Openings are canceled, galleries closed, programming postponed, funds tightened, and morale low. But even as the coronavirus has altered the landscape of the arts and cultural community in Cleveland, artists are still working, finding ways to engage themselves and the community during this unprecedented time.
For Allison Hennie, the pandemic shutdowns have been a time not to tap out but to challenge herself creatively while serving as a resource collector for colleagues, posting emergency grant, freelance and financial aid opportunities on her site.
When I asked her about the impetus to use her website to promote a safety net for artists as they face the fiscal strain of the Covid-19 lockdown, she explained, “As part of the 2008 recession I found myself underemployed in Memphis for nearly a decade. To survive, I embraced the ‘grit and grind.’ Those times were both exhilarating and exhausting, mentally. Right now, I’m fortunate to have a steady paycheck. Offering resources and providing a network to help ease burdens to other creatives makes sense, especially when it feels like odds are against the arts, culture and creative economy. I wish I could do more.”
Displays of community spirit and unity, wherever we can find them, have offered hope as we navigate the uncharted waters of this virus together.
On a personal level, Hennie has, in an attempt at keeping order in a seemingly order-less time, set herself a 20-minute parameter each day to develop a new sketch using words or phrases from an article she runs across, suggestions from friends and even song lyrics. These have included a character with a starring role named Crazy-Eyed Ninja Penguin With Pocket.
Based on her depictions of him, he is just as much a proponent of the arts as Hennie. There are a couple of sketches in particular which seem to comment on the arts — one of him toting a sign which reads, “Art is Essential,” (a clear commentary on the societal delineation of what positions in the workforce are considered to be an “essential”) while another is a sketch of the character with an anvil strapped to his back under a sign which reads, “Art To-Go,” with a smaller sign underneath of this reading, “Anvil Pick-Up.” It is not made clear what the anvil represents in this particular scene, but anvils traditionally represent work. Perhaps in this depiction, the anvil more specifically emblemizes the burden an artist faces in holding the “mirror” up to society in order for us to see ourselves reflected back or it could be an annotation on the need to create art while it is rare to find financial sustainability from it.
Whatever interpretation the viewer may glean, it makes one think and charges one to question where the artist fits into the economic landscape.
We asked Hennie how this character came to fruition.
“The first time I drew The Crazy-Eyed Ninja Penguin with Pocket was in March of 2016," she said. "He started as an eight-minute doodle while trying to develop a daily sketching habit. A lot of people responded positively to the character. He made one appearance in March 2018 and then again in March 2020. Looks as if he lives in a two-year cycle.”
As adorable and lovable as this character is, he is only a small facet of Hennie’s work, which tends to be more architectural. As you can see in a couple of her other sketches, she has a unique talent to step away from the “drawing table” and to convey buildings and structures with an emotive, expressive and sometimes somber timbre. One of her daily sketches done over a cup of coffee includes what looks to be an lone, old farm house in the foreground of a desolate field and was inspired by a quote by her friend, Zeb Wallace, who said, “I love seeing the old buildings that dot the landscape of the prairie. I can just imagine the stories that they could tell. There is a bit of sadness though... reminders of a time and era gone by.”
Commenting on her artistic process, Hennie reflects, “Most of my works are private commissions, the majority of which aren’t posted online. People will hear about my work or see a sketch and then contact me. They ask for a watercolor of their childhood home, a commercial building they own, or a building that holds special meaning in their lives. I like listening to the stories these people tell. A lot happens to buildings after they’re built.”
The design elements of Hennie’s work is unsurprising considering her background: Hennie received Bachelor of Architecture degree from Carnegie Mellon and a Master of Arts in Applied Urban Anthropology and Museum Studies Graduate Certificate from the University of Memphis. Originally from Cleveland, Hennie has lived in two countries and 12 cities. Hennie says about her nomadic journey, “Cities make an impact, like any relationship. A friend once joked I should write a short story about all the places I’ve lived as if they were boyfriends.”
She returned to Northeast Ohio after her father fell ill before his untimely passing. While living in Lakewood and grieving, a friend tipped her off to a position opening up in the city, which is how she ended up as the City of Lakewood’s Urban Designer working on public art projects. One such project is the Wagar Park Street Mural Project in Lakewood. This is a permanent street mural within the renovated park’s boundaries which has a May, 11th artist proposal deadline.
Hennie seems happy to not only be back in town but also to be following along in her father’s footsteps working for the city.
“In a way, working for the city is a family tradition," she says. "My dad retired as a captain with the Lakewood Fire Department. My second cousin and great grandfather were also firefighters for Lakewood. My dad would be proud knowing I was also serving Lakewood, as the city’s architect and public art coordinator.”
Follow Hennie’s work — Website
. For more info on the Wagar Park Street Mural Project call for artists, click here.