When Jean Pitman was asked to work on a public art project with teenagers in Weinland Park, she gave the idea careful consideration.
Pitman, youth programs educator at the Wexner Center for the Arts, thought about a series of murals or a video-based project. But it was impossible to think of a central character or storyline that could tell the story of a neighborhood that has changed – for better, for worse – so dramatically over 100-plus years.
The defining moment for the project came, Pitman says, when she encountered a teenager from the Linden neighborhood who was telling stories about his life through comics. A graphic anthology, Pitman realized, would be a project that could: "embrace many voices, viewpoints and visions," as she writes in an essay about the creation of the Weinland Park Story Book.
Pitman and a team of six interns gathered more than 100 stories in face-to-face interviews. Those stories were written and then interpreted by more than 40 artists. Some of the stories are drawn by teenagers; others are illustrated by professionals, including Marvel Comics artist Sandy Plunkett.
“I’m really pleased not only with the content but the concept. I feel like it has a very high artistic value,” Pitman says. “It’s not just a comic book; it’s at a higher level. It’s what I feel is important for the Wexner Center to help support – that’s what we do: support the making of new art.”
Telling the truth
Joyce Hughes has lived in Whitehall and Los Angeles for periods of her life, but Weinland Park has always been home.
She can talk about the idyllic childhood she had growing up near Sixth Street and of being a young woman chatting away the evening with her mother on their front porch. But she also can talk about watching Weinland Park diminish over 30 years to the point where she couldn’t recognize parts of her neighborhood.
Hughes talks about when the African-American families with good manufacturing jobs slowly migrated out to Columbus’ suburbs.
As a community leader and past president of the Weinland Park Community Civic Association, she helped with projects in her neighborhood that would restore it to the community from her childhood – projects she hoped would evoke a sense of pride among her neighbors.
She and Diane Dixon were the community leaders who came to the Wexner Center in 2011 to meet with Pitman, the youth programs educator. They asked her to find a public art project that could involve local teenagers.
“Everybody’s not going to do football or basketball, tennis or volleyball. There are some children who are not suited for that,” Hughes says. “It is important for urban children to understand that there are wide ranges of opportunities that are available, some of which they are suited for.”
Sitting before a graphic novel depicting the stories of her neighbors – as told and, in many cases, drawn by the teenagers Hughes hoped to reach – she smiles. There’s a lot of history in the book. Not all of it’s comfortable or happy.
But that’s important to Hughes.
“It’s truth,” she says. “(The youth) are telling the truth.”
Hughes sees changes happening in her neighborhood again. With so many entities investing in the area, she describes a “gated community without gates,” where the new neighbors who move in will feel completely at ease walking around Weinland Park. This storybook, she hopes, will serve as a reminder of how fortunate those newcomers are to live in a place with creative and courageous people.
“When you walk along and feel completely safe, you’ll know what it was before. Maybe you can appreciate what these young kids lived through, and they told the truth.”
Alyssa Hayman, a 2014 graduate of Ohio State’s College of Social Work, looks around Weinland Park and sees a vibrant community with gardens, artwork and children running around.
Yes, the teenagers who come to the doors of her workplace, Huckleberry House, face all kinds of challenges. Whether they’re suffering from a bad situation at home or from the perception that they are “bad kids,” she sees people who desperately need nourishment in many forms.
As house manager, she sometimes takes a group of teens from the shelter to nearby North Market. The teens are instructed to find a piece of fruit they’ve never tried before, and Hayman buys it.
“The new fruit gets you thinking: Where’s this come from? Who eats it? It’s easy to engage the youth on that because it’s eating food and shopping,” she says. “They don’t even realize they’re learning in the moment. It’s a conversation-starter, and you never know where that can take somebody.
Her story, “Fruit Loot,” is an uplifting note in the Weinland Park Story Book. At just two sentences long, the reader pays closer attention to the illustrations themselves. One depicts teens and Hayman sharing a light moment around the table at Huck House. Positive experiences are sometimes all a teenager needs to break what Hayman calls the “I’m a bad kid” cycle.
“My goal is to plant the seed,” she says. “We don’t always get to see it bloom. But my hope is that they will get continued nourishment in our society.”
Seeing the invisible
Bryan Moss is a professional artist in Olde Town East. He was contracted to help illustrate stories for the book and work with teenage interns who also were producing artwork.
The experience brought him back to a time when he led art programs for inner-city youth who might not otherwise have access to any sort of artistic discussion, much less instruction.
“I come from the same kind of environment,” Moss says. “You’re invisible to this world around you. It’s frustrating because I was interested in art at a young age but had no resources. I still struggle.”
However, Moss hopes that the teenager artists with whom he worked on the Weinland Park Story Book will see that a person can sometimes create opportunities where none exist.
“You can get yourself out of that environment without having any resources,” he says. “Yes, it takes time; yes, it’s hard – but you can do it. That’s what I want to show the kids from there.”
One of Moss’ pieces in the book, “Dinner,” is an exceptional display of storytelling in a graphic novel. The story was written so literally that it gave him everything he needed to translate it visually.
Panels depict a grocery store worker, Sylvia, going out for a smoke break. She encounters a man in the shadows behind the store. Her initial fear is replaced with empathy, as she offers him fresh food to eat and some money.
“I didn’t want it to look like a physical transaction. Showing his eyes transform from somebody in an act of desperation into one of gratitude, that was important,” Moss says. “I wanted to bring some humanity.”
Art that serves
Every summer, the Godman Guild employs 50 to 300 youth as part of a robust internship program. It’s one of the many programs the 116-year-old nonprofit organization runs to promote leadership and economic growth in low-income areas around Columbus.
So when Anjanette Robertson, the guild’s director of youth and family education, was contacted by Pitman, a longtime friend, about the Weinland Park Story Book project, Robertson thought it would present a great opportunity for teenagers in the internship program who were interested in art.
She later agreed to share her own story, “The Mural.” The piece concentrates on a public art project she worked on soon after arriving at the Godman Guild in 2001 as a teen advocate.
“Some folks in that mural who I worked with now have children attending our summer camp,” Robertson says. “So I kind of feel a little old seeing that second generation, but it is very cool in that they want their children to have the same kind of experience they had with summer camp. They remember that they had a positive experience and make sure they registered their kids when they’re of age for the program.”
Robertson loves that the teenagers who contributed to the storybook saw the process through from start to finish – from interviews with neighbors to illustrating them for publication.
“Any time you can provide a true learning-service model, I think it’s good for the students,” Robertson says. “They got to express themselves, and they got to learn about jobs, work readiness and the soft skills needed to maintain a job. But they also got to give back to their community a gift that is going to be permanent. It’s a piece of history now.”
A misunderstood neighborhood
Amin Ebady moved to Weinland Park when he was a child. Now 15, his influence as an interviewer, writer and artist has helped shape the graphic novel about his community.
“It’s a really nice neighborhood,” he says. “I feel like it’s misunderstood.”
Ebady, a student at Columbus Alternative High School, started with a list of 20-plus people who he knew would have good stories to share. He and other interns also canvassed the community for others. He says the experience of interviewing neighbors was intriguing.
“Figuring out things that you didn’t know about your friends and relatives before almost scares you and makes you feel bad,” he says. “But it makes you understand what they’ve been through and brings you closer together.”
Rico Hatcher, another intern who helped gather, write and illustrate stories, said the experience helped him develop a familiarity with Weinland Park and its people. He had been working at Godman Guild for three or four years but knew nothing about the surrounding neighborhood. It helps, he says, “to know the history and struggles of everything that happened.”
Even though he is not from Weinland Park, fellow intern Josiah Clements quickly identified the primary reason behind the storybook project, as he spent hot summer days knocking on doors and talking with people in parks, he noticed something about the neighborhood.
“There’s a contrast between these really nice, newly renovated places and these really old, kind of beaten up places,” Clements says. “Pretty soon it’s going to look entirely different. We really wanted to capture that transition stage: how it was before and what it’s turning into.
“That’s what art does: It captures a certain stage in life or a moment of life, and it enlightens people to what’s going on. It’s the same as why do we write history books? So we remember what times were like, learn from them and improve them.”