we as the audience enter the picture and turn their worlds into sport. It is a competition, but, despite the judges’ ratings, everyone wins. The whole thing, structured as it is, is just pure fun.

Even Salinger admits to the meaninglessness of the points. He is, in this moment, acting like Drew Carey on Whose Line is it Anyway? Even though later on he’s kind of strict when now and then a volunteer judge forgets his or her duty and continues milling about in the audience, he’s pretty clear on the fact that this is all for fun here. Everyone wins in art!

And we’re off!

There’s so much to see in every direction. The thing about these art events in Cleveland is that there’s a very widespread-and-growing community of people who know one another and a) want to touch base with their compatriots at every event and b) want to reel in the rookies and show them off to the inner ring of Arts Scene denizens. So on one hand, you’ve got artists who are mostly supposed to be competing in one event or the other but continue to get up and walk around and shake hands and ask howya doin throughout the night, and on the other hand you’ve got a rabid fan base of art lovers in this town who just want to hang out and have a good time and probably ask if you’d like another drink, and, yes, I’d love another Ness; I’ll catch your next one, man.

Models from Morrison Dance Company take to the makeshift staging area, now bathed in eveningtide light, and strike the first pose of the event. They’re wearing these really far-out bodysuits that are tie-dyed kind of in reds and yellows and, improbably, a swath of colors I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before (purplish teal’quoise, I guess?)

“This a postmodern deconstruction of…” This one bespectacled artist is chuckling as he shows off his creation, which was drawn in the first short competition of the night (five minutes of drawing the models without looking at your paper). He probably finished his sentence, but the crowd is roaring with such assenting laughter that it’s impossible to tell. The mood at all points in the night is just terrific.

The judging at this sort of thing is based on audience volunteers voting 1, 2 or 3 (or zero, which actually did happen once and caused an absolute uproar) on two pieces of art from each team for each contest. Salinger takes the roll after each piece is presented (“We’ve got a 2 and a 2 and a 3 and a 1,” for instance) and will later go on to award some fantastic prizes from Carol and John’s Comic Book Shop in Kamm’s Corners.

As all of this is happening and now fruitfully progressing, I’m taking notes weirdly off to the side and notching photographs when the moment feels right. I talk with an Ohio City entrepreneur, and she’s beyond enthusiastic about this whole thing. This, she says, is the kind of stuff that keeps the neighborhood alive. It’s not so much the breathtaking blossoming of craft breweries that now keeps Ohio City relevant in the local papers (though, uh, it seems so); it remains the province of the artist to keep all action flowing toward progress. Here we are.

“Do you see anyone not smiling here?” she says with an honest and light-hearted laugh. Surely, everyone here is sporting mile-wide grins and/or going long on some in-depth conversation with friends. There’s a happiness in the air here, and I can’t quite express it other than simply saying that artistic endeavors bring out the best in people. Cleveland “civic leaders” would do well to contrast the Drawn and Quartered vibe with the pre-game Muni Lot bullshit on Sunday mornings or even the Sunday afternoon hellhole that we all most unfortunately have to call FirstEnergy Stadium. Just on the basis of overall cultural worth, y’know, and perhaps, like, the public investment dissonance on those fronts (financial and otherwise).

By now the bearded bartender knows that I’m drinking Elliot Nesses, and things are going almost a bit too smoothly as I approach the wooden bar. He pours another one gracefully.

Why would a city so hellbent on its arts scene, as evidenced by propaganda spewing from our local tourism bureau and from City Hall, ignore all of this? Why would a city stand by silently as Naji’s gallery gets raided not only by the state, but by its own fire department?

Does Cleveland, as a city, deserve what it has here?

The Long Draw
  • ERIC SANDY/SCENE
  • The Long Draw
At multiple points in the night, Salinger uses this unsettling police siren thing on his bullhorn to signify either the end of a figure drawing session or the beginning of one or, in some cases, seemingly nothing at all, save for the simple fact that this whole thing is something to be celebrated. When he uses it the first time — and this is some 30+ minutes into the event — we all kind of look around, like, wow, here we go again. Police presence at art events is becoming a parodic motif more quickly than we would like to think. I’m half-buzzed now and I realize probably later than most that it’s just a sound effect on the bullhorn and that I can probably stop trying to stash my journalistic paraphernalia into the heating duct in the corner.

It’s soon after that whole mess that I switch over to tequila-and-tonics, which have become a drink of choice lately. I just can’t keep kicking back Elliot Nesses without some horribly self-conscious wave crashing over me and reminding me that I shouldn’t be just straight-up pounding beers on any given night. Calories and sugar, etc. Agave-based tequila, riddled with quasi-healthier simple sugars, is a natural outlet for my detestable needs when reporting in the field.

“Would you like a lemon or a lime with this?” the bartender asks.

“A lime would be fantastic,” I reply, and she tells me to just wait here for one second and not to go anywhere and then she dashes off. Apparently, all they had at the moment were just uncut limes, so I take a quick sip and grab some popcorn and stare around the room and wait for her to return with knife and small plate and full intent to carve up the finest slice of lime ever seen on the West 25th Street corridor. The lime wedge is a necessity in the tequila-and-tonic game.

I’m leaning against a mid-room column when I’m caught writing vigorously in my notebook with my new Dave’s Supermarket pen.

