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"In the Garden"
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"In the Garden"

The Clara Fritzsche Library will host “In the Garden,” a new fabric installation by returning artist Debra Wuliger. While her fall 2002 show, “Sophia Sings,” examined the feminine force of God the mother creating the world as manifested in the Sophia myth, her new show represents a continuing evolution of ideas, themes and techniques for the artist.

Wuliger is now fascinated by the creative energies produced by the merger of male and female life forces and the idea that God has both male and female qualities. The balance of these energies when in harmony and the joy of creation is expressed in dance as represented in the batik panels of the installation. The center column depicts a woman supporting a man holding a child, the symbol of creation. The woman is of the earth, a grounding influence. The man is fire and represents the spirit. When the spirit joins with the material a synergy occurs. The creative force represented by the child applies not just to birth, but also to art, ideas and the joys of everyday life. When imbalance occurs both sexes are hurt. When balanced joy comes, a cosmic dance occurs with both male and female dancing together in the garden to celebrate wholeness, unity and peace.

This show marks the third exhibit of Wuliger’s work at the Clara Fritzsche Library Gallery. In the fall of 2000 she was one of the exhibitors in the “Many Faces of Mary” exhibit along with Valerie Webb. The two artists have frequently shown their works together, mounting a joint exhibition at the South Wing Gallery of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and participating in an exhibition of silk banners at Holy Rosary Church in Little Italy in 1997.

Since 1996 Wuliger has also helped create the colorful six-foot silk stage curtains at the annual Hessler Street Fair and she has helped make puppets, floats and batik banners for the annual Parade the Circle. In addition to these activities, Wuliger is also one of a select group of visual artists chosen to participant in Young Audiences of Greater Cleveland, a program designed to educate students about the arts through interactive workshops conducted by professional artists.

After her first show at Notre Dame College, she subsequently participated in the “Expressions of Faith” show at Old Stone Church in May 2001 and in “The Many Faces of Mary” exhibit sponsored by the Catholic Diocese held at St. John’s Cathedral in October of that year. Her return engagement to the Clara Fritzsche Library for the “Sophia Sings” exhibit earned her the accolade of Tyrian Artist of the Year 2003, awarded by a non-profit group that works for peace and nonviolence through creativity.

The intervening years between “Sophia Sings” and her upcoming show have been eventful ones for Wuliger and mark some unexpected and serendipitous turns in her artistic and spiritual odyssey. Two years ago, in the spring of 2004, Wuliger experienced a major shift in her work.

A pivotal point came when her book club read Finding Fish by Antwone Fisher. Wuliger had done a lot of work with inner city kids but felt she had not really made an impact on their lives because her contact with each child was so short-lived or intermittent. In his memoir, Fisher talked about some people that had a major impact on his life after spending only five minutes with him. This inspired Wuliger and she then set about thinking of a project, preferably in East Cleveland where she was instinctively drawn and knew Father Dennis Kleinweber at Saint Philomena’s Church.

One of the women in the Cleveland Circle Book Club suggested taking a grant writing workshop at the Cleveland Foundation for faith-based initiatives. Wuliger found that there was money available for working with youth. She envisioned an enormous project, probably a mural, to involve children. When she told Father Dennis of her plans, he said he would love to do it but their church was too small, try Father Mike Whitman at Christ the King Church at Noble and Euclid, who agreed to have the church serve as headquarters for the project. Progress with Paint was now underway.

Wuliger also wanted to create something highly visible that would make a huge impact on the community. The Helen S. Brown Senior Center on Euclid Avenue proved to be the perfect canvas for her vision. The drab stone building provided plenty of expanses suitable for a mural. The project was divided into four sections: the space around the main entrance, the arch beneath the roof, the front wall above and below the windows.

Terrah McNeil, director of the Brown Center at the time, asked that the mural reflect some of the activities that went on at the Center. Women do a lot of handiwork and men play a lot of pool. The ball of yarn and the billiard ball have the same stylized design and both motifs run up each side of the doorway and meet in the middle. The arch depicts the sun and the moon, the area above the windows depicts the people of East Cleveland and the area below the windows represents the buildings of East Cleveland. To make it manageable, and since safety considerations dictated that children could not stand on scaffolds, the painting would be done on 55 four by eight foot panels of alumicore board. Dean Guernsey of Dynamic Sign Company came out and measured the building and proved to be a great help throughout the project.

Jubal Harris, an African percussionist with Young Audiences who worked with Wuliger at Robert J. Fulton Elementary School through the ICARE program, was enormously supportive, providing design inspiration and seeing the project through to its completion. It was Harris who pointed out the similarities between the long and low shape of the Brown Center and the houses of the Endebele tribe of South Africa who paint the front of their houses bright colors.

Next came finding the participants for the project. The parish secretary at Christ the King made a list of after school programs, copying the phone numbers from vans in the church parking lot. Wuliger drew on Apex Academy, Shaw High School, Raintree Academy and the daycare seniors at the Brown Center to help design and paint the mural. Wuliger decided to use flat simple shapes that people could easily draw. In fall 2004 the group started with design classes at the senior center, Shaw, Christ the King and Raintree Academy after school program for 5th and 6th graders.

