Artist Mandi Caskey wants to remind you that we're stronger together

Andy Downing
The new mural painted on an abandoned highway overpass outside of Downtown Columbus

When Mandi Caskey and herCatalyst Columbus crew started work on a massive, 400-foot mural painted on an abandoned highway overpass near Scioto Audubon Metro Park just outside of Downtown, they were forced to dress in heavy coats and gloves as they navigated cold winds and frigid rains. Then, in the final days, the team sweated out 90 degree temperatures and the harsh, relentless glare of the sun. 

In a perfect illustration of Ohio’s wild weather swings, these days took place mere weeks apart in May.

While the completion of the mural was spread out due to persistent rains, the finished piece, which reads, “We are stronger together,” a message of community uplift amid COVID-19 fears, took just six days for the crew to complete. Two days were dedicated to clearing the site (a massive undertaking that involved hauling wheelbarrows of dirt and countless discarded branches), two to sketching out the 16-foot-tall letters on a grid, and another two to complete the actual painting. 

Caskey landed on the concept for the mural while doodling on her iPad in the earliest days of the pandemic, focusing on the abandoned bridge, long a source of allure for the muralist, which can be accessed by walking north from the Scioto Audubon water tower along the bike trail.

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“I’ve been up there a few times over the years, and it was always like, ‘Damn, it would be cool to have a mural up here,’” said Caskey, who, after landing on a design, sent the image to her business partner, Brian Suiter. “I kind of sent it as a joke, like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ And he kind of freaked out and was like, ‘Can we do this?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, man. Can we do this?’”

Eventually the two sent the proposal to Lori Baudro with the Columbus Arts Commission, and from there it was passed along to the Department of Public Service, the Columbus Transportation Department and ODOT, receiving an unexpected thumbs up each step of the way. “It was basically three weeks of us getting approval on permits that we thought we had no chance of getting,” Caskey said.

After getting approval and clearing the site of debris, Caskey, aided by engineer Jacob Bench, hammered nails into the asphalt and then ran string between them to create a massive grid. Inside this template, the letters were sketched out by hand using industrial pencil and then outlined in spray paint. Throughout this process, the crew utilized a drone to view the sketch from overhead, adjusting any letters that looked askew from the air. “It’s a 16-foot ‘S’ and I had no idea what it looked like [from the ground],” Caskey said. “I remember the first time [videographer Justin-Paul Villanueva] put the drone up it was like, ‘Shit, it’s so off.’ I ended up having to bump the whole center up two feet to make it look like a real 'S.'”

Then it was time to paint, though things got off to an admittedly inauspicious start when a 5-gallon bucket spilled at the edge of the planned mural, leading the group to change its design on the fly. (The image was initially supposed to spell out the phrase on a giant banner but was altered to appear inside of a massive thought bubble, a more whimsical take that Caskey ultimately came to view as a blessing in disguise.) Painting was done by Caskey and a rotating crew of 12, who blasted through more than 50 gallons of paint in less than two days.

For Caskey, the message contained in the mural — “We are stronger together” — served not only as a city-wide affirmation, but a nod to the teamwork required to bring the project to completion.

“It was cool working and collaborating with such an awesome and unique group of people,” said Caskey, who also reflected on how the message at the core of the piece differed from her usual approach toward mural work, which she termed “a little bit weirder, a little bit darker.” “Doing something to make people smile and feel good is different for me, and I really like it. … I can’t wait for people to see it and take it in.”

Of course, the mural itself isn’t easily visible, tucked away as it is on a tricky-to-reach overpass and set behind a chain-link fence. Even those who do access the mural couldn’t possibly take it all in at once. Walking the bridge on the first day of painting, I could manage fragments of words before losing the image to the horizon.

Caskey said this was part of the point of selecting the location during “stay at home” orders, since the images would be instantly accessible to anyone with an internet connection, even if the physical painting was not.

“I thought about this the first week of the pandemic, when everybody had to stay inside, and I was thinking how cool it could be that everyone could see this from home, and could follow the whole process,” said Caskey, noting that was part of the desire to document the entirety of the mural’s creation, video clips of which will be posted to the Catalyst Columbus Instagram page (photos can also be viewed at Alive by clicking here). “It’s going directly to their homes and their phones. … That, and planes can see it. People can fly over it and read this message coming into Columbus.”

Additional contributors to the mural include: David Greenzalis, Katie Bench, Hawke Trackler, Lisa Celesta, Ariel, Chris Blain, Patrick Cardwell, Eric Terranova, Sam Rex and Tim Cousino.