A River of Art

The last Cuyahoga river fire occurred on June 22, 1969. This year marked fifty years since that huge turning point and northeast Ohio broke out in celebration of how far the Cuyahoga has come since that fateful day. 

Many community members and groups decided to share their pride for the Cuyahoga’s accomplishments through a number of art forms. 

The River Stanzas, the Cleveland Foundation and Cleveland Public Theatre were just some of the groups that took part this year and celebrated the historic river through their own creative art forms. 


The River Stanzas 

The River Stanzas is a project created by Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center. 

To celebrate the river’s golden anniversary, the center decided to create a poetry project that involved both the university and local schools. 

Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the center has had the opportunity to bigger projects like this one. 

“What we did when we started was reached out to a bunch of different schools in the region, teachers that we had relationships with, and developed lessons in collaboration with them,” said Charlie Malone, program and outreach manager for Wick Poetry. 

The students got the chance to get out and see the river and then reflect through lessons on poetry and the environment. 

“We often did a riverwalk where they would come here and we’d write in our classroom and maybe go for a walk and come back and write again,” he said.

Students outside writing their poetry (Courtesy of Charlie Malone).

The students were given prompts where they were encouraged to use their physical senses to get them started writing.

“So what did they see? What did they smell? What did they hear? What did they feel? How does the river know things differently than how we know things?” said Malone.

Wick Poetry Center went a step further and helped encourage young students to participate even more with their environment and river with the Every Kid in a Park program and OpenOutdoors for kids from the National Park Foundation.

The programs were created to get young kids and their families out to experience the National Parks for free.

“Each of those field trips has a couple of different components. We do a preset visit, or we visited the school and tell them about the National Park Service, about our National Parks specifically, and sort of prime them for the field trip, he said. “Then the field trip we meet, we write, and walk and write, and then there’s a follow-up where they complete some other stuff.”

Malone said that the whole project has been well-received from teachers and students alike .

“It’s been a joy. And we’ve had such positive feed back that some of them are requesting a second. I think one, it’s a different approach to when you evaluate a student’s own sort of perception and experience in that way, it’s a different way to teach the lessons of history and ecology,” he said.

“And then this magical thing happens when they read when they read their own poems and all of their peers clap and their teachers said, ‘that was really nice.’ And they’ve got something tangible that they’ve created. I think that’s a special way to learn. I think it really empowers the students and that’s always been a part of our ethos.”

Later on graphic designers create visual artwork to go along with a lot of the kids poems.

Poem by a 12th grade student, Callan Latham. Designed by Brianna Deckert.
Poem by Kieran Syed, a 5th grade student. Designed by Rachel Bishop.

The Cleveland Foundation

The Cleveland Foundation also used the Cuyahoga anniversary to commission some art of their own with artists and creatives from all over the world.

“The backdrop was that there was this opportunity, this moment in time where we could elevate the river fire as really a narrative that not only talked about the past, what happened 50 years ago, but what a future forward, thinking about about what’s our relationship to water, what are the challenges that we’re going to face regarding our relationship to water,” said Environmental Program Officer Stephen Love.

The foundation decided to use their Creative Fusion program. The program has been a part of the foundation for over 10 years that brings international artists to the Cleveland area for their collaborative projects.

“What if we were to think about Creative Fusion as a means, frankly, to really having that conversation, that dialogue about our relationship to water and doing it in a globalized way?” said Love.

The idea was well received with the foundation’s arts and environmental organizational partners and went forward looking for artists to help tell the story of our relationship to water.

Through a lot of research and some positive name recognition, the foundation eventually found their artists.

“Once we identify those individuals, if wasn’t necessarily entirely difficult to get them engaged,” he said.

Artists came from as far as Venezuela to create art for the celebrations in Cleveland. The Venezuelan artists, Eduardo Portillo and Mariá Eugenia Dávila, got the community involved by using 900 people to make 900 squares that were stitched together to create large banners for the commemorations.

The foundation also honored the river’s its indigenous history with a river walk hosted by Sharon Day, a Native American artist and Ojibwe elder from Minnesota.

“For several years since the Standing Rock protests in the Dakotas, Sharon Day has represented her community, her people through what is called sacred river walks. And she has actually conducted a walk once before, along the entire course of the Cuyahoga River,” Love said.

Day came back this year in June to lead fellow walkers on a “spiritual experience.”

“She traversed the whole hundred mile or so river from Geauga county all the way to Kent, and then ultimately up to Cleveland, up to the National Park,” he said.

While Love doesn’t have specifics on the attendance turnouts for the Creative Fusion projects, the entire Cuyahoga 50 celebrations had large turnouts where community members and people from all over enjoyed the festivities.

The foundation will be continuing its environmental initiatives in the future and is looking toward addressing climate change with northeast Ohio’s other famous body of water, Lake Erie.

“We’ve been focused for about 15 years now to get the first offshore fresh water wind farm in Lake Erie called the Lake Erie Energy Development Coalition (LEEDco),” Love said.

It would be the first fresh water wind farm in North America and could help address the climate issues caused by fossil fuels.

“Fire on the Water”

Fire on the Water 1
Pictured: Daniel McKinnon, Hillary Wheelock, Mary-Francis R. Miller, Kat Shy, Faye Hargate, Zach Palumbo, Brinden Harvey. Photo by Steve Wagner.

Not only did the Cuyahoga inspire poetry, artwork and river walks, it also inspired a theatre performance from the Cleveland Public Theatre called, “Fire on the Water.” 

The play was done before in 2014, but since the river’s big anniversary happened this year, the theatre decided it was a good time to bring it back.

“It’s a collaboration between local Cleveland artists, directors, actors and designers to create a piece about the burning of the Cuyahoga River,” said co-director India Nicole Burton. “But not only just the burning of the Cuyahoga river, but also Louis Stokes and the people who helped stop the burning.”

The Cleveland Public Theatre commissioned artists around the city to write pieces about the river or the Stokes brothers.

For those who don’t know Carl Stokes was the Mayor of Cleveland during the river’s 1969 burning and helped bring national attention to the issue through the media.

His brother, Louis Stokes was a U.S. Representative who along with his brother Carl, ended up testifying to Congress on the river’s behalf.

Both of the brothers were historic as Carl was the first African American Mayor of a major city and Louis was the first African American U.S. Representative from Ohio.

(For more about the Stokes brothers see here and here).

There were nine separate scenes throughout the performance headed by different directors, including Burton and lead playwright and co-director Raymond Bobgan.

“One of the stories was about Carl Stokes and it was kind of an avant-garde piece about his involvement and he he came about caring about the environment because at first, it wasn’t that he was more worried about the environment,but he was more worried about the people and how they were starving,” Burton said.

Fire on the water 4
Pictured (clockwise from left): Kim Martin, Daniel McKinnon, Michael Levin, Sidney Edwards. Photo by Steve Wagner.

“After the fire he started to realize that the social, economic and environment all work together in one. You couldn’t have a sustainable economic or social environment without the environmental part.”

The play also featured a more light, comedic piece about how people didn’t understand anything about water pollution.

“It was about how they created this machine that they put in the water to try and clean the water up, but also about how people would just throw things and pollute the river and never realized what they were doing to the environment,” she said.

The performance was highly visual with a 360° multimedia experience and even aerial scenes.

Fire on the Water 3
Pictured: Mary-Francis R. Miller and the ensemble of “Fire on the Water.” Photo by Steve Wagner.

“There was a lot of multimedia. There was projection, there was real fire,” Burton said.

Burton said the performance had positive public reception and sold out several shows.

“It opens a lot of people’s eyes to what is truly happening to our waterways and also how lucky we are, and how things could affect the future if we don’t do something about it now,” she said.

*Featured photo – Pictured: Zach Palumbo, Courtney Nicole Auman, Daniel McKinnon. Photo by Steve Wagner.



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