Rust Wire Picks: Cleveland’s Most Under-Rated Artists

I know Cleveland and Detroit are trying to remake themselves as artist Meccas. And the low cost of living is certainly a selling point.

But I still think Cleveland is a hard place to be an artist, even though we have some great organizations that are trying to change that. We’ve got a great symphony and the art museum, but I think even their most dogged supporters would admit, those aren’t the kind of institutions that driving the contemporary art scene.

New York, LA and London, those were the cities that gave rise to the street art movement, the most important contemporary art movement of our generation, in my opinion. I see that influence every time I travel to a bigger city. And it kind of concerns me because I don’t see a whole lot of it (and by that I mean graffiti, the good kind) in Cleveland.

Detroit has Tyree Guyton, who is a legit international success and has inspired a whole generation of local artists who are imitating his style.

Cleveland, I feel like, is still the kind of place where you’re sort of expected to have kids and move to the suburbs and punch the clock. And the city can be unforgiving to those who don’t conform.

R. Crumb who was a legendary beat artist in his days, and a former Cleveland resident, talked about how brutal the city could be in the ’70s when he was coming up with Harvey Pekar in his introduction to American Splendor.

Cleveland is a hard town … I came near committing suicide when I lived there. I knew several young sensitive types who did end it all in Cleveland, the poet D.A. Levy being the most famous.

There are plenty of artists I LOVE from Cleveland, and from Ohio more generally. The National (Cincinnati) for one. Kid Cudi (Cleveland) for another. The Black Keys (Akron). Sun Kil Moon (Massolin). It’s odd because my Pandora stations always seem to be filled with mournful songs about musicians leaving Ohio.

Anyway, my point is, I have a bit of extra respect for truly accomplished artists that do live in greater Cleveland because they’ve really had to go against the grain, be independent and listen to their own voice. In this article, I am going to list a few of my favorites, people who are, I think, artistically brilliant and deserving of, or even bound for, national attention.

This is a profoundly undemocratic way to develop a list. So take it for what it is, the sincere observations of an impartial observer that is fairly new on the scene but has been impressed a few times. Anyway, here goes.

#1. Mike Polk Jr.

I know what you’re thinking. WTF? The guy who did the Hastily Made Cleveland Tourism Video?

Yes, that guy. Polk, a Warren native, has been making amateur comedy videos for years in Northeast Ohio. In college at Kent State he started the comedy group Last Call Cleveland, who have performed to crowds at Playhouse Square.

But Polk is really the stand-out talent in any video he makes, and there really are an impressive amount. Whether he is serenading Kim Kardashian on Telemundo with “The One Semester Spanish Love Song,” or playing office scoundrel Greg in his Youtube series “Man in the Box,” Polk is unfailingly entertaining and creative.

His lighthearted and sometimes hard-to-swallow criticisms of Cleveland have won him national attention. And while they may not have endeared him to the local establishment, he is unrelenting and talented and an asset to the region. If there is any justice in the world, I hope to see him some day on Saturday Night Live.

#2. Amy Casey

Painter Amy Casey, I think, is one of the most brilliant commentators on the Rust Belt condition in any medium. Her paintings of industrial buildings and turn-of-the-century houses teetering on stilts or hanging from strings capture the stress and urgency of Cleveland condition certainly better than any visual interpretation I’ve ever seen.

I have seen Amy around Cleveland and I always get a little star-struck whenever I do. She is quiet and unassuming, a native of the region who lives in Tremont and does her best to support Cleveland’s fine arts scene. But she’s getting a little recognition as well. Her artwork has adorned the album cover of Niko Case and is fetching galleries in Chicago and Los Angeles.

Amy’s work is just so completely original, intelligent and even vaguely political, in a sort of detached and resigned way — the Cleveland way. She’s really a step ahead of the rest.

#3. Cleveland SGS

Cleveland SGS is a mysterious entity. A group of artists who are both ubiquitous and and anonymous, these guys are one

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of the city’s best-kept secrets, in my opinion.

SGS are prolific photographers; they have 206 pages of Cleveland photography (with a smattering of graphic art) on Flickr. Their photos, we’ve written before, capture Cleveland’s humble roughneck street life in a way I have never seen replicated. So many Cleveland photographers focus on industrial ruin or downtown skylines at dusk (buildings). SGS has trained their eye at the city’s underclass (people) in a way that celebrates their pride, culture and hard-won survival instinct.

In addition, SGS keeps a simply phenomenal blog (both Richey and I, despite our obvious loyalties to this blog, think it is the best in Cleve-o). Each entry focuses on a different city landmark or cultural event. They have a knack for singling out the most humble and beloved restaurants, corner stores, anything offbeat and colorful, including well-known community individuals. On top of that they have a masterful way of capturing what is loveable despite its harsh coating while being both witty and respectful. These guys really get Cleveland in a way I think few people in the region do.

#4. Ashley Brooke Toussant

Maybe there are girls like Ashley Brooke Toussant in every city, solo female singer-songwriters that are too talented and intelligent for today’s awful pop sensibilities. I knew one girl like her in Toledo. It’s always a surprise to find them, I guess because they’re so uncommercial, so low-profile. I had the good fortune to be at a party a few weeks ago where Toussant performed, and I was sort of floored by my good fortune.

Her voice is quiet, clear and a bit quirky, like a ’50s cocktail singer in the style of Edith Piaf. She’s sort of petite and unassuming physically, but when she’s singing she has a big presence, a sort of graceful, feminine confidence.

I would put her up against the few female singer-song-writers of our generation who have gone on to commercial success, Chan Marshall or Rilo Kiley or Feist, any day of the week.

#5. Rick Smith and Brian Griggs (Yehuda Moon)

Cleveland was a question not to long ago on the UK game show University Challenge. What city is on the border of Lake Erie close to Pennsylvania and home to both the online comic book Yehuda Moon and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

The kids consulted and returned with the right city. If I had to guess what tipped them off, I’d bet it was Rick Smith and Brian Grigg’s bike based comic strip — a favorite of cyclists around the United States and abroad.

For three years this Cleveland-area pair have been producing this comic strip starring Yehuda Moon as owner of the bike store Kickstand Cyclery daily — 1,300 in all.

Unfortunately these guys have chosen to cease publication. But before they do, they are running a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to print three books. It goes to show just how beloved this comic strip is that they have already raised $35,000, well above their $18,000 goal.

#6. Harvey Pekar

I know. I know. Harvey Pekar is a) already legitimately famous and b) dead. But I wanted to include him anyway because even in Cleveland, where he is sort of a pop culture celebrity, I think he is underrated.

Pekar’s American Splendor is different from anything I’ve ever read. I had to laugh many times during the book because some of his stories are so mundane it’s hard to believe someone thought they were worth writing down. Taken together though, the whole thing is really touching.

Pekar’s life, outside of his artwork, was so profoundly ordinary. But his deeply confessional comics lay bare the heartbreak and courage in everyday moments. The fact that the protagonist (hero) occupies such a humble role in life is what makes them different. He struggles with money, loneliness, class issues — the sort of things we all struggle with, but that often play a side role in our splashy narratives.

Harvey Pekar was courageous. He put himself out there. And he made life a little more tolerable and beautiful for everyone that experienced his work. That is the essence of art to me and all the people on this list meet that criteria, IMO.

But let me know some of your own favorites in the comments. I’d love to hear. (By the way, if anyone would like to do something similar for another city, let us know


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