Portrait of Mayor Frank Jackson Is What it Is, i.e. Really Big

click to enlarge Portrait of Mayor Frank Jackson, by artist Rob Hartshorn - COURTESY CITY OF CLEVELAND
Courtesy City of Cleveland
Portrait of Mayor Frank Jackson, by artist Rob Hartshorn
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and artist Rob Hartshorn unveiled an enormous portrait of Jackson Wednesday at a live City Hall event that doubled as the mayor's farewell.

“My purpose as mayor has always been to leave this city better than how I found it, position Cleveland for a sustainable future and move the city toward the path of a great city, where all can share in prosperity and quality of life,” Jackson said, in remarks that echoed his final State of the City address in October. “Together, we have faced and overcome challenges and hard times. Yes, we are a successful city. We are well positioned for the future, but all this will change with the next crisis, if not dealt with properly. I have run my leg of this relay. Much has been done, but more needs to be done.”

The mammoth portrait now dominates the Mayor's Red Room at City Hall. At more than six feet in height, it's far larger than the other mayoral portraits that adorn the walls. It's stylistically unique as well, with Jackson depicted not in gloomy close-up, but standing before the Lonnie Burten Park in the Central neighborhood, with the Cleveland skyline in the background. 

According to Hartshorn, the mayor did not model for the portrait in the conventional sense. Instead, they drove through the Central neighborhood together and the Mayor shared stories. Hartshorn attempted to capture his essence that way. The resulting image portrays not just the man, but the neighborhood that molded him.

In a vacuum, the portrait would be a lovely piece, an accurate representation of the mayor's physical form that honors both his home and his mentor and friend, Lonnie Burten, the neighborhood activist who served as the councilman in Central until his death in 1984. But in the context of the Red Room, the portrait is frankly jarring, a towering addition that, by dint of its size and color, becomes the room's centerpiece.  

In a bizarre twist, the portrait's frame is inscribed with the mayor's famous catchphrase, "It is what it is!" Jackson has tried painstakingly over the past year to redefine the known expression into something more personalized. It is not to be understood in defeatist or even neutral terms, a la Serenity Prayer, according to Jackson. Instead, the phrase should be seen as a credo that signifies grim determination, accepting painful realities in order to change them.

Unfortunately, this is not what the phrase means. In fact, it's the opposite of what the phrase means. The whole point of "it is what it is," as it's universally understood, is the acceptance of circumstances that cannot be changed. That's why Clevelanders were so annoyed by Frank's perennial usage of it, because we always interpreted it (correctly, I'd submit) as a shrugging acceptance of the status quo. Jackson's effort to spin the phrase into its opposite has been one of the more explicit attempts to shape his legacy, but it'll never not be insane to see the phrase "It is what it is," with an exclamation point at the end. Like we're supposed to pretend this is some noble battle cry for change? Sorry, but no.

In any event, Frank was in charge for 16 years, presiding over a tumultuous era marked by an increasingly developed, prosperous central business district on the one hand and dramatic inequality, poverty and population loss on the other. Given the size of his portrait, he'll continue to loom large at City Hall long after he passes the baton. 

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