This podcast features guest interviews with some of Cleveland’s finest and gives perspective on what makes the 216 one of the best urban cities in America. Hear about the dreams, risks and realities of the next evolution in Downtown Cleveland’s growth.
#VoicesofCLE Public Arts Project Highlights Downtown Cleveland's Commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
This episode of Then There's Cleveland features special guest Antwoine Washington; an award-winning artists and participating artist in Downtown Cleveland’s #voicesofCLE Public Art Project. Hosts Lauren and Michael ask Antwoine how projects of this kind help create the conversations that lead to more diversity and inclusivity in urban neighborhoods.
Lauren Niepokny: Welcome back to downtown Cleveland's podcast, Then There's Cleveland, where we discuss downtown Cleveland's successes, challenges and future opportunities for growth. Currently, downtown Cleveland, like many other cities across the nation, is experiencing the fallout not only of the global pandemic, but also the civil unrest that took place as a result of the racial injustices that we have all witnessed in recent months, which has left us asking ourselves, are we an inclusive city? And how can we provide more opportunity for people of color in our urban neighborhood?
Lauren Niepokny: On this episode, we talk to award-winning artist Antwoine Washington about the Voices of CLE public art project, taking place in downtown Cleveland, and how our city center neighborhood can be more intentional about diversity and inclusion.
Antwoine Washington: To do this work, you've got to be willing to be broke. You got to be willing to know that the truth might cost you some money.
Lauren Niepokny: Amplifying voices in our community, especially those of color, is more important than ever, and the Voices of CLE public art initiative in downtown Cleveland is a call to action for local artists and creators to inspire, communicate and represent through their medium. This effort is meant to provide a platform for freedom of expression and encourage healing, while also sparking conversation and action here and now, as we unite to move Cleveland forward.
Michael Deemer: Hi, I'm Michael Demer, executive vice president for business development at Downtown Cleveland Alliance. We are the only nonprofit organization that's dedicated exclusively to attracting more people, jobs and investment to downtown Cleveland, as well as making it the most dynamic place to live, work and do business.
Lauren Niepokny: Hi, my name is Lauren Niepokny. I work for Downtown Cleveland Alliance where I'm the marketing coordinator and I work on projects like this.
Michael Deemer: I'd like to welcome all of you to the latest edition of our podcast, Then There's Cleveland. And we're joined today by one of our great artists in Cleveland, Antwoine Washington. Welcome, Antwoine. I'd like to ask you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about your background.
Antwoine Washington: I'm Antwoine Washington. I'm an artist based out of Cleveland, Ohio. I like to say I'm a father, husband, family man. I like to call myself as a businessman, I guess, if you want to say that, but yeah. Just artist. Fine artist. That's pretty much who I am.
Lauren Niepokny: Award-winning artist?
Antwoine Washington: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn't want to say that, but I appreciate that.
Lauren Niepokny: Of course.
Antwoine Washington: I appreciate that, Lauren.
Michael Deemer: We'll say it for you.
Antwoine Washington: Yeah. I appreciate that, Lauren.
Lauren Niepokny: No, of course.
Antwoine Washington: It's kind of hard for me to talk myself up. I'm going to be honest with you. That's something I got to get used to.
Lauren Niepokny: Of course, very humble artist, but we know, you've created several pieces in Cleveland, award-winning, you work with LAND Studio, and organization that we've worked with for voices of CLE, this public art initiative that's going on. We know we've seen your work in Public Square. And do you want to speak about some of the pieces that you create and the meaning that you try to share across?
Antwoine Washington: Yes, yes.
Lauren Niepokny: And the art that you do.
Antwoine Washington: The name of the piece is 156 Years. Basically, I wanted to build a piece about Antebellum slavery and the celebration of coming out of that. So that was pretty much the basis of that piece, I mean, the concept of the piece. But what I really wanted to do is to highlight the women throughout the civil rights movement who played a major part. Most black women that have played these parts throughout our history are often left out. Those stories are often not told. People just kind of forget about how important they are.
Antwoine Washington: So what I did was I actually wanted to honor them in that way, but also honor fighting to come out of slavery, antebellum slavery. That was the gist of that one. I usually use this idea of taking the American flag and kind of breaking it down to these little symbols of letting you know, that's what I'm talking about, but then it's not really in a disrespectful way. It's really in a respectful way of just talking about how liberty and justice for all is what our country stands for. I want to hold our country up to that in particular.
