Columbus artists continued to drive cultural conversations in 2020

Andy Downing

In the early weeks of 2020, prior to the March coronavirus shutdowns, art exhibits carried on as usual.Christopher Cropper hosted a show at Wild Goose,Adam Hernandez uncorked “Only Bangers” and artist and musician Courtney L. Hall rediscovered her secret power (aptly) atSecret Studio, which started operating in Franklinton this year. In an unfortunate but very 2020 twist, the new gallery space/recording studio ended up hosting both its officialgrand opening and its grand closing on the same day in March following Gov. Mike DeWine’s shutdown orders.

But even prior tothe arrival of COVID-19 and the rise ofa new Black lives matter movement, Columbus’ artists were already tackling a wide array of social and political issues.Mona Gazala spearheaded a multifaceted exhibit questioning civic priorities in the wake of the #SaveTheCrew movement and the related funding for a new Arena District stadium. At Streetlight Guild,David Butler interrogated Blackness in “Black Est.,” crafting select pieces using glitter and sand, materials he said he disliked but chose to embrace “almost as a metaphor for Blackness.”

Phil Adams, meanwhile,took photographs of street refuse while walking in his South Side neighborhood, his images questioning our “throwaway society,” where we frequently discard rather than reuse. (Similar ideas surfaced later inNicholas Warndorf’s “Cosmology” exhibit at 934 Gallery, which centered on plastic “fossils” that reflected the scope and pervasiveness of the waste product.)

In March, DeWine’s stay-at-home orders radically reshaped the scene,with galleries, events likeUrban Scrawl and evenGallery Hop pivoting to virtual events.A duo show between Butler and April Sunami at the King Arts Complex was an early casualty; scheduled to open the weekend of the March shutdown orders, it was instead postponed for months, giving Sunami time to focus on outdoor mural work. Eventhe Columbus Symphony Orchestra was forced to pivot, adjusting its mission to better fit this developing new world.

Still, art continued to be made and shared, sometimes with a new, COVID-driven focus.Melissa Vogley Woods embraced the stay-at-home era with a whole house installation based on a pattern created at the tail end of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Talle Bamazi crafted an entire series of paintingscentered on the coronavirus fallout. Sue Cavanaugh cut thousands of paper dollsto depict the human cost of COVID-19. Holly Wilson took over 934 Galleryto construct the ideal quarantine room. Comedian Dustin Meadows reminded us thatit was OK for folks to take a break from being funny amid a global pandemic. And Mandi Caskey commandeered a bridge fora massive mural created to let everyone know that we’re stronger together.

And while the pandemic has caused gallery closures, including Wild Goose Creative,which shuttered its Summit Street space and will focus instead in the new Franklinton location, new galleries have also sprung up, includingAll People Arts on the South Side anda King Arts satellite location in Easton.

When the May death of George Floyd gave rise to a new Black lives matter movement, artists embraced the conversation.Lisa McLymont, one of the artists tasked with creating murals that covered the plywood facades sheltering buildings Downtown and the Short North in the wake of protests, later wrestled withthe divide between the Instagram-shared art and the lack of tangible political change. A Black lives matter show in Franklinton, in turn,ended early amid claims of censorship. And theColumbus Black International Film Festival returned (virtually) to a social and political landscape that founder Cristyn Steward described as both strange and depressingly familiar.

“I’ve always gotten films about police brutality and the safety of Black lives, so I think that energy was about the same [this year],” Steward said. “The topics or names might have been different. The murals might have had different faces, unfortunately, but I’ve always gotten films that were about Black lives matter.”

Gradually, some galleries like 934 started hosting distanced, in-person openings, and artists continued to explore a range of personal and public ideas. Christopher Burk found beauty and stillness in the flooded landscapes of “Deluge.” Kyla Zoe Rafert crafted beautifully unsettling paintings layered with deeper societal meanings. Poet and essayist Maggie Smith released her new book, Keep Moving, an inspirational tome centered on the idea of pressing ahead amid soul-crushing challenges (which, talk about timing).

Jack Shuler explored the hope and struggle of the addiction crisis in his new book, This Is Ohio. Vada Azeem released his second children's book, The Ribbon in the Sky. Jameel Amman used virtual reality to build Afrofuturist worlds. Bryan Christopher Moss sat with the spirit of Aminah Robinson. No Place Gallery debuted an eerie, groundbreaking virtual exhibit with “The Pitbull’s Garden.” And, finally, Cameron Granger brought “a little light” to Columbus.

“One thing I’ve been confronted with this year is [asking] how I can use my practice in a way that feels less insular, that feels bigger than me?” Granger said by phone in mid-November. “How can I be more generative? And so one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is, where do I see gaps? What’s needed?”

These are questions that Columbus artists have asked and answered throughout a challenging 2020, and which they will continue to interrogate as we move into a new year.

The flash illuminated pattern installed by Melissa Vogley Woods at 964 Neil Ave photographed on Saturday, April 4, 2020.


A mural painted by Mandi Caskey and crew