April Sunami brings joy to Milo-Grogan

Andy Downing
April Sunami's mural on Cleveland Avenue in Milo-Grogan

In early March, April Sunami was working feverishly to complete paintings for a planned duo show with fellow artist David Butler. The exhibit, dubbed “She Knows Who She Is,” was scheduled to debut at King Arts Complex on March 12, and in an interview at the East Side arts space a couple of days before the opening, Sunami spoke about the inspiration behind her paintings, which universally celebrate Black women. 

For me, a lot of the work is kind of about excavating these stories that don’t get a lot of attention, that have been excluded,” she said at the time.

Of course, the show didn’t go ahead as planned, the anticipated opening falling just as Gov. Mike DeWine issued broad stay at home orders, which have since been followed by months of social distancing, mask regulations and restricted capacities at most indoor gathering places. “It was like, ohhhh, all that work!” Sunami said recently in an outdoor interview at the edge of Milo-Grogan, steps from a new mural she just completed on Cleveland Avenue. "And then all that work just sat in darkness for months."

The artist experienced a similar creative shutdown in the earliest days of the pandemic. With her usual studio space inaccessible due to stay at home orders, Sunami's established schedule was upended, which led to a bout of creative stasis. “During quarantine, I was so anxious and uninspired, really, I didn’t know what to do,” the artist said. “I couldn’t settle my mind enough to sit down and work, and I was working in my basement, mind you, with my kids, and it was tough. I was like, ‘I need walls and a door.’”

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Yet it wasn’t until Sunami completely abandoned sheltering altogether that a breakthrough finally arrived, the creative fog lifting after she began work on a pair of outdoor mural projects, including the aforementioned Milo-Grogan creation, which is painted outside the Rise apartment complex. “The opportunity to paint outside, that was it. That was my release this summer,” Sunami said. “It’s given me some fresh inspiration, so I’m hopeful when I’m back in my studio again, I can get back to it.”

The mural, as with much of Sunami’s previous work, started with an excavation, of sorts, the artist doing a deep dive into the history of the Milo-Grogan neighborhood, a process that started in 2019 and involved reading written and oral histories, talking at length with residents and simply driving around the neighborhood at all hours of the day, absorbing the look and feel of the place. 

“I even thought of the name Milo-Grogan, and how [the name was adopted] from a grocery store owner and a dude who had a brickyard,” Sunami said of the neighborhood’s working class roots. (Milo Streets owned a brickyard at the corner of St. Claire and Third avenues and John Patrick Grogan owned a grocery store and post office on Cleveland Avenue.)

Understanding it was a neighborhood in transition, Sunami said she wanted to create a mural imbued with a sense of hope — a feeling that has only intensified this year amid the spread of the coronavirus and the rise of a new civil rights movement. “I wanted to bring a sense of optimism right here to this corner,” said Sunami, who also tagged the mural with an inspirational quote from poet Maya Angelou (“But still, like air, I’ll rise”). “It’s kind of fitting that I’m doing this in 2020. Hopefully it’s bringing some life, some joy to people. That’s my intention.”

The mural is painted on two walls that intersect at a beaming yellow sun. Each wall is adorned with a Black woman graced with a flowing rainbow of hair. Following advice gleaned from her father-in-law, a public artist with experience designing billboards, Sunami kept the piece relatively simple, tending toward large blocks of color as opposed to the detailed way she approaches smaller canvases. “A lot of my paintings are pretty intricate … but I wanted the impact of this to be more immediate,” Sunami said, understanding that most observers will encounter the art by car when driving down Cleveland Avenue.

At the same time, the artist couldn’t completely abandon her fondness for Easter eggs, and she embedded a number of easily overlooked details for those who are able to linger on the painting, including colored floral patterns interwoven with the women’s hair, as well as a seemingly abstract pattern painted on one of the figures that is actually a to-scale map of Milo-Grogan.

“I can’t help it,” Sunami said, and laughed. “I can’t help but create something that’s layered and complex.”

April Sunami's mural on Cleveland Avenue in Milo-Grogan