I’ve been slowly winding down from a two-week trip to Cleveland for a project called “Literary Lots.” Upon returning to Chicago, I unpacked two gifts: a shirt that says I’d Rather Be in Ohio and a picture book by Dallas Clayton called “An Awesome Book!”
Cleveland, Ohio was my home from 2007 until 2012 and it will always have a special place in my heart. I spent five years there devouring pierogies, hot dogs with surprising toppings, Christmas ale, and enormous grilled cheese sandwiches. I explored the beautiful Cleveland Metroparks system that we fondly call our “Emerald Necklace” and spent my summers kayaking, hiking, and being outdoors whenever possible.
Five years in Cleveland meant watching businesses come and go, often in the same spots. It meant attending multiple goodbye parties as friends left for NYC, San Francisco, or some other thriving city. The economic decline of this rust belt city made it hard for young people to stay, and I also eventually left for greener pastures. I told myself that the only way to survive as a freelance illustrator was to relocate to a city with a healthy market for illustration and design.
But I haven’t stopped paying attention. I still follow articles about Cleveland, and I’ve been noticing recently that something has changed. It’s not just that new businesses are surviving and growing – the tone has changed as well. It’s hopeful! Clevelanders are proud of their city, and their interests and actions are reaching communities and places that were previously left and forgotten. The support for urban spaces in need has been generous, touching, and something that I got to see first-hand when I went back to help run the test pilot of Literary Lots.
Literary Lots was a two week program that aimed to “bring books to life” in underutilized or vacant city lots. This year we created a space in the middle of the city for children and families to enjoy arts and writing programs, outdoor movies, taco nights, and free ice cream. Our theme was food and the magical or practical applications it has in our lives.
Literary Lots was a two week program that aimed to “bring books to life” in underutilized or vacant city lots. This year we created a space in the middle of the city for children and families to enjoy arts and writing programs, outdoor movies, taco nights, and free ice cream. Our theme was food and the magical or practical applications it has in our lives. My role as the staff artist was to design the look of everything in the lot, from the “Alice in Wonderland” inspired tea party set (with real china and ten foot flowers!) to life-sized peanut butter sandwich ships from “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”. Watching kids climb (while screaming happily) through the “Strega Nona” noodle slide was a new experience for me; I’ve never watched people play in or sit on my art before!
In fact, the production of the lot pieces was so true to our original design that I found myself reflecting later with the Literary Lots creator, Kauser Razvi, on the surprising closeness of the vision to the actual execution. Kauser had come to me in December 2011 asking for illustrations that would help visualize her proposal for a grant. The idea was magical: creating a physical space that literally felt like you’d walked into the scene of a storybook. I drew examples of a real life treasure hunt for Treasure Island and an interactive Dr. Seuss rhyme wall complete with Lorax trees, all the time wondering if a project like this could ever work. Kauser received one grant and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign, and soon we had a date and a physical location for the project. As I drew the final plans to take to our builders and contractors, I asked her if I should simplify the sets to keep in mind production costs and other practical barriers. Her answer was simple enough: “No. Draw the most amazing space you can imagine and we’ll do our best from there.”
As we sat in the lot this past week, Kauser said, “Can you believe it? It’s just how we imagined!” The projector playing “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” was sitting to the right of the Stone Soup mural, families were sitting on the grass and on sandwich boats throughout the lot, and the gigantic tent-sized meatball loomed in the back corner. We’d really brought this story to life, here in this totally unused lot in Ohio City! It hasn’t been easy: we are still underfunded and the weeks leading up to the launch of the lot pushed slightly past stressful. But families and children were coming in from the nearby neighborhoods and even driving in from the suburbs. All in all, over 900 unique visitors came to the lot in two weeks. They wrote funny haikus during Yogatry, a workshop that combined poetry lines with yoga poses. They learned printmaking and created songs with Cleveland musician Jesse Friedberg.
It’s clear to me that the support from the community made this possible.
It’s clear to me that the support from the community made this possible. We had a whopping 28 sponsors – Sherwin Williams donated all the paint we needed for the mural, Fraser Contracting donated countless hours to building the set, and Ohio City Burritos brought over a hundred free tacos. Two-dozen corporate volunteers from Hyland Software were brought over from their original task at a nearby community garden to help us install the fencing. A local pastor and his partner read their newspapers at the lot on weekend afternoons. The encouragement and support was generous, overwhelming, and exciting. Exciting because I’m not sure this could have happened a few years ago, and because it makes me wonder what else is in store for Literary Lots and for this neighborhood.
An Awesome Book by Dallas Clayton was a gift from Kauser, and I wish I could give it to everyone who was part of this experience. The message perfectly describes my hope for Literary Lots and for future cities that might house it:
“There are places in the world where people do not dream…
Of rocket-powered unicorns and candy cane machines”??
“Yes, there are places in the world where people dream up dreams
So simply un-fantastical and practical they seem
To lose all possibility of thinking super things
Of dancing wild animals with diamond-coated wings”??
“So please, my child, do keep in mind
Before you go to bed…
To dream a dream as big
As big could ever dream to be
Then dream a dream ten times as big as that one dream you see
Then once you’ve got that dream in mind please dream a million more
And not a million quiet dreams, a million dreams that ROAR”
~From An Awesome Book, by Dallas Clayton.
So thank you to all of you who made our Literary Lots pilot possible – it was an amazing experience. Cleveland was the perfect place to test it, and I just want to say – keep dreaming big! I can’t wait to see what happens with the Cleveland Public Library, Ohio City Writers, Art House, and the other partners that were part of this special experience. Kauser and I are willing to support the next group of daring individuals willing to step up, dream big and supply staff to make Literary Lots happen in Cleveland or their own special city. To whoever you are, I just want to say: please dream even bigger! You’ll be amazed at what magic you can make real!