Off of Main Street on Columbus’ East Side, a colorful, Midnight Marauders-esque mural overlooked a crowd gathered despite the growing heat of the August morning. In the parking lot of Simakovsky Law, people greeted each other joyfully as music trickled out of nearby speakers. In the shade, children sat engaged in storybooks and arts & crafts, sucking on popsicles from local Black-owned business Too Good Eats. Although the festivities celebrated the mural’s launch on August 21, the true centerpiece was the community that came out to honor it.
The aptly named People’s Mural of Columbus started as an extension of local nonprofit Cbus Libraries‘ “Libraries Everywhere” program, which sets up Little Free Libraries dedicated to local historical figures throughout Central Ohio — like the John T. Ward library in Whitehall that honors the abolitionist and owner of the oldest Black-owned business in the country. The mural, a slightly different but equally important project, aims to celebrate the city’s present-day literary talent and the communities that fostered it.
“We thought, why not take it to the next step and do something to honor a living local artist, and have a celebration along with it,” Bryan Loar, co-founder of Cbus Libraries, said. Loar then reached out to artist Bryan Moss, who would eventually be brought on to paint the mural.
Originally slated to be a smaller project on Long St., the People’s Mural grew in size as it did in collaborators, finding a home on the bricks of immigration attorney office Simakovsky Law. From there, local publisher Two Dollar Radio, reached out to the organization with seed funding for a mural centering on a quote from “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us,” poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib’s collection of essays published in 2017. Abdurraqib was awarded the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” Grant a little more than a month after the mural was launched.
At first, Abdurraqib wasn’t too keen on having a mural of himself put up. But the artist and location had him sold.
“I’m a big fan of Bryan Moss, and the fact that the mural was going to be on the East Side. That’s the neighborhood I grew up in, and if my work is going to live on in any permanent way, I want it to be there,” he said.
Columbus, a city much more diverse than the nation as a whole, remains heavily segregated across racial and socioeconomic lines. Neighborhoods in the East Side tend to be primarily Black and Hispanic while those in the west side tend to be primarily white.
For Moss, too, taking on this project was always about engaging the community.
“I grew up really poor on the South End of Columbus, and it limited my education in a lot of ways, including art,” Moss said. “So I was like, ‘When I get older, I’m not going to let kids fall behind like this.’ It’s always been a dream of mine to show kids about art as a form of expression, and to support people who came from where I came from.”
And at a time when arts funding is threatened in an increasingly STEM-focused and pandemic-ravaged world, Columbus is working to maintain and cultivate robust arts education — especially for historically disadvantaged students.
According to the Public School Review, the Columbus City School District — the largest school district in Ohio — ranks in the top 1% of schools across Ohio for diversity, with a 77% minority student body versus 30% at the state level — both majority Black. According the Ohio Arts Council, this same district excels at providing arts education to its students; 0% are without access to arts curriculum, and 99% of its schools have some form of arts requirement.
The mural will now be part of that arts education, too. It will be recreated in Beechcroft High School, Abdurraqib’s alma mater, and students there — along with the children who attended the launch — will have the opportunity to add their drawings to an informational board/free library to be built onsite.
The hope is that this mural also paves the way for further representation of the contributions of Columbus’ Black artists and writers, who have had a substantial impact on the city’s arts scene at large.
“We wanted to include as much of the literary community in the area as we could, and specifically we wanted to uplift Black voices,” Loar, who has also worked with the Columbus Museum of Art and the Greater Columbus Arts Council to bring visibility and resources to Black artists in the city, said.
Some of these voices — including veteran DJ Krate Digga, who spun at Columbus’ poetry lounge Snaps & Taps, award-winning poet Barbara Fant, and a board of local children’s book authors — were the ones who developed the mural’s launch into a full-on festival. The mural also marks Cbus Libraries’ first collaboration with Maroon Arts Group, a collective dedicated to the celebration of Black culture.
The history and influences of Columbus’ Black creative scene are extensive, but rarely recognized. Grown from one organization’s efforts to celebrate living local history, the People’s Mural of Columbus became a celebration of the city’s literary talent and the communities that nurture it.
When Abdurraqib looked at the mural, he saw more than just his work immortalized in the neighborhood; he saw the people and communities that had shaped him along the way.
“The mural itself is secondary,” Abdurraqib said. “I saw people there who I knew from my childhood, people from all stages of my writing life.”
Abdurraqib pointed to early experiences doing slam poetry at open mics like Writer’s Block, hosted by poets Scott Woods — who spoke at the mural’s launch — and Vernell Bristow, as formative to his writing career.
“Slam taught me what it was like to hear my work out loud, and a lot about revision,” he said. “And writing can be such isolating work; it’s good to remember that you’re not alone.”
That notion shines through in the mural itself, which quotes Abdurraqib’s work: “There is something about setting eyes on the people who hold you up instead of imagining them.”