Antwoine Washington: So I kind of used the stars and stripes to symbolize that portion of America. So that's why I used the different colors to kind of go into the different cultures, the different races of people, this big melting pot of what America is, and kind of telling that story subtly. And then what I'll do is I'll put those black figures on top of it to let people know, to begin the lesson and history in how black people and black figures are left out throughout the history, and their stories aren't told because we all know that black history often gets told as just black history in February. But I think black history is American history.
Michael Deemer: You've used your art so powerfully over the years to tell the story of black history and to inspire people to think about social justice. I'm curious, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's murder, and looking at how the world reacted, people of different ages, races, really around the world, coming together in protest. How did you react as an artist and what did you think of that, in light of art that you've dedicated yourself to, as you're watching all this unfold?
Antwoine Washington: That's a great question, too, Mike. I kind of went into a way of, how do I express myself as a black man and as a black artist? How do I approach it? Do I approach it in an angry way? Do I approach it in a way that would be a positive? With something that tragic happening, how do I approach it? That was one of the first things that went in my mind is how do I channel this and create art? Because I'm so emotionally torn, man.
Antwoine Washington: I just started to start to do a lot of research, listen to a lot of what my friends had to say, people had to say around me, then I've just began to just sketch things out and just let the energy that I was receiving from just watching the news or just watching our interviews of how people felt, the interviews of the family, just looking at social media and just seeing everything going on around me and just trying to capture and really soak in that energy to actually put into the work.
Antwoine Washington: So I just began to just come up with a ton of ideas, but I had to pull back a little bit because they were coming so crazy that I was like, where do I start? So my first piece I ended up doing during that time was when I seen a photo of the police station burning in Minnesota. And I just began to paint it. I didn't care about painting it to look like the police station. I just wanted to capture what I was feeling right then, and just put the color on the canvas and just put what I was feeling, and it was just all raw emotion.
Lauren Niepokny: So now we're seeing a lot of these murals pop up in Cleveland. We're a placemaking organization. Before, we had a few public art pieces show up, but nothing like this. What do you think this means to the community? What do you think this means to the Cleveland community to see all of these pieces of public art show around, especially for people of color?
Antwoine Washington: It's our duty as artists, and me being a black artist, it's my duty to use my art as a tool in something that's valuable, and as a voice to actually not just show beautiful art, but to show and teach through my art, and to use it as a symbol of inspiration for the next generation to do the same. That's purely my goal to even make art is to be able to spark conversation, to be able to invoke change in some type of way.
Antwoine Washington: I just said, hey, I'm going to use the tools that I've acquired through going to art school, through my experience as a black man in this country, through my friends and my family's experience, and just through our long history of content. How do I begin to tell the story in a way where it's receivable and is teachable to everyone? And then we can start having these real conversations around what it is that needs to change in this country.
Antwoine Washington: I feel like the way that Dr. King or Malcolm used their voices in a time where these black movements were popping up, I feel like you had those artists that were doing the same. You had Emory Douglas, you had Romare Bearden and these different artists during those times, and you had Langston Hughes and you had Baldwin, and all these beautiful people that were using their voices in their art to say what it is that that needs to be said, and speaking truth to power. And I feel like that's what I wanted to do with my tool. That's what I want to do with my heart.
Michael Deemer: As Lauren mentioned, at Downtown Cleveland Alliance, we're a placemaking organization. We're a city-building organization. There are so many young people today who could choose to live and work anywhere in the country, or really anywhere in the world. When they decide where they're going to plant their flag and build a life. They want the city that they're in to be on top of issues of racial equity and social justice and inclusion. That feels different than at any point in my lifetime. And Antwan, I guess, you're such a student of American history and the role of black people in American history, I'm curious about your perception of where we are now. The struggle is the same struggle. It's not new to American history. Does what's happening now look or feel different to you?
Antwoine Washington: I think it does. I think it feels a lot different in a way of saying, hey, a lot of people are waking up to the fact that things need to change. However, I think it is a problem too, because we are still dealing with a system that was set in place. The system has to change in order for America to change. We are dealing with an original sin that was woven into the fabric of America, which is racism, which was slavery.
