Columbus, Ohio USA
Return to Homepage

Walls That Talk: In the Short North, the painting's on the wall
January 2005
By Kaizaad Kotwal

Visit Kotwal Archive
Return to Homepage

Around the World's Murals in 400 Words

Van Gogh's Cafe Terrace at Night, the work of Dragonfly Designers
Dwaine MacDonald, Susan O'Dell and Patrick Corbett, 2003.

Throughout the world there have been murals on walls as long as there have been people to scratch them, paint them, etch them, carve them and make them. From the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux, France, to the ceremonial and celebratory murals of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, and Mesopotamia, the history of murals is a rich and varied one.

According to art historians, mural painting dates back at least 30,000 years to cave paintings. In some cases these mystical and magical works have luckily been preserved by the rocky shelters they inhabit, allowing later generations to enjoy and learn from them. These ancient murals often depicted activities in which the people of the time engaged, from religious ceremonies to scenes of hunting and gathering for sustenance.

A wonderful dichotomy continues to evolve in the world of murals: new ones are continually being commissioned and created (like the recent George Bellows re-creation in the Short North) while old ones are constantly being rediscovered and restored (like the circa-100 A.D. Maya wall paintings at the remote ruins of San Bartolo and El Petén, Guatemala, discovered in only March 2001).

The function of murals varies from culture to culture and from one time period to another. In the Tibetan world many murals, both ancient and contemporary, are created as part of reflective and meditative Buddhist practices. These mandalas are a part of the spirituality of Tibetan monks and their devotees. During the Baroque period in England, Germany, and France, royalty and rich art patrons had allegorical and Biblical murals painted on the walls and ceilings of their palaces or luxurious homes. Into these they inserted themselves or loved ones as a way of capturing their likenesses for posterity.

In modern, urban environments from Berlin to Brooklyn, graffiti has become a form of mural art exhibiting the angst and rebellion of disenfranchised city youth. From China to Russia and from New York to Milan, wall art has been used to spread political propaganda and to perpetuate the culture of mass consumerism. Ironically, Chairman Mao and Calvin Klein have both found the mural to be greatly useful and profitable.

Historically speaking, wall art has appeared in enclosed spaces from temples, tombs, and palaces to churches, museums, libraries, and other public buildings. In the more contemporary era, murals have found their way onto surfaces in the exterior. Perhaps we only see murals from the ancient past on interiors because those are the ones that have been able to survive, while exterior murals from the same period might have been destroyed by natural or human-made disasters.

Eventually the indoor mural started to move outdoors. Like their internal counterparts, murals in the exterior become an integral part of the environment when done well. Good designers will conceive of murals in relation to their natural or architectural setting, allowing the piece to become a social, political, cultural, and aesthetic artifact.

Modern American wall paintings

Trains by Greg and Jeff Ackers, 1989

Beginning in the early 20th century, renowned masters like Thomas Hart Benton and John Singer Sargent made murals to adorn museums, libraries, post offices, and other pubic spaces. As a way to get people back to work during and after the Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Franklin Delano Roosevelt paid federal dollars to artists to paint industrial, social, and agricultural scenes in public buildings.

The Mission District in San Francisco is famous for its murals. These huge paintings on building facades are part of a long-established tradition there. The city has approximately 600 murals.
Although Columbus has nowhere near that number of murals, our Short North district has an impressive concentration of wall paintings in a relatively small area.

The Mona Lisa by Brian Clemons is probably the most well known of the murals here, partly because of its iconic status in the art world and partly because it has been in the neighborhood since 1986. Ironically, it is the only mural not directly visible from High Street, the main drag through the Short North. The sideways Mona Lisa was repainted about five years ago in a more monotone palette of yellows and browns. She has become the de facto icon of the Short North. The building on which she resides, owned by Sandy Wood, is undergoing major renovations, and the painting is being preserved.

The mural that threatened to dethrone Mona Lisa as ruling artwork of the area is the 2002 reproduction of Grant Wood's equally iconic masterpiece American Gothic. Passersby often pose for pictures with this piece with a twist - the woman has been turned on her head. On the corner of Lincoln and High Streets opposite R. J. Snappers, the retro American Gothic is beautifully reproduced by Steve Galgas and Mike Altman, yet makes a statement of its own.

Zola (where Frezno's used to be) is the “in” spot for Columbus' 20- and 30-something jet setters. Yet the true must-see here is actually the Van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night reproduction on the Norka Futon wall adjacent to Zola. This is a multi-wall mural, as the sky of the main painting bleeds onto a wall behind it, giving a three-dimensional look to a 2-D piece of art. The sharp, bold blues and yellows and the design fit with Zola's outdoor patio. Created by Dragonfly Design, including artists Dwaine MacDonald, Susan O'Dell and Patrick Corbett, the Café Terrace night scene is a theatrical backdrop to one's outdoor wining and dining experience.

Two of the oldest and most faded murals are on opposite walls bracketing the parking lot between Union Station Café and the Utrecht art supply store. On the Union Station Café's south wall is a 100-foot-long painted array of locomotive engines and train cars. On the Utrecht wall is a mural of the city's original Union Station. These two have started to fade and the finish is cracking and crumbling and will soon need some attention.

The restoration of murals is a contentious issue. Should murals be restored by someone other than the original artist? For example, in the case of something as sacred and iconic as Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, is it blasphemous to tamper with the original no matter how decrepit it is? Or should murals be saved at all costs for the enjoyment and education of future generations?