Just as Wuliger was ready to actually begin painting the mural, the project hit a roadblock. She need $20,000 and she only had $8000 from the Cleveland Foundation. Not only did she have to create groups to do the work, but she had to raise the rest of the money. What happened next Wuliger says “was all God led – the Holy Spirit going from one step to the next step.”

She had never done any of this before, but then again people had told her that she would never get the first grant proposal she ever submitted approved, but she had. Fueled by faith and a drive to see her vision through, Wuliger forged ahead. She continued to research funding sources and sent out a proposal to the Abington Foundation, which responded with a grant of another $8000. Janet Narten of the Abington Foundation suggested contacting the Gund Foundation and the remaining $4000 needed to proceed was obtained.

The next step involved working out the design using everybody’s work done in the fall and getting final approval from Terrah and Father Mike. Since the color scheme being used was complicated, utilizing complimentary colors for maximum visual impact, Wuliger did a complete value study, mapping out the light, dark and medium colors in black and white. Terrah liked the cream, blue green and red orange tones she and Debra had seen in a Paul Klee painting.

Wuliger then did another rendering in color pencil that would serve as the model for painting the panels. A large space was needed to work on the panels and once again, providence intervened. The wife of the bus driver from Raintree Academy worked at the East Cleveland YWCA on Lee Road. She arranged for the group to use the art room in the basement, where five panels could be set up at a time. Work on the boards was integrated into their after school program, with two to three students working on the mural per half hour.

Students had to be well behaved or they were sent upstairs. To make the mural more durable, sign painters enamel was used, which lasts 10 to 12 years. Wuliger had never worked with it before and she had to learn how to mix the paint. She also did the edging and then let the students come in and fill in the designs. The YMCA participants took six weeks to paint the people motif. As they worked, Wuliger streamlined the procedure so that the rest of the mural only took an additional six weeks to finish.

Some students demonstrated remarkable initiative in working on the project, making it their own. Jasmine Carothers, a junior at Shaw High School, worked on the whole mural from start to finish and also helped design it. The other students liked her so much that they drew her into the mural. Deva Baker, her sister D.C and her brother Dante were a team of siblings from Christ the King that were very instrumental in finishing the project and saw it through to the end. D.C. worked on the design, and Deva even did her own value and color study for a color scheme she had devised for the arch.

For Wuliger, the hardest thing about the project was being able to stand back and let others take over. “It was a huge dying to the ego and a dying to the self to let those ideas come through and be better than mine,” says Wuliger. Yet the experience was also ultimately freeing and uplifting.

In the spring of 2005, Wuliger needed a bigger space. She called up Father Mike, who provided the social room at the back of Christ the King Church. From April to May of that year, Wuliger and her assistants worked diligently, taking down the panels and putting away supplies and putting everything back on Monday. During their lunch hour, four to five children from Apex Academy would paint the boards. The senior citizens at Christ the King also helped out. Wuliger estimates that at least 75 senior citizens and students from local schools, after-school programs and youth groups had a part in the making of the mural during the course of the project.

The completion of the mural panels culminated in an opening celebration at Christ the King. Wuliger wanted to acknowledge the inspiration and generosity of Father Mike and his willingness to give her space to create the vision she had in her mind. The panels were laid out on the floor of the social hall and could be viewed from the balcony. The highlight of the event for Wuliger was the appearance Bishop Anthony Pilla.

In September 2005 Dean Gurnsey put up the boards on the Helen S. Brown Senior Center ending that chapter of Wuliger’s career. No sooner had she completed that project than another one fell at her feet. While saying the rosary, Father Philip Rocco of Holy Rosary saw her at the shrine for the Feast of the Assumption that August. He approached her and asked her if she would like to make the shrine a beautiful place for next year’s Feast. Wuliger replied yes, if she could make it more of a collective, community-based effort. She started to hold meetings for interested parishioners and once again had to “get out of the way.” She interviewed people and found that they felt the shrine was more like a place of business not a place of prayer. Some individuals even suggested eliminating candle donations to make it purely a place of meditation and contemplation.

A committee of 10 to 12 people from Holy Rosary decided to keep only the statue of Mary and the tent top. At first a tent top that was a mural was proposed but the $5000 that it would cost was way beyond their budget. Cotton walls could not be used for the tent because they were not flame retardant, but panels could be placed on the solid wall of Holy Rosary forming an alcove with the tent placed over it. The west wall of the elevator shaft of the church facing Mayfield Road and the windows of the south wall of the church were covered with translucent batiks dyed then bleached six to seven times to build up underpainting.

The seniors or disabled residents of Abington Arms drew symbols of Mary and Jesus, creating their own design with torn paper in greens and warm colors to look like a garden. Magentas, blues and teals were used for the side panels. Three of these batik panels will be incorporated into the current show. The hangings will be set up as an installation, with the fabric forming columns that are backlit.

The exhibit will run from November 7 through December 14. An opening reception will be held on November 7 from 7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. with a gallery talk scheduled at 8:00 p.m. For more information, contact Karen Zoller at 216.373.5267.

Karen Zoller is the Director of the Clara Fritzsche Library.