Art Transplant: Columbus is helping to define the Heartland as a new destination for artists

  • Photos by Meghan Ralston
    Kelli Martin
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Local artist Christopher Burk in his studio at Tacocat
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Fashion designer Kelli Martin in her wardrobe at her home
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    Eliza Jane Wood-Obenauf and Eric Obenauf of Two Dollar Radio in their Clintonville home
  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
    W. Ralph Walters in his studio in 400 West Rich
By
From the April 3, 2014 edition

Columbus residents have long known there’s an ardent and compelling arts scene here occupied by talented, creative individuals working in a variety of fields. Those who live outside Columbus usually think of the city as home to “The” Ohio State University, its powerhouse football team, and possibly even the unfortunate “Cowtown” moniker. These misconceptions couldn’t be more shortsighted.

According to a 2012 study conducted by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts in America, “Columbus area arts and cultural non-profits generate $226 million annually for the local economy — three times the economic impact from Ohio State sports.” Clearly the arts are a major component of Columbus’ identity, even if the national perception hasn’t caught up.

When most people think about the nation’s nucleuses of art, fashion, literature, etc. they immediately think of the coasts (New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco). But recently there’s been a trend of creatives working and thriving in the Midwest; some have even moved to the Midwest from the coasts because they’re finding more opportunities in the “flyover states.” Sure, Chicago has long been a center for this activity, but Detroit is earning positive national news — for the first time in a long time — with its up-and-coming arts scene (partly born out of its recent economic woes). Minneapolis, besides being one of the fittest cities in the U.S., also has a strong arts and music presence.

So why is Columbus not recognized for its flourish of creative endeavors happening all around us? Even if the national hype train hasn’t pulled into the “Indie Art Capital of the World” station yet, why are so many creative talents succeeding here? And what role could Columbus play in this development of the Midwest being a new frontier where the arts are becoming a topic of national conversation?

There’s probably not a definitive answer to these questions. But speaking with a number of individuals in the local community has shed light on why the Midwest, and specifically Columbus, offers advantages the traditional coasts do not, the reasons Columbus has such a strong arts scene right now and its future potential.

High cost of living

Let’s just get this out of the way: The most obvious and prominent reason the Midwest is a growing place for artists to live and work is cost of living. Being a full-time artist in New York City or Los Angeles is financially taxing. Many work full-time jobs (moonlighting artistically), live in cramped apartments and can’t afford proper studio or work space.

“Things were going really well, but I started to realize it was so expensive, obviously — I’ve got to be honest, that was one of the main things — and it just seemed ridiculous,” said Columbus-based fashion designer Kelli Martin, speaking from the studio in her home where she creates innovative handmade apparel.

Martin spent a number of years working in the Los Angeles fashion industry and was a contestant on “Project Runway” before returning to Columbus to create Anti.Label, an original street-style couture line, and co-founding Alternative Fashion Mob with other like-minded designers who weren’t interested in the established fashion industry practices. She couldn’t be more pleased with the direction her career path has taken, from the West Coast to the Heartland.

“It depends on what ‘making it’ means. Do you want money and fame? My goal to ‘make it’ is to do what I want,” Martin said. “With Alternative Fashion Mob, I’m doing what I want and the business is successful. I don’t want to be the next big famous designer like I thought when I was younger. That’s not the world I want to live in and … now I know I don’t have to worry about going that route.”

Other creatively focused small businesses have found similar success in Columbus. Husband and wife Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf started Two Dollar Radio, an alternative small press publishing company, in San Diego and moved to New York City. They similarly found New York’s high cost of living problematic and moved to central Ohio for both financial reasons and to be closer to family while raising their young daughter. While the couple moved out of circumstance in 2008, they actually found more success here.

“At first it seemed very important when we moved to New York. We thought it would be very good for the company because that’s the publishing capital. But we were in a sea of other small publishers and big publishers,” Wood-Obenauf said during an interview in the couple’s Clintonville home.

“We didn’t get major distribution until we were living in Ohio,” said Obenauf. “I think people like that we’re from Columbus and the Midwest. That seems like a commodity; to be from a place where it’s not oversaturated. There are plenty of writers, but to be exceptional and from some place off the map is really interesting to people.”

Opportunity knocks

Besides small businesses like Anti.Label and Two Dollar Radio, visual artists have found Columbus to be ripe with opportunity. CCAD graduate Christopher Burk, a painter of exceptionally realistic urban landscapes, lived in New York City for six years. He knew the environment would be competitive, but that’s not the only reason he was eventually enticed back to Columbus.

“I was there for a number of years and did love it, but … I would come home for the holidays and see, or I would read online about [things happening in Columbus]. I was like, there’s some stuff going on there again, and I need to be part of it,” Burk said.

Since moving back two years ago, Burk has found Columbus to be more fruitful, from both a creative and financial standpoint. He is a member of Tacocat, an artist collective in Grandview that he cites as a “family” he often looks to for inspiration and collaboration. Burk is also represented by Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North, where he regularly exhibits and sells work, disproving another misconception about the viability of arts in the Midwest.

“I had a discussion with someone in the arts sector here and they [said] people in the Midwest don’t buy art. That’s bullshit. I’m selling pieces … every month. People are buying art, and not $100 pictures — they’re buying a few-thousand-dollar paintings. That’s a preconceived notion that you need to get out of your head. It’s not like that anymore,” Burk said.

Also appealing to many artists is the ability to find capital from other outlets. The Greater Columbus Arts Council provides to local artists funding for materials, studio time or anything the discipline might require.

“GCAC offers fellowships, but also supply and professional development grants to individual artists. Last year we supported 144 artists,” said Jami Goldstein, vice president of marketing at GCAC.

