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Artists of color in Cleveland continue to create while pushing for change

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Posted at 4:27 PM, Feb 14, 2023

CLEVELAND — When asked to describe the art scene for people of color in Northeast Ohio, Mr. Soul, a Cleveland visionary and artist, used four words: a work in progress.

"As far as the institutions and organizations that make up the face of what Cleveland art is, I think they have a long way to go," said Soul.

For decades now, Black and brown artists have been working to add more diversity and inclusion into the arts.

During Black History Month, News 5 wanted to look back at the artists of color who've helped lead the charge to create, and those coming up behind them, ready to continue the fight for more opportunities and equal exposure.

Mr. Soul told us wrongs identified years ago have still not been righted, especially when it comes to efforts to fund and elevate Black and brown artists in Northeast Ohio.

"There's an entire movement being built off of pennies, really," said Soul.

News 5 anchor Mike Brookbank caught up with Soul, along with his good friend and fellow artist Dayz, to have an honest conversation about race and recognition.

“Because we live in a segregated city, we have to keep it real, the other side of the bridge so to speak has to come to these communities to experience art," said Soul.

The pair got their start with graffiti.

"Street art was our representation at one time. It was a struggle, it was real grassroots," said Dayz.

Woven through the tapestry of Black and brown art in Northeast Ohio when Soul and Dayze got their start is a music genre that first surfaced in the 1970s.

"Hip hop was the driving force because it was the voice of the voiceless," said Soul.

All these decades later, the voices may have gotten louder, but not everyone is listening equally.

"And with that, we've decided to like pave our own way, we're no longer waiting," said artist Asia Armour.

Cleveland's Central neighborhood is home to one of a few Black-owned gallery spaces in Northeast Ohio where up-and-coming artists like Armour can showcase their talents.

"That's very valuable when you're talking about developing an eco-system for Black artists in Cleveland," said Soul.

Deep Roots Experience, which sits at the corner of East 79th and Central, is playing a crucial role in creating equity for the next generation.

"We don't need saving. It's luxury right here to be honest, right here on Central. This is the moment. This is my moment," said artist Bee1ne.

Bee1ne says he uses a heart motif in his work to send a message, "which is spread more love in a world that shows so little."

Bee1ne said artists like himself lack opportunities and they're often overlooked.

"The rest of the world needs to pay attention to us, or maybe catch up to what we're doing," said Bee1ne. "Honestly, I still ask myself why everyone hasn’t caught on."

Unlike when Dayz and Soul got their start, money is out there to get projects off the ground.

"Every year we fund about 200-250 organizations," said Jill Paulsen with Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.

The organization has now tripled the amount of funding for Black and brown-led organizations that support the arts.

"So that's a real pivot, it was intentional," said Paulsen.

Today, 88% of the CAC's funds go to better support artists of color, up from just 17% a handful of years ago.

"The work needs to continue at even a faster clip," said Paulsen.

In addition to capital, Paulsen said white-run institutions need to continue breaking down additional barriers for Black and brown artists.

"We've got to challenge nonprofits and organizations to think about their role in creating welcoming spaces for all people," said Paulsen.

While landing in a major art institution is a goal for some, Soul said it’s not for everyone.

"My art is displayed wherever it's supposed to be, and one day it might be in one of those spaces," said Soul.

Soul said for now he’s content showcasing his work in the heart of his community, alongside other talented artists with shared experiences.

"A lot of times there's a lot of blood, sweat tears, mental, spiritual warfare going on within that artist in order to deliver that."