“You’re writing faster than I type! Are you a journalist?” These two women are eyeing my T-shirt, which was a souvenir from my parents’ trip to the Cayman Islands and they’re going to very soon explain that it looks like my shirt says “Gayman Islands.” But before all of that:

“Yeah, but I’m actually just writing about my drink here, as odd as that sounds. They just made it really strong. I’m not complaining, of course; I just need to make sure I remember this particular drink for my story.” (That’s a 1:1 rate of use of “just” there.)

It turns out I’m talking to the daughter of the event’s original concept designer (Deb Steytler) and her lifelong friend (a friend of the daughter, that is). The former has come into town from Boston solely for this event. She says she couldn’t be happier with how things are going here. She’s a Cleveland native and she’s well aware of how deep our local cache of creativity runs. There’s this sting that non-residents and residents alike carry when Cleveland’s national reputation comes up. The reputation is not good, and there’s this willful nationwide ignorance when it comes to our city’s arts scene.

What’s becoming more apparent, I’m telling these two ladies, is that Cleveland itself isn’t even able to really see the value of its artists. I take another swig of my tequila-and-tonic and I swing my arm around 180 degrees, casting an assertion against the whole room: “There’s not even any press here! Well, except for Scene, of course, but we’re the only rag in town that could be expected to drink among plebeians.” I take yet another swig and nearly cough up my next question: “I mean, what do you make of that?”

They’re eyeing me incredulously, but the friend of the event organizer’s daughter is nodding and saying that, yes, this whole disconnect between the city and its artists is becoming an embarrassment. She lives in Lake County, but even from that vantage point the dissonance is earth-shattering. This Loren Naji thing, she says, voice trailing as she sorta looks around the room for the man in question. Sometime soon, I tell her with an air of foreboding, this wave is gonna crash hard. I can’t yet exactly understand what I mean by that.

Back to the bar and to its unbound supply of popcorn-in-baskets. I munch. “Is there some sort of flavoring in this popcorn?” I ask between chomping mouthfuls.

“It’s supposed to be beer-flavored,” the bearded bartender shrugs.

“Ah! It’s fantastic.” And then I realize that in far too many conversations, most not even remotely hinted at in this piece, I’ve been using “fantastic” as an adjective to express general positivity. “It’s great,” I add, but the bartender has since moved on and probably totally forgotten the whole popcorn discussion.

It’s nighttime now, and the energy of the room as a whole is peaking intensely. Short competitions (like tandem drawing, where you switch with a partner; caricature drawing; extreme angle drawing) are pulling in whoops and hollers on par only with the most victorious of Tribe games in this city.

For about the last, say, 45 minutes of the event, I’m talking barside with somebody in the environmental advocacy game in town. We’re discussing all sorts of things, but, like every other conversation I’ve been having, we take a series of moments to survey the room and almost laugh to ourselves at how bitchin’ this whole thing has been. For each of us, it's our first time at the annual Drawn and Quartered event. We'll be back, we say.

We grab our drinks and head southward across the room to where the Long Draw results are coming in. Some — most (all) — of these portraits are absolutely incredible. Celebrations are effusive among this crowd, and when awards are handed out, explosive high-fives and mid-air twirls dot the interior landscape like dandelion seeds coasting across your backyard. Time slows down just a bit and we all wear smiles that nearly touch the nearby Cuyahoga with their vigor.

“I want to thank Loren Naji, who’s been doing something dangerous enough to get him into the papers for the last month or so.” Salinger is kidding on some level, but he’s right to emphasize the irony that Naji is among the least dangerous people in Cleveland right now. He’s a gallery owner in the city’s hippest neighborhood, and he’s owned his joint for more than a decade — well before the cultural cache of Ohio City fully bloomed.

We all down our drinks and share good-byes. It’s been a wonderful night. As the event is shutting down, the police officer from the entrance shows up inside and catches some action as he half-forcefully nudges people toward the exit.

Back outside, I snap a few photos of an ambulance wriggling its way through gridlocked Ohio City traffic (these goddam streets, I mutter) and I start heading back toward whatever is it, Canterbury or Chatham Street. As I approach Lorain, I see Loren Naji ahead of me. He’s walking back to his own gallery, shuttered for the night, with sketchbooks in hand.

“Loren! Great stuff tonight! It was a lot of fun; I hadn’t been to one of these things before.”

“Ah! Yeah, it was really great!” He talks distantly, and there are probably countless streams of thought running through his head as we walk south on West 25th and continue catching up post-show.

Naji finds himself now at the center of a storm brewing darkly on Cleveland’s horizon. From this vantage point, it’s not a spot he wants to occupy. Naji is a quiet guy, though I’m basing that only on my post-raid interactions with him. He’s humble. He’s the kind of guy who strikes at the core of art: making something out of nothing and making positivity out of negativity.

We continue on and he mentions how things have been moving very fast lately and yet still very slowly. There’s something gathering on the horizon here in Cleveland. Something boldly artistic and the not the least bit complacent. People in power are beginning to openly and quite publicly anger the very men and women who laid down the first seeds of cultural intrigue in this city’s most economically blissed-out neighborhoods. The same people who arrested d.a. levy 50 years ago are sitting idly by as Naji’s gallery gets caught beneath the boot of Cleveland might. You can almost feel the weight of the world, rising toward the city at the rate a feather falls. Gravity is a tough bastard, though, and it’s getting to be a bit late to even consider fleeing this storm. It’s here.


With additional reporting by Joseph Clark

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At the crossroads of Cleveland’s often usurious relationship with local artists

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