The newest kid on the mural block

Michelle Attias and Curtis Goldstein stand before thier re-creation
of George Bellows' Cliff Dwellers, 2004

Curtis Goldstein and Michelle Attias, who are engaged to marry in September 2005, worked together to create the Short North's most recent mural, Cliff Dwellers, based on an original by George Bellows. Goldstein graduated from Ohio State University and Attias from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Goldstein is the mural veteran, having painted public and private murals since his days at OSU. His art includes painted billboards for companies Honey Baked Ham, The Limited, and Max and Erma's, along with a 6000-foot Art Deco work for River Park Apartments in Columbus.

Goldstein always wanted to do an outdoor mural, particularly in the Short North. “I was always complaining that I never got to do a mural in this area,” he says. “And so I had to find a way of making it happen.”

Goldstein and Attias approached Sandy Wood of Wood Companies with their portfolio, believing that one of the buildings he owns might be the ideal place for a new mural.

From there the BrickStreet Arts Association, a group dedicated to promoting Public Art in Columbus's Urban Neighborhoods, got involved; grants were raised from private and public sources like the Ohio Arts Council and the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and businesses made in-kind donations, including materials contributed by Creative Paints and a large crane from United Rentals.

The mural, on the side of the building where the Burgundy Room is located, is 45 feet high and 60 feet wide.

The artists originally had two months to paint the mural, but when structural problems in the wall emerged, a month of artistic time had to be devoted to making the wall suitable for painting. An engineer friend of the two, Joe Boland, helped them with the project. Scale drawings of the wall were created, then matched with the Bellows image that had to be skewed for perspective so that enlarging the image worked visually from various vantage points on High Street.

After one crazy night of marking the image on the wall from transparencies projected onto the surface, Attias and Goldstein were on their way. The transparencies were projected onto the wall from the north side of the second floor of the Yukon Building, where Functional Furnishings used to reside. As much engineering as art was required to make this mural.

Unfortunately, outdoor murals are more subject to graffiti and vandalism than their indoor counterparts and begin to show wear and tear after some years of sunlight, rain, and other harsh weather. The artists have planned for that in the way that they prepared the wall to work with the paint and in the quality and types of paint they used.

Goldstein and Attias used exterior water-based enamels and double primed the exterior surface to make the work more durable. “We have used very thick paint, to work against fading by sunlight,” Goldstein says.

There are contractual arrangements that go beyond the actual painting of the mural. The wall on which the Bellow's reproduction sits is co-owned by Wood Company and United Commercial Travelers. The artists signed a 10-year maintenance agreement that includes repair and touch-up when necessary, for a fee. Most interestingly, the contract includes a clause that nothing can be built in the parking lot in which the mural stands as a gorgeous backdrop.

According to Goldstein, the choice of image was an attempt to “educate Columbus about Bellows,” who was a native of this city. “The work in many ways is reminiscent of what Columbus might have looked like one hundred years ago when this area was more of a village and less a city.”

The choice of Bellows is in keeping with the other murals in the district, given that most of them are reproductions of works by famous masters. Goldstein adds that he might have liked to do something even more daring, but “funders of art in this city tend to be conservative and so Bellows was a sort of compromise.”

Bellows' work as a social realist was daring for its time; some critics still don't see his work as part of the world of classical, legitimate art - especially for a commercial district like the Short North. Many of Bellows' paintings were about the burgeoning cityscapes in his day and all the beauty and ugliness that came with rapid development. They are not meant to be pretty, but to comment powerfully, with a liberal stance, on social, cultural, political, and economic issues.

“To us, Bellows and this particular image made the most logical sense for the space,” Goldstein says. The image harkens back to what the Short North may have resembled before gentrification. “Now this area has been re-gentrified,” he says, referring to the development boom in the area in the last decade or so.

In the mural, we see laundry drying on lines strung between apartments, shirtless men loitering, a woman breast-feeding an infant, and a pickpocket making his rounds. The height of the wall gives the painting a wonderful sense of ambience of this era of urban life with people living on top of each other in cramped apartment buildings. This milieu is filled with immigrants' dreams of escaping crushing poverty.

This was the stuff of German, Victorian, and Italian Villages before they became what they are today - real estate investment schemes for the upwardly mobile urban elite. In that regard, the Bellows mural not only stands as a historical document of the past, but also gives us a compass by which to measure the present and perhaps even the future. What used to be the immigrants' fields of dreams continue to morph into land baron's fields of schemes.

The painting itself is masterful. Attias and Goldstein have beautifully re-created the expressionistic, gestural style for which Bellows became renowned. And the color palette is marvelously distinct from any of the other murals in the Short North - no bold, colorful palettes in rich complimentary hues or vibrant pastel shades here. The colors in Cliff Dwellers are muted, darker, with glimmers of bold hues, illustrating brilliantly the lives of a group of ragtag urban dwellers finding hope in small glimpses of what the future might offer.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this mural is a small detail that may go unnoticed: the façade on which the painting sits has a skyward extension that is a chimney. The artists have incorporated this architectural detail into the painting, making it seem like the chimney of one of the tenements in Bellows' work. Accidentally or serendipitously, what would have been a rectangular canvas for the artists is now a shaped canvas - a shape that compliments that subject matter beautifully.

No matter which mural is your favorite, it is abundantly clear that in the Short North, the painting's on the wall!

© 2005 Short North Gazette. Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.

Return to Homepage