Muralist Mandi Caskey Burns Down the House in Whitehall

The Columbus artist’s first performance piece featured a majestic inferno, melted siding, a torrential downpour, awestruck children and a rainbow.

Kevin Capron
Artist Mandi Caskey’s performance piece “Seeds Sown in Fire” burns as firefighters monitor the blaze. Caskey painted her sister and niece on the sides of two abandoned homes before the Whitehall Division of Fire used one for a controlled burn. “The fire becomes the artist,” Caskey says.

No torrent of rain could stop Mandi Caskey. On Aug. 20, the Columbus artist delivered a fiery performance at the abandoned Woodcliff condo complex in Whitehall—one that featured a mural going up in flames while another melted from the heat.

The spectacle—the first performance piece from Caskey, best known for massive outdoor paintings in Franklinton’s Gravity development and other locations around Columbus—came about quickly after she learned of a fire-training exercise planned for Woodcliff. In 2018, the city of Whitehall acquired the rundown, 40-acre complex. A $250 million residential and commercial project is now planned for the site, but before that occurs, the Whitehall Fire Department decided to use one of the complex’s shuttered homes for a controlled blaze.

Seeing artistic potential in the forthcoming fire, Caskey asked Whitehall fire officials if she could paint a mural on the home they planned to burn. “They called the fire chief in front of me, and he immediately said yes,” Caskey says.

Caskey, also known as Miss Birdy, and her assistant, Liv Morris, endured a week of 12-hour days in sweltering heat and pouring rain to complete a pair of 20-foot murals on neighboring houses. Each mural features the face of a woman, who appears to be gazing at the other across property lines.

Caskey titled the piece “Seeds Sown in Fire”—a description of how “the seeds you sow today will bloom tomorrow for future generations,” Caskey says. “[In] a society that is constantly searching for instant gratification … I wanted to have people take a step back and reflect on how they can affect people from all around the world.”

She says the piece comments on the overturning of Roe v. Wade, “but it goes a little bit deeper with how people need to reevaluate how we interact with our environment, ourselves and the people around us,” she says. The piece also draws upon Caskey’s street art roots, making a bold, immediate and impermanent statement. “I don’t want someone to see this piece and think, ‘Oh, that’s Roe v. Wade,’” she says. “I want them to look at it and be like, ‘Holy crap, that’s exactly how I feel right now.’”

On the day of the fire, heat from the burning house melted the siding of the home next door, disfiguring the face of the woman in the mural. Even with the cooling rain and spray from fire hoses, spectators across the street needed to step back due to the intense temperatures. At the peak of the blaze, thunder and lightning enhanced the majesty of the inferno.

As the flames diminished, so did the rain. In the distance, a rainbow framed the house, leading youngsters to run about in awe. “It was equally exhilarating and sad, but all of it felt good,” Caskey says. “It wasn’t a bad sadness. It felt so good to make something, put it out in the world and then immediately get rid of it.”

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.