After 13 months of work, Caskey will unveil her new mural for the observation deck on the 40th floor of the Rhodes State Office Tower on Thursday, Jan. 19.
Dig Mandi Caskey's hair.
No, it's not likely the craziest color job you'll see today, or the funkiest style featured on the pages in any issue of Alive. But you better believe it's intentional, the dark-brown on one side, baby soft blond on the other.
The contrasting colors represent for Caskey two distinct realms of art, two art-making personas for the once-and-future street artist whose work received a major bump in the “establishment” department when she was contracted to do a new mural for the observation deck on the 40th floor of the Rhodes State Office Tower.
After 13 months of work, Caskey has declared the 26-foot-by-6-foot landscape complete, and will unveil the work to the public on Thursday, Jan. 19 at 5:30 p.m. (Going forward, the observation deck will be open to the public during business hours, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.)
A lot has changed for Caskey in those 13 months. She was 21 years old and not yet a full-time artist when she began discussions with the Ohio Department of Administrative Services (DAS) about updating the public art on the observation deck. She had dropped out of CCAD and had rediscovered her passion for making art via street art (some might call it graffiti), and began sharing what she was creating on her Instagram feed at @Miss.Birdy.
“[The two-tone hair] reminds me I can be both Birdy and Mandi Caskey. I can be both underground and a professional gallery artist,” Caskey said.
“It was intimidating, having meetings, being in front of all of these government officials. I was active, wanted to be more active in the community, but my experience with government officials was as one who was used to being chased by them,” she added with a laugh.
Several months of discussion and presentations, beginning in the summer of 2015, resulted in an agreement for Caskey to create a new piece of public art for the space. She began work in December of that year, and for the past 13 months, has had perhaps the dopest art studio in the city.
“I probably won't ever have a studio like this again,” Caskey said, perched atop the city's tallest building. “I've been up here typically three [or] four times a week for the past year. I'm going to miss it.”
While she admitted the process ended up taking longer than she might have preferred, she said the DAS was “very understanding of my time.” “It's been a long time coming but I think it was worth it,” she said.
The mural depicts non-specific Ohio scenery, charting both a morning-to-evening time lapse and a full change of seasons. One of the points of emphasis for Caskey was to include Ohio's state symbols in the mural. Since the piece is a landscape, she opted to include as many of Ohio's natural state symbols as possible — trillium flowers, white-tailed deer, cardinal, black racer snake, bullfrog and a number of ladybugs among them. Other flora and fauna were added to complete the picture.
“To be honest, it's the first landscape I've ever done,” Caskey said. “It's a lot more impressionistic than anything I've done. It's been an adventure.”
She said there are some subtle nods to her street-art self, too, but, like many of the mural's elements (school kids can count the ladybugs, or find the state fossil, for example), Caskey wasn't keen to give these elements away.
DAS Assistant Director Rand Howard called the project an ad-hoc pilot or prototype for the updating of public art in a number of state-owned structures.
“The Rhodes Tower opened in the early 1970s and at the time there was a lot of public art being installed in similar public places, and much of it has continued to hang ever since. So we have started discussing replacing select pieces,” Howard said. “Mandi was a local artist who was brought to our attention, and she was interested in the project.”
Though public arts projects can often be subject to a lengthy submission and approval process, the state actually circled around Caskey early in the conception stage, enamored with the work she posted via Instagram.
While there is no timetable for the continued work of replacing dated or worn public art in state facilities, Howard called the outcome of the Rhodes Tower project “encouraging.”
“I would guess we would continue this work as we identify other interested volunteer artists who might benefit from the exposure of their work to the public,” Howard said.
Certainly, Caskey's reputation has heightened throughout the process, attributable in whatever degree to the project's profile, both figurative and literal. (As for exposing her work to the public, it's also not lost on Caskey that while many of her works of street art have been scrubbed from existence within days of their creation, this work could remain on view for decades.)
But more important to Caskey is the leg up this opportunity has given her to advocate for more murals, more street art and more public art, specifically in the city she calls home.
“That's how I see myself in [Columbus], as an advocate for the street-art scene,” Caskey said. “I'm ‘just' an artist, and the government thing, the corporate thing, they're foreign to me and to many of us. It's a hard thing trying to navigate. There are so many agencies and commissions and committees, it can be hard to find out who works with [whom].”
“There are so many [bare] walls in the city,” she continued, noting how many of them are even more clearly visible from 600 feet up. Additionally, Caskey said, only partly tongue-in-cheek, that she would love to paint the entire exterior of the Rhodes Tower if they'd let her.
“This city is way too clean. The city needs to look lived-in, to develop a color, a culture. That's going to make people want to stay here,” she said. “And the city has so many badass mural artists. I don't think people understand the value of a hand-painted mural. Why not integrate something with the facade of a building?
“There are so many conversations that need to be had. There are a lot of layers and a lot of restrictions. Let's find a way through or around the hoops that you need to jump through.”
Caskey gives the impression she's just getting started. She talks enthusiastically about mural programs such as Pow! Wow! Hawaii or Art Basel Miami. Her networking has reached beyond Columbus to muralists and public art agencies in Louisville and Cincinnati, whose ArtWorks Caskey believes could serve as a model for the promotion of mural art in Columbus.
“My mission this year is to talk about the need for real public art, and street art is the rawest form of public art,” she said. “I want to find out where is the line, and when does there not need to be a line between the perception and reality of street art.”
It appears Caskey is prepared for the task she's given herself. In the meantime, if you've got a blank wall…