GCAC provided funding to local artists Stephanie Rond, Andrew Ina and Dan Gerdeman for a trip to New York City last weekend, where they filmed scenes for a documentary on public art. The film will be screened at an exhibit in September before hitting the indie film festival circuit. The group chose New York City for reasons fully explained in the documentary — no spoilers! — but also for its status in the art world.

“So many artists see New York as the Mecca, the make-it-or-break-it place. Between artists there’s a lot of discussion as to whether or not that’s valid, that one place can make you a valid creative or not,” said Rond, a multi-disciplinary artist who’s exhibited locally and all over, from Atlanta to Toronto, receiving acclaim from hometown and national publications. “I know I certainly don’t feel like I need validation from New York to be considered a professional, but others might and that’s why they go.”

The young and restless

Whatever you think about Kanye West’s capability for providing sage insight, his line in “Jesus Walks,” — “Y’all know what the Midwest is? Young and restless” — is spot on. Now, there may not be snatched necklaces or the jacking of a Lexus in the Columbus arts scene, but artists are taking (and making) what they want out of it.

A prime example of Columbus being attractive to both local and outside artists is the DIY approach that exists within the collectives and art groups. From Tacocat to Franklinton collectives 400 West Rich and Ethical Arts, and other innumerable art groups, Columbus has so many styles and forms of art that anyone is sure to find a niche. That happened because artists wanted more, and took it.

“Something I noticed that changed was lots of other artists were disappointed that it wasn’t their art scene here, and started art groups and their own shows. Suddenly, we have over 100 art groups in Columbus, each one of them creating their own opportunities. Some are having so much success with it,” said W. Ralph Walters during an interview at the Art Party Columbus group studio at 400 West Rich.

Walters, who paints pop surrealism (inspired by Mark Ryden and Ed Repka) for doom and stoner metal album covers/posters, and massive, spellbindingly bizarre oil paintings, moved to Columbus from rural Louisiana in the late ’90s. Again, his move was out of circumstance, but he’s excited to be part of the Columbus scene, even if that wasn’t always the case.

Walters considers himself a low-brow artist, something that once had a presence here but faded away. Now, he’s enthusiastic about Columbus because artists who maybe didn’t fit in, traditionally or contemporarily, are finding ways to get noticed and garner local support. Walters cites the success and attendance of art events he recently curated as examples of Columbus embracing fresh works; “RU Robot? Robot Art Show” and the “Dark Love” show in February that brought out more than 500 people (during bad weather).

“So you went from having this stagnant art scene to suddenly all these people [who] basically forced their way in, saying, ‘Fuck this. I don’t want to look at this anymore. I want to look at other stuff,’” Walters said.

“I’m an old-school punk rocker so I believe in DIY and I think there are a lot of people in this community who believe in that. If it’s not here in the way that you want it, you make it happen yourself,” Rond said while sipping a beer in a Franklinton bar Monday afternoon.

Road to somewhere

Will Columbus become New York or Los Angeles when it comes to the proliferation of artistic offerings in the future? Probably not. But Columbus is being recognized for its contributions, talent and diversity.

“I have friends in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Chicago, and they know Columbus has a great art scene because of its community. We’re getting known,” Rond said.

Community, and its strength here, was mentioned by every person I spoke to about why Columbus’ arts scene is growing. It may be a little cliché, but it represents Midwest attitudes (humble, polite, hard-working, even a bit sentimental) that aren’t prevalent on the coasts.

“I felt like everyone was fake [in Los Angeles],” Martin said. “Those are stereotypes, but I found them to be true, especially in the industry I was in … I feel like people here are more willing to collaborate, think together, help each other and not out to get each other. The community is a big thing.”

The term “community” has a larger meaning than some sort of hokey idealism. The growing number of artists succeeding — whether that’s expressing individual creativity, receiving support from patrons or institutions, or finding independent routes to expand the scene — shows a potential that will attract artists, certainly locally, possibly nationally.

“What I think is happening is a lot of talent is realizing this is a really good place to work [and are] staying, whereas in years past the perception was you have to leave,” said Andrew Ina while sharing a pint with Rond Monday. “Young artists are beginning to see … you can thrive through finding a niche, a gallery or collective, or whatever. People are finding a comfort zone in this city, and this city is supporting it too.”

Ina is a Cleveland native who moved here to attend CCAD and went to grad school in Scotland. Once finished, he knew where he wanted to live while practicing his painting and filmmaking pursuits. His story is similar to many CCAD graduates.

“The employment base for what we refer to as the creative economy [has become] a self-perpetuating volume of people … a self-sustaining arts community,” said Robin Helper, CCAD’s marketing & communications director, of why 50 percent of CCAD’s graduates stay in the Columbus market.

While many of those graduates remaining in Columbus are finding corporate or commercial work, the independent artist is thriving too. Sure, the Short North is Columbus’ most well-known arts district, but Grandview, Olde Towne East, and especially the emerging Franklinton neighborhood, are rife with independent art and artists.

“As an artist, if I [did] some research before I move somewhere and heard about Franklinton and saw the stuff going on there, and some of the shows that are starting to pop up around the city reflecting the growth — showing myriad different kinds of artwork, just beautiful stuff — I would want to be here,” Walters said.

Simply put, Columbus has made some big strides in terms of its growing arts scene, like other Midwestern cities are doing. (The development of Franklinton practically parallels what’s happening in Detroit’s arts scene; affordable studio and residential space due to economic plight.) Where it goes from here is anyone’s guess, as the story continues to unfold.

“It’s happening and this is just the tip of the iceberg … a place like Columbus has the opportunity to reinvent the city as opposed to a place like New York or San Francisco where the story is already written,” Obenauf said.