How It Got There | Akron Public Art

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The Making of the Cascade Mural

words and photos by Claude Christensen

After the Towpath Trail winds past the Mustill store and crosses MLK Jr Blvd, it enters downtown via Quaker Street, a quiet slip of road scrunched between a beige parking deck and a grey office building.

Well, it used to. Now, the Towpath Trail runs alongside something entirely different: a 400 square-foot and brightly-colored mural.

This mural is huge.

It covers nearly the entire spectrum of visible color and spans the length of the street-side wall of the Cascade Plaza parking deck.

On the left-hand side, giant blades of grass bend towards Glendale Cemetery. In the center, yellow tongues of flame flare red. On the right, the blaze solidifies, becoming blocky blue rectangles reminiscent of the orderly buildings downtown.

Jessica Lofthus and Sharon Spencer, the artists responsible for the Cascade Mural, had a lot of fun making it. Self-described sculptural painters, they enjoy making pieces that inject vitality into otherwise stagnant or static spaces. Their process, a dynamic, mutually inspired effort, adds some of that vitality to their work.  

“Our painting style is very kinetic,” Lofthus says. “We [verbally] fight while we paint.”

Apparently this, and the immense size of the Cascade Mural, made for some interesting conversations with the general public during the two weeks it took to paint it in the summer of 2016. Lofthus and Spencer estimate that they had conversations with around 100 individuals a day.

“We were on stage…we had to answer for what we were doing,” says Spencer. “Toughens you up a bit, but it also let us meet the city.”

Spencer is a former art student from Kent State University at Stark, and trained under Akron artist John Comunale. Comunale designed the metal archway located kitty-corner from the Cascade Mural. Both the archway and mural were commissioned by the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition as a part of the group’s project to beautify the Towpath Trail and were funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Lofthus has a BFA from the University of Texas where she studied painting with a focus on ancient Middle Eastern art. She is fascinated with how cultural events are emulated by symbols in art.

Both live in or near the Highland Square area, and met through a mutual acquaintance years ago. Spencer, who was the lead singer for a local Akron band, was drafted, or as she likes to put it, “dragged into painting,” by Lofthus. They’ve been working together ever since.

It was Lofthus who was awarded the contract to paint the mural. Originally, the parameters set by the O&EC Coalition had the artist design a 70-foot piece to hang between the arches of the Cascade Plaza parking deck. But the Coalition was so impressed by the visual ambition of Lofthus’s proposal that they gave her the green light anyway.

The installation of the mural itself proved to be tricky. A major portion of the concrete wall of the parking deck is covered with slabs of polished stone, a common architectural practice from when the Cascade Plaza was built.

The stone is impossible to paint on, so Lofthus reached out to Central Graphics in Cuyahoga Falls to print vinyl “bannering” printed with an enlarged image of a work Lofthus painted and then scanned. That bannering was adhered to the surface of the stone slabs. Then Lofthus and Spencer spent the next few weeks painting the remaining concrete surfaces so that the digitally enlarged brushstrokes seem to flow seamlessly from vinyl to concrete. It was tough work.

Lofthus and Spencer are incredibly proud of their project. At first, the scale of the mural was daunting; how do you begin to consider how to cover a 400 foot wall? And make it appealing? But they did, and the process, they found, was not so impossible. Thus emboldened, they are considering other sites for similar large-scale works in Akron.

They want to do it again.

For more information about the artist Jessica Lofthus and the Cascade Mural, visit jessicalofthus.com

Claude Christensen has a soft spot for speculative fiction. Among his favorites are Stephen King’s It and Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy (aka Lilith’s Brood). Not terribly afraid of clowns, he isn’t fond of them either.

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