At a junction along the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath where bikers, runners and hikers departed from a natural setting into an urban one, they’d pass by a bare parking garage wall on Quaker Street.
And when the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition (OECC) put out a call to local artists to submit proposals for a mural on the side of the garage, they may not have been aware of the potential of that wall, and the story of the artist who would change this view for the better.
Though Texas may not typically be associated with free expression, the daughter of a seamstress and a carpenter was encouraged by her parents at a very young age to pick up a paintbrush. Jessica Lofthus would often use her mother’s extra fabrics to make drapes and decorations. When her mother grew tired of this, she bought Lofthus a paint set and told her to paint her walls.
“When other kids were allowed to have name brand clothes and the brand new bicycle, my parents purchased for me professional art supplies,” says Lofthus. When she became frustrated, her mother exhorted her: “As you grow older, if you have art you will never be lonely and you will never be bored.”
Lofthus fell in love with painting in a spiritual sense. “To be an artist is a very sacred thing. That’s my church,” she says. “I feel closer to God when creating art.”
There’s a tangible humility in Lofthus’ art. She hasn’t signed any of her murals. “This piece doesn’t belong to me,” she says, “You give it as a gift and it belongs to the collective consciousness.”
And it may have been the collective consciousness groaning for a piece on that wall that caused the OECC to include her mural idea in the Towpath Beautification Project. With funding from Knight and GAR foundations and with permission from the city, all the OECC needed was an artist.
A brilliant mistake
Jessica Lofthus’ 400-foot mural sort of happened by mistake. Instead of taking an example of her work and applying it to a 20-foot portion of the wall, her tech savvy husband misunderstood the requirements and applied her art to the entire wall. Even after Lofthus informed him of the mistake, he encouraged her to propose it anyway. Knight Foundation, GAR Foundation and the OECC were all on board, so Lofthus created a 9-foot painting to scale of the 400-foot wall and it was printed on vinyl to cