After 18 months and nearly a quarter-million dollars, Mac Love is ready to unveil his greatest feat yet: art created and conceived by thousands of residents on the 62-square-mile canvas of Akron.
With a mind to bring people together, Love set high hopes in June 2017 when the Knight Foundation gave him $240,000 to make art in Akron. He sought a truth that would counter the old, tired perceptions of a shrinking post-industrial city with holes left by fleeing businesses and people. The @PLAY project would take him down every street to honor all neighborhoods by letting the residents tell a brighter narrative through collaborative art, community events and performances.
“In the very beginning, we tried to do something insanely great. I’m coming from that Steve Jobs generation. Let’s dare to do something insanely great — a crazy scale project,” Love said this week at his studio, Art x Love, in the old Law Building at 157 King James Way. There, at 5:30 p.m. Friday, the public can tour by neighborhood some 70 projects approved by local residents and mostly built to last.
With help from the city and its schools, the county's parks, libraries and historical society, Love dreamed big.
The scope of the work involved personal conversations with thousands of residents who participated in projects in 23 of Akron’s 24 neighborhoods, missing only Fairlawn Heights where happy residents said help the other neighborhoods.
Some projects put an artsy twist on simple maintenance, like hanging murals and power-washing and painting the city’s only two outdoor swimming pools, which saw more swimmers with the more vibrant look. The city is having internal discussions about the fate of the pools, including how to afford their maintenance and management.
There also were fun events, including a festival of bubbles at Joy Park and a theatrical play lined with quotes from everyday Akron residents who had plenty of honest, good and bad things to say. The 90-minute "Rebranding The City: A Humanizing Tour of Akron" airs again at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm, 1828 Smith Road, after previously being performed at other locations: a men's correctional facility in South Akron, a retirement home in High Hampton and a park in Coventry Crossing.
Finally, there's art that reactivates once-thriving neighborhood gathering spaces. Across from the Summit Lake Reach Center on school property marked as a city park, Love and volunteers installed six workout stations along a 1,700-foot exercise loop. Beside the remnants of a rotten staircase, new wooden steps now lead up a hill to a rediscovered concrete pad where families once sat under a pavilion before dirt and time swallowed the spot. A rundown basketball court in the middle got vibrantly painted aluminum backboards, donated by Akron Public Schools. Six old seats from Canal Park stadium now provide court-side seating.
All over Akron, there are way-finding wind chimes in parks with new benches and picnic tables, bright patterns painted on sidewalks at intersections near the Pump Station rehab project in Summit Lake and a trailhead off North Howard Street. Along the Little Cuyahoga River through Cascade Valley, formerly Elizabeth Park, benches that once faced empty concrete pads originally poured to carry sculptures now pop with colorful patterns applied in industrial stain.
Born in New York and raised in Belgium, William “Mac” Love studied art, psychology and philosophy in upstate New York then fine art in Scotland.
“I’ve always been in a kind of diverse environment: people of different countries, different languages, different value systems, different religions, completely different backgrounds," he said. "Moving around a lot, I always appreciated that no matter how long people have been on this Earth, they each have a very rich story that we need to respect.”
Starting with community leaders, Love said his team talked with more than 100 residents to help shape the scope of his @Play project. "He’s going to where they live. And I think that’s very important," said City Planner Jason Segedy, who's always wanted to ride a bike down every Akron street.
After a few days at the first stop in Middlebury, he traded in the idea of an 18-month calendar of predetermined events for deeper engagement that allowed residents to pick and create the art. Instead of “helicopter projects” dropped from a well-intentioned-but-ill-informed, out-of-town artist, he gathered input and then let local residents select from a list of 12 or so options.
He learned that people had grown tired of fleeting help. They desired lasting change. Though it cost a bit more, he prioritized more permanent projects, or ways to make cheap works last longer. For three months, Middlebury residents painted inside the lines of 20 murals sketched by artists on giant canvasses. After being touched up, much of the community’s markings are still visible on works all over Akron.
The concept has produced more than 70 murals with a graffiti-proof coating, each able to be installed and removed from buildings that might get torn down or sold. Ten are still being finished, and 40 are still looking for a public-facing home. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any interest to hang them.
On North Hill, Love said black residents asked for murals that honor Italian and Polish immigrants who stood by African-American neighbors during the civil rights era. In East Akron, residents asked for portraits of local black heroes. Love paid Akron artist Dierre "Duece Dime" Fleetwood to create a massive LeBron James mural. Two Arlington Street business owners, who strongly support President Donald Trump, refused to hang it. So it'll be on display for three years at West Akron libraries.
A third of the Knight funding Love received for the project went to local artists. In addition, he relied on a locally sourced team including interactive manager Josy Jones and graphic designer Chris Harvey, both from the community.
“I’ve always been East-to-West,” Harvey, a 29-year-old born in Akron, said of traveling from his home in Goodyear Heights to see family in West Akron. “But this project opened up my eyes to all the other neighborhoods.”