Mona Gazala signs off at Sullivant Avenue's Sign House

Andy Downing
Mona Gazala by the Faces of Franklinton mural, previously mounted outside of Sign House on Sullivant Avenue

Shortly after artist Mona Gazala moved into her house on Bellows Avenue in Franklinton, she took note of the Sullivant Avenue property visible across the rear alley, where she’d regularly witness in-progress drug deals.

“It wasn’t a point of pride for the neighborhood,” said Gazala at home during an early January interview.

So when the Sullivant house went up for sale in 2016, Gazala weighed her options carefully before making an offer, placing the deposit on a credit card that she said she’s still paying off.

“The point was to increase what we had going on here at the Bellows House,” said Gazala, pointing specifically to the artist residency program. “And then, especially because it’s on Sullivant Avenue, which is ground zero for drugs and prostitution in the neighborhood, and even though I knew it would age me by 10 years, it was something that I really wanted to try to do as a social practice artist. It was like, ‘What can you do in your artistic practice that’s going to have a real impact on the block?’”

First, though, Gazala had to deal with the pigeons that had taken up residency in an attic space behind a nailed-shut door on Sullivant, producing a comic scene of the artist wildly waving a broom to chase away the winged stowaways.

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Not long after this aviary eviction, the property was reborn as Sign House, which existed as a colorful signpost on Sullivant Avenue for three years, and which Gazala recently sold, owing to the financial difficulty of maintaining multiple residences.

“Even the position of it, if you wanted people to see something, they were going to see it there,” said the Cleveland-raised Gazala, who moved into her home on Bellows Avenue after relocating to Columbus in 2012. “It’s up on a hill, so as you’re driving down South Green Street, that is the house that you’re looking at, and that [location] became the impetus for creating something that might be in some way transformative for the neighborhood.”

Owing to that visibility, and following initial conversations with fellow artist Dana Lynn Harper, Gazala hatched the idea of decorating the exterior of the home with art created by neighborhood residents as a means of giving the community more ownership in the property. This resulted in the September 2016 debut of the Faces of Franklinton mural, comprising 40 self-portraits painted by neighbors and set in a grid facing Sullivant Avenue. (The mural was recently disassembled and is being stored by Franklinton Farms, which has plans to display it at one of its locations once the weather warms.)

“We would have people driving down South Green and coming to a dead stop as they pulled up in front of the house. People would be honking their horns behind them, and they’re just sitting there staring at the mural,” said Gazala. “Having art on the exterior of the house meant that any time I was out pulling weeds or just sitting on the front stoop, people would walk by and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on here?’ So it was a huge conversation starter, and you got to know people going back and forth on the street. You got to know families coming back and forth from the homeless shelter. …  My literal next door neighbors had work up on the front of the house, which was amazing, because they could walk back at any point, climb the stairs and say, ‘Hey, that’s me.’”

While much of the public narrative focused on the Sullivant Avenue corridor has centered on drugs, prostitution and blight, Gazala said that’s only a part of the neighborhood’s story. Sign House allowed the artist to fill in some of these narrative gaps, highlighting the working families and children who call the neighborhood home. There was also a unique power in the transformation of a former trap house giving way to a colorful outpost for creativity in an area where space to dream can be in short supply.

“The intent was to make it a pleasant surprise for people to come across and feel like, ‘If my neighbor can do this, maybe I can do something … to spark the imagination,’” Gazala said.

The decision to sell the property was one that Gazala labored over, and even weeks after completing the deal she said she’s still coming to terms with this new reality.

“I love this thing, and I was hoping it could last … but I wasn’t making money on it, and, as a matter of fact, it was sucking funds out of my paycheck, which I couldn’t afford,” Gazala said. “In the end, I didn’t really want to go down with the ship, so I had to be pragmatic and give it up.”

While the decision continues to weigh on her, Gazala said she’s starting to embrace the financial and creative freedoms afforded by the decision, which will enable her to reinvest in her own practices in the coming months, including a planned “critique of decisions being made in City Hall,” as she described one venture, an aspect of which will include encouraging citizens to write to City Council, urging members to make ethical decisions focused on creating a more equitable Columbus.

“Now that I don’t have to worry about the physical maintenance of a whole other house, it’s going to free me up to be a bit more fast reacting to things going on in the city, or other political issues I need to put my eyes on,” said Gazala, who first started to explore social justice issues within her art after moving to Columbus. “I don’t know if I should say this on record or not, but after I moved [to Columbus], it started to dawn on me why we were deliberately creating an arts community here [in Franklinton], and it didn’t have much to do with artists. It was more speculative. And my reaction to that is what has led me to a more community-based practice.”

This exploration has even led Gazala to investigate her own presence in the neighborhood, which she said can have an impact on rising rental prices and property taxes, as well as increased attention from city officials issuing code violations to homeowners who might not have the funds needed to fix up a property.

“I’m over here saying, ‘The arts are kind of complicit in what is going on in [Franklinton],’ and artists don’t want to hear it, but it’s a conversation we need to have,” Gazala said. “I’m implicated in that, too. It’s hard. Just being here, realtors will come by and say, ‘Look, we’ve got artists in the neighborhood,’ and the price goes up on the houses.”

Living in Franklinton and exploring social justice issues via art has also allowed Gazala to find new ways to connect with a long-held historical fascination that she traced to childhood.

“I’m Palestinian and I grew up with pictures of my parents in Egypt and other places in the Middle East … around all of these ancient buildings and artifacts, and that always fascinated me, and I think it kind of drew me into archaeology,” said Gazala, who has increasingly incorporated these interests into her own work, utilizing them to explore issues of gentrification and city neglect. “Over time, I started to see artifacts in a whole new light. Now, to me, even artifacts from destroyed buildings in this neighborhood have a resonance to them.”