A burgeoning hub for the arts

"Fencepiration" camouflages the construction site on Cedar Road. Photo by David Bergholz.

Not long ago, Peggy Spaeth, Heights Arts executive director, was at a meeting on the south side of Cedar Center facing the vacant space that one day is to be a new shopping center.

"This looks like Dresden after the war," she said. "It’s the apocalypse! Why don’t we do something!"

She held her head and shielded her eyes as if she were reliving the vision of that dreadful sight.

For someone like Spaeth, with an acute visual aesthetic, it was an affront. She was impelled to change it.

So she did. Today, "Fencepiration" adorns the chain link fence in front of the site—a delicate, playful rendition of landscapes made of recycled materials, mostly aluminum beverage cans, created by artists Debbie Apple Presser and Carol Hummel.

"Why does the city not look the way we feel inside?" Spaeth asks rhetorically. "I want to bring art to the surface, make it visible and use it in community-building ways."

Heights Arts just concluded a lease to expand its gallery into the corner space of the Cedar Lee Theater Building, a move that will give it a more definitive presence on Lee Road. Spaeth sees it as a "little hub for the arts," with exhibits, poetry readings and concerts that could spill out to the adjacent mini-park that leads to the parking lot.

The gallery space will increase from 900 to 2400 square feet, which will make possible a much larger year-round gift store. The space will also house the Heights Arts office and a classroom.

Heights Arts began a decade ago in the creative climate of the city’s visioning process. Spaeth began convening meetings in her home. "Cleveland Heights and the region have such a rich citizenry in the arts, someone—they—ought to tap into that potential, we thought. We realized the ‘they’ was us."

So Heights Arts began. Today it offers gallery space to show artists’ work and sponsors public art projects, the naming of a poet laureate and chamber music concerts in people’s homes.

"Culture has gotten so oriented to big venues and superstars," Spaeth said. "Why must it be elevated to an iconic status?"

Spaeth herself is an artist, a quiltmaker. Her sensibility about the arts in the community grew out of her experience as a parent in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights schools. When her first child was about to enter Canterbury, she realized the school lacked an art teacher. "We mustered the power of parents, worked through unions, inertia, and got one. The following year the district had art teachers in all the schools." She paused. "Over my dead body will they cut the art teachers!"

Peggy Spaeth is so warm, engaging, positive and soft-spoken that one could miss the resolve that energizes her. She says that Heights Arts has a working board, people with skills, shared values, creativity and imagination. "We have balanced our budget for 10 years," she said. She and two part-timers are the only staff.

Heights Arts has facilitated many public art projects: The mural at the back of the Cedar Lee Theater; the brightly colored, "smiley" benches on Coventry; Knitscape, the decorated light poles and parking meters on Lee Road and Larchmere; the Coventry P.E.A.C.E. Arch; the murals at Cedar Fairmount; to name a few. One of its fundraisers is the popular New Year’s Day Pancake Breakfast at Tommy’s.

A new idea for Lee Road is now brewing. "Brown paper on windows (of unoccupied stores) is deadening!" Spaeth said. So Heights Arts is making creative and colorful banners to improve the look. They will say, "Imagine your business here," in the hope of drawing young entrepreneurs.

"And of course," Spaeth said, "they will promote the arts."

Eleanor Mallet's column, "A Heights Observer," explores the nooks and crannies in the Heights. She can be reached at eleanormallet@yahoo.com.

The Heights Arts Holiday Sale opens on Nov. 5 in the Heights Arts Gallery on Lee Road.

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Volume 3, Issue 11, Posted 1:04 PM, 10.19.2010