Spate of Murals Gives a Visual Boost to City

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As student artists gathered last week in front of the mural they painted along Andrews Avenue, drivers of passing cars honked their horns in approval.

It was a constant reminder of the public’s approval.

The dozen Youngstown State University art students in professor Dragana Crnjak’s Mural and Site-Specific Painting class started the colorful and abstract 150-foot mural in September and finished it up last week. The honking and thumbs-up from passing drivers was a routine part of their painting sessions, too, which began in September.

“Some drivers stopped and got out of their car to ask about it,” Crnjak said. “They are curious and want to be a part of it.”

A few inquired about how they can get a mural painted on their own property.

The Andrews Avenue mural is just one of at least seven public art projects that were completed in the past six months in the Youngstown area. The other murals are on the façade of the former State Theater, downtown; at Westside Bowl on Mahoning Avenue; on a wall at Southern Park Mall; and at Schwebel’s Baking Co. in Boardman.

A series of enlarged photographs of baseball great Jackie Robinson and George Shuba, his Dodgers teammate from Youngstown, were mounted on the wall of an empty building on the west side. And on Saturday, officials dedicated a series of portraits of pop music stars mounted on an alley wall in downtown Sharon, Pa.

Why the recent spate of public art? Crnjak said she can’t say for sure but chalks it up mostly to coincidence, pointing out that the planning of a mural takes months.

The pandemic played a role in only one of the projects.

Westside Bowl owner Nathan Offerdahl used the state-mandated shutdown of his business, and the empty parking lot it caused, to complete the painting by Cleveland artist Dave Witzke.

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Recently completed murals include those at Westside Bowl, Youngstown; an alley in downtown Sharon, Pa.; Schwebel’s Baking Co.; the former State Theater in downtown Youngstown; on one of Southern Park Mall’s walls, Boardman; on a vacant building on the west side of Youngstown; and the new one on Andrews Avenue.

Louis A. Zona, executive director and curator of The Butler Institute of American Art, summed up the mural mania without giving a reason for the recent flurry. “People love public art,” he said, “especially works that stir us and remind us why art exists in the first place.”

Zona said public art has a unique ability to lift the spirits of a community, but pointed out that it’s not a new idea.

“Public art has been a key part of civilization for centuries,” he said. “When they unearthed Pompeii, murals could be seen in many of their community spaces including the famous public baths.”

Zona said it is wonderful to see murals springing up around the area and brightening up public places.

YSU’s Crnjak said public art is important “in shaping not just how we look at cities and public spaces but how we think about ourselves.” Public art is a staple of every major city, she said, and spurs revitalization.

“Having an environment that reflects our different aspects – cultural, social, historical – has an economic impact on development, and that has been proven,” she said. “We’ve seen it in so many other cities.”

At the centerpoint of the Andrew Avenue mural is a wide grassy area with trees that extends away from the busy street. It lends itself to becoming a parklet, and Sharon Letson of Youngstown Cityscape said conversations have already begun to do just that.

“The long-term goal is to have benches there, some lighting, and make it into a place of respite,” said Letson, who is the director of the beautification agency. “It could become another walking destination,” she said.

Located just north of the intersection of East Federal Street, downtown, the site was formerly unattractive, an area of high grass in front of a massive concrete retaining wall. The entire length of Andrews Avenue, in fact, has always been a drab industrial corridor, a shortcut between downtown and the north side and not a place for sightseeing.

Crnjak believes that is why drivers used to whizzing by are now stunned to see a splash of color. She will return to the site in the fall 2021 semester to teach another public art class that will extend the mural.

After that, she would like to target West Federal Street in the heart of downtown, but said it’s too soon to name specific sites.

“There are a few sites downtown that are extremely attractive and that I’m personally drawn to,” she said. “People would love to have something in the heart of downtown that would resonate with them.”

Cityscape’s Letson agrees, adding that it must be well-planned.

“There are lots of spots downtown, but our standards continue to be raised,” she said. “Look at [the new Phelps Street pedestrian walkway]. Its archway is like a piece of art, and from there you can see the amphitheater. It lines up with it. As we do more and more such projects, we have to take into account our surroundings.”

Pictured at top: YSU art professor Dragana Crnjak and members of her public art class stand in front of a mural they created along Andrews Avenue in Youngstown.

Copyright 2021 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.