Antwoine Washington: So until we change the system, which is institutionalized, often that's what's going to happen is you're going to see certain things change, but you're not going to see this racial equity change, make a mass change overnight, because we have to change systems. I mean, you have the school to prison pipeline. You have people who are not being hired because they're black.
Antwoine Washington: Now I feel like it's on a lot of our white brothers and sisters to also now begin to help dismantle what it is that was put in place, that we feel that our white brothers and sisters benefit from, which we call white privilege. It's hard for some people to give away something, to give others something in a way where it seems like things would be on an equal playing field.
Antwoine Washington: However, I think until that happens, because we know that we live in a capitalistic society, and everything in America runs on class and money, these different things, but we can't play in a wealth game. We can't race in a race when our feet are cut off. Hell, shoes, you talking about shoes? We ain't even got feet half of the time to start with.
Antwoine Washington: So I think once we realize that this thing is systemic, and we begin to dismantle the systemic things that have been holding people back, whether if they're of color, whatever class they're in, then we can start moving forward in this country. However, I do feel that this year has been... A lot of change been going on, seen a lot of people walking a lot of things back. I see a lot of people even trying to change the history of their founding fathers and different things like that. I see what Planned Parenthood did. You know what I'm saying? I see what with these businesses that have other racial biases or different things that they might have had in the past that was woven into their fabric, I see them trying to make those changes, even with sports teams, but it can't just be something that's band-aided. It has to be real change.
Antwoine Washington: It can't just be, I'm changing just because I'm trying to protect my money. It has to be real genuine change. You have to start putting some black people in some positions of power and that's going to hurt. I know it is, but you're going to have to start allowing us to also be in the rooms, to be able to sit at the tables. Until we start seeing those types of changes, then I'll start believing that we're going in that direction. But until then, everything... I mean, we can literally be in the same place talking about the same things next year, if those things don't start changing right now. And I know everyone is tired of hearing about race or racism. Well, let's change it. Simple as that. It's simple. It's humanity, you know? So, that's what I feel about it.
Michael Deemer: You kind of talked about it earlier in describing your art, your approach to art, but just kind of want to ask you directly. Thinking about the kind of systemic change you're talking about, what do you think the role of the artist is in helping to facilitate and achieve that kind of change?
Antwoine Washington: I think the role of the artist is... It can't be measured. To do this work, you got to be willing to be broke. You got to be willing to know that the truth might cost you some money. I think real art comes from a real honest place. We love the song that's honest. We love the art that's poured from an honest place, but the art has to come from that place. Not saying that every artist have to talk about what I'm talking about or have to even speak on black issues. Hey, like I say all the time, if you want to paint pretty flowers, paint pretty flowers. But it's a place for that.
Antwoine Washington: But right now, I feel like if you were black... If you are a black artist and you're telling me you're not inspired by these times, then I think you're wasting your time picking up a paintbrush, 'cause right now is the time when you can use your voice for something bigger than you and your pockets. Right now is the time when you can use your voice and become a voice for your people and become a voice for the voiceless. You should be using that vessel to channel something greater than yourself. And right now is the time.
Lauren Niepokny: And you've brought us these really wonderful thought-provoking pieces that people have seen, or they're going to see. Do you want to share anything else with us about your experience or what you hope for the future, things like that?
Antwoine Washington: I've been here in Cleveland... I feel like this is my second home. So I can say that. I'm originally from Pontiac, Michigan, which is right outside of Detroit. I think my experience here in Cleveland has been phenomenal, man. I love the people. I love everything about the city. And I love the fact that not being a native Clevelander, being embraced by the city and people in our community here in the city, in a way where they're allowing me to actually use my voice as an artist in a positive way, I think that's probably been one of the most fulfilling things that I experienced here in Cleveland, is the fact that people are open and willing to listen through public forums and just beautiful art here and beautiful people here as well. Even when my family come and visit, they be like, "Man, I didn't think Cleveland had all of this type of stuff here. I didn't know it was a vibe here a little bit."
Antwoine Washington: People love it. That's how I felt when I first came.
Lauren Niepokny: It's because of the art.
Antwoine Washington: Exactly. The art. It's the art, man. I mean, all the beautiful murals is going up. Even with initiatives like Voices of CLE, it's giving artists a chance to actually elevate their voices in a positive way as well, and be able to show what they can do to the public. A lot of people are getting the chance to be able to express themselves in a way that they probably would have never got if those type of initiatives wasn't in place.
Antwoine Washington: It's actually a great experience being here, man, creating art, meeting new people, and also build a new family here in Cleveland has been very rewarding for me. So I have no complaints, man. I really appreciate the city and what they're trying to do. And especially with the arts, what they're trying to do as far as elevating more voices outside of just the usual suspects, man, they're given a lot of young artists of color a voice to speak their truth. And I think that's a beautiful thing. And to speak to Michael's point, that's the change that we need to see, and it needs to continue.
Michael Deemer: We had a chance to talk a couple of weeks ago on our Downtown Now webinar. And I feel like I'd be remiss if I let you go without revisiting part of that conversation. What can listeners do to better support black artists overall?
Antwoine Washington: Buying their work, putting those artists or different black creators or creators of color, whatever you want to use, in positions of power, in positions to somewhat have power to be able to give more opportunities. And the one thing I would say on top of that as well is sometimes, just putting a black face in a position or putting a black face in a position of power, doesn't mean that that black face has the right interests or the right mindset towards uplifting his own people.
Antwoine Washington: We have to really start vetting those black people and putting the right people that's black in those positions, so we can continue and not keep perpetuating the system of white supremacy. We'll continue to put those people in there that's right, that's ready to do the right thing with that power, to be able to give them the tools to be able to move this thing forward in a positive way.
Michael Deemer: A lot of folks are going to listen to you describe your art and they're going to want to see it. They're going to want to support you and other black artists. Could you maybe close us out by sharing a little bit about where people can go to see your art and support it?
Antwoine Washington: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Most definitely. So how you can start with me, how you can get to me, you can get to me through Instagram, which is my name, @AntwoineWashington. That's spelled A-N-T-W-O-I-N-E Washington, spelled just like the state, just like George Washington, the president, a former President. You can catch me there.
Antwoine Washington: My website is the same thing as my Instagram. It's antwoinewashington.com. If you want to reach me via email, you can email me through my website. Also, I have my own nonprofit organization that I've been doing over the past year, which is called the Museum of Creative Human Art. We've been doing a lot of working with kids in the community and the Slavic Village, [inaudible 00:20:06] rec center. We've been doing some graphic design classes over there, giving away some laptops to the kids and some graphic design software.
Antwoine Washington: Another way you can support as well to support that organization is you can go to humanscreate.org, which is spelled H-U-M-A-N-S, just like create, C-R-E-A-T-E .org. If you go there, you can also find us on Instagram as well, @museumofcreativehumanart. That's another way that you can donate to that initiative, because we are directly impacting young creatives of color all throughout the city. If possible, we're trying to expand and grow that.
Michael Deemer: This is the second time in a couple of weeks we've had a chance to talk and we're just so grateful for and excited about your contributions to downtown Cleveland over the last couple of months, with the Voices of CLE public mural initiative. I mean, all of the art and inspiration that you're bringing to our city. We're fortunate to have you here. We're grateful for your contributions. And again, really appreciate you taking the time to join us for this edition of the podcast.
Lauren Niepokny: Yeah. Thanks Antwoine. I know you're a very humble artist, as we said in the beginning. You really work hard to educate and everything else you described inside. Thanks for sharing your word with us and things like that. So appreciate it.
Antwoine Washington: No, I appreciate you guys for giving me the opportunity and supporting the work that I'm doing. And I really appreciate that. That says a lot. And it also says a lot about you guys, man, and your heart. So man, I really appreciate that.
Michael Deemer: Well, you're helping us build the kind of city that we want Cleveland to be. So we're grateful for you and I'm sure we'll be talking again real soon.
Antwoine Washington: Oh yeah. Most definitely, man. I appreciate you. Thanks, Mike and Lauren,
Lauren Niepokny: The Downtown Cleveland Alliance is a non-profit organization that has been serving downtown Cleveland for the past 12 years, working to establish downtown as the most dynamic place to live, work and play. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay current on what's happening downtown. For information and how to start, work and grow in downtown Cleveland, just visit downtowncleveland.com. Then There's Cleveland is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to producer Sarah Willgrube, audio engineer Eric Koltnow, and accounts manager Conor Standish.