Muralists use life and art to help revitalize downtown parks

Reporting, writing and photos by Susan Pappas

It’s an unseasonably warm November day at Lock 3 in downtown Akron, and an unusual sight has caught the attention of a handful of onlookers.

A woman clad in shorts, a tank top and a wide brim hat works the boom lift that has hoisted her up several stories high along the wall of the Akron Civic Theatre. The lift moves jerkily until Louise “Ouizi” Jones, a Detroit-based muralist, brings it to a halt. She climbs out of the cab and moves catlike along the fire escape walkway, adding dabs of paint to the expansive floral mural as she moves. 

Read more:

That same day, on the other side of the Civic facing Lock 4, Los Angeles-based mural artist Aiseborn works several stories up in the cab of his boom lift, putting dabs of color on the wall of the mural he’s been painting with fellow artist Miles MacGregor (aka El Mac), also from California. 

These two murals, part of the Akron Civic Theatre’s capital campaign, are among the largest-scale public works of commissioned art ever to grace downtown Akron. 

The Staging the Future campaign was launched three years ago by the Akron Civic Theatre Board of Trustees. It sought not only to enhance the building’s exterior with the murals but also put a creative stamp on a revitalized downtown Akron.

Civic Theatre Executive Director Howard Parr says the murals will not only engage people, but also create a positive shift in public perception. 

“These murals transcend who we are and what we are,” Parr said at an October event honoring the muralists and their work. “Even if people have no intention of walking in the doors of the Civic, they will still get to experience the Civic from the outside. These elements have changed the perception of Akron and have changed downtown in a way that is substantial and significant.”

That perception shift was a critical driver for the campaign, Parr said. 

“People would come into town who had never been here before and look around at the area outside of the building and think ‘what have I gotten myself into,’ Parr said, referring to Main Street before its recent revitalization. “We wanted to know what we could do to make the outside of the building as much of an asset as the inside of the building.” 

And so began the campaign in 2017 with an ambitious fundraising goal of $8.5 million, which covers not only the murals, but also a restoration of the Civic, the addition of more shows and the creation of an outdoor deck with public seating. 

A series of town halls and surveys preceded the campaign kick-off, asking patrons and Akron residents what they wanted to see and also included a more cerebral query: what words come to mind when describing Akron? 

The words “diversity” and “arts” were the common denominators and became the theme for the selection of artists and the murals. 

After being chosen from a list of more than 150 international artists, Aiseborn and El Mac paid a visit to Akron in July to get a feel for the area before beginning their work in October. Funding from private donations, including from the Akron Community Foundation, the Knight Foundation and the GAR Foundation, helped bring the muralists to town.

The Devil Strip is a not-for-profit, community-owned news cooperative. We rely on your financial support to make it possible for us to provide coverage of Akron’s artists, musicians, nonprofits and small businesses. As a member, you can help shape the direction of The Devil Strip and of the city.

“We were here for about a week and tried to get a sense of the place,” El Mac told guests at the October Civic event. “We were really impressed with the nature, the lushness and the history here. We were taken with all of that and if there was a dominant theme, diversity was one we picked up on.”

El Mac added that he and Aiseborn chose children as the central theme of their murals for a reason.

“The imagery of youth and children playing is something that speaks to us,” El Mac said. “It’s also imagery that is relatable to a lot of people. It kind of reminds us of our own youth and the things you forget as you get older. In my mind, the mural conveys a sense of youthfulness and playfulness that you have as kids and you lose. That’s a big part of it.”

The children in the mural also symbolize a certain inspiration that Aiseborn hopes people will take from their art. 

“We were inspired by Akron and the youthfulness of this city,” Aiseborn said. “We hope this helps make Akron a city that can prosper and encourage young people to stay here versus having that old-fashioned tale of the youth leaving. For them to be able to stay here and contribute to Akron is what we picked up on. That’s a big deal here if we can bring that inspiration to other young people.”

Jones said she was attracted to the project because of the landmark quality of the Civic Theatre and also because her mural is located at what she called “an intersection of the arts.”

“I loved the fact that this project centered around theatre,” Jones said. “The Civic Theatre is an icon in Akron and I was really excited about that.”

Known for her botanical murals and owing to an early influence of Georgia O’Keefe, Jones said she researched the types of flowers that were indigenous to the Akron area. She chose the American water lotus, the heath aster, the blue crescent iris and the golden ragwort to grace the Civic’s wall. 

Jones spoke of the qualities she liked in all the flowers but something she said about the heath aster, a white, daisy-like flower that graces a large part of her mural, makes it an apt symbol for downtown Akron’s spirit and its renaissance.  

“That flower is everywhere right now. It’s coming out of the cracks of the door, around the sidewalk. It’s so resilient! I love it!”

For more information about the project, click here

Susan Pappas is a writer, editor and longtime Akron-area resident. She loves meeting interesting people and bringing them to life with her words and photographs. In her spare time, she dreams of new ways to be creative, and one of her next projects will focus on turning the hilarity and hijinks of her two wiener dogs, Kiki and Carly, into a children’s book series.