Our Towns

Inplace Public Art Projects Color Youngstown

By Sean Posey

Those who drive in and through central Youngstown during the next few weeks should notice the new public art projects workers are installing in and near the downtown. This art, funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, is the latest chapter in the recent growth of public art within the city.

Youngstown was the recipient of one of the largest awards of the 64 cities and towns that received an NEA Our Town grant in 2016. The $100,000 grant is the largest the city has received from the NEA.

“They’re very careful not to repeat funding to larger metropolitan areas,” says Leslie Brothers, director of the John J. McDonough Museum of Art at Youngstown State University. “A lot of the applicants are smaller places that are trying to use arts and culture to revitalize their cities. The NEA is clearly supportive of that.”

Brothers co-wrote the grant application with YSU professor emeritus Michael Crist; Dominic C. Marchionda, city-university planner; and R.J. Thompson, professor of art at YSU.

The Youngstown initiative, entitled Inplace (Innovative Plan for Leveraging Arts Through Community, focuses on five themes – wayfinding, technology, parking, green infrastructure and lighting – that were assigned priorities as planning initiatives developed from collaboration involving the city, YSU, Kent State University, the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative, the Economic Action Group and local community groups.

The collaboration chose five projects to each receive $20,000 to execute their designs. Each group consists of individuals from diverse backgrounds. “We asked artists in the community to work with other professionals – city planners, people who have businesses here,” Brothers says. All five will be installed in an area that runs from Wood Street to the Mahoning River and from South Avenue to Mahoning Avenue.

“We wanted to help build memorable, timeless art and design-driven structures that would bring people together and really demonstrate the power of art and the creative expression that the city is capable of creating,” YSU’s Thompson says.

Youngstown Tile and Terrazzo Co. installed the first project, “Solar Screen,” designed by professor Brian Peters of Kent State University, in late July in front of The Vindicator.

“It was an opportunity for me to build something full-scale using 3-D printing,” Peters says. He chose a site near America Makes, an entity devoted to advancing public-private partnerships in research and the commercial use of additive manufacturing. “I wanted to help showcase the future of manufacturing in Youngstown,” Peters says.

The screen, which resembles a curved wall, is positioned to follow the path of the sun. Each block in the screen is equipped with a photovoltaic solar receptor. The screen absorbs the sun’s rays by day and glows as the energy is released at night.

“Every block was numbered,” says Joshua Cohol, president of Youngstown Tile and Terrazzo. “We installed about two rows a day. Every one of those pieces was uniquely made out of the 3-D printing process and then fire-baked with glaze on the ceramic.”

The “Mahoning Avenue Archway” project will also light up at night, says artist David Tamulonis. He and his team will light an abandoned railway arch above Mahoning Avenue. “The top lights are going to wash down on the sides of the wall,” Tamulonis says. “And there’s an LED strip that goes around the arch on the outside of both sides, going downtown and to the West Side.”

The lights will highlight what he calls a forgotten structure, and their orange glow will aim to duplicate the colors of an old steel furnace. The Mahoning County Building Department’s review of the project begins Sept. 8 and could run four weeks. The fixtures are scheduled to arrive the third week of September.

Project member Ian Beniston, executive director of the Youngstown Neighborhood Development Corp., sees the archway project as the perfect example of place-making, a term borrowed from the vocabulary of urban planning. “That’s why this concept attracted me,” Beniston says.

“For me, it just means making somewhere unique or special,” he says of the term. “In a lot of cases in Youngstown, these are things that are already there, but people might not see it that way. Part of what we’re doing is calling attention to something that’s already there – highlighting it.”

The “Wedge at Hazel Hill,” a project designed to create a green space that connects YSU and the downtown, and “Light the Community,” which aims to install a public shadow art stage near the City Hall Annex, will be completed in the next few weeks.

Tony Armeni and Daniel Newman hope to have their project, a bus shelter built from a shipping container, completed in the next few weeks. “I’d always wanted to make a sculptural bus shelter,” says Armeni, an artist who works out of the Ward Bakery building. He’s a sculptor who often uses brass and plastic shavings from local fabricating shops in his work and incorporates steel in many of his sculptures.

“My work is just like Youngstown,” Armeni says. “They’re pieces of steel. So, I see this as another big chunk of metal.”

At his studio, Tony Armeni is working on converting a shipping container to a bus stop.

Team member Ed Macabobby bought the shipping container and fashioned it with his employees in his fabricating shop. “They did everything off of a model,” Armeni says. “There were no shop drawings and that’s how these guys usually work.”

Armeni is using gymnasium bleachers 18 inches wide as seating. The shelter should seat five to six people. He originally planned to place the shelter in the front of the Mahoning County Courthouse and then on Central Square. The Design Review Committee vetoed both plans. So the shelter will sit next to International Towers. At the request of the Western Reserve Transit Authority, it will be painted bright green to match the colors of its buses.

These Inplace installations join a spate of recent public art projects. What is thought to be the largest mural in the history of Youngstown was installed at the WRTA headquarters on Mahoning Avenue in November 2016. Made up of 25,500 multi-colored chain link fence inserts, the mural depicts the city skyline exploding into various colors and patterns.

YNDC commissioned the city’s first mural in many years in 2012. The mural, painted by artist Curtis Goldstein of Columbus, depicts residents and scenes from the South Side neighborhood near Idora Park. YNDC has commissioned five other murals along the Glenwood corridor in the past several years.

Local muralist Christian Mrosko has painted two murals in the city, one in 2012 near the Youngstown Playhouse, the other in 2013 on the Larew Building immediately south of the Market Street Bridge.

“Public art forms retain the potential to spark positive and uplifting senses of spirit and curiosity in large numbers of people,” Mrosko says.

In April, former Boardman resident Tommy Morgan completed a mural on the Needles Eye Christian Life Center on Oak Hill. His first Youngstown mural, “Face of the Future,” adorns the side of the former Park Inn building on Glenwood Avenue.

There have been no acts of vandalism reported against any of YNDC’s murals, Beniston says. That wasn’t the case in 1980 when George Segal’s sculpture “The Steelworkers,” one of the city’s earlier pieces of public art, was repeatedly vandalized.

Commissioned by the Youngstown Area Arts Council in 1978, the piece consists of two statues modeled on two local steelworkers with an accompanying replica of an open-hearth furnace. It incorporates parts taken from a furnace at the Youngstown Sheet & Tube Campbell Works.

“The Steelworkers,” created by George Segal, uses metal from Youngstown Sheet & Tube.

“By the time the piece was ready to be installed, the steel mills had closed,” says Louis Zona, executive director and chief curator at the Butler Institute of American Art. “At the time, there was a lot of animosity being expressed about the steel industry.”

After those acts of vandalism, the city eventually removed it from Federal Plaza. Today the sculpture stands next to the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry and Labor. Zona doesn’t see anything similar happening today in regards to pieces of public art.

“If you got a major artist to do something on the steel industry today, there would not be that kind of attitude,” he says.

Public art still has the power to inspire strong emotions, Leslie Brothers says. “Public art is always going to be controversial. But it gets people thinking critically about meaning and beauty, why they like something or why they don’t,” she says, “and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing.”

Pictured at top: “Solar Screen” uses solar receptors to absorb light by day and glow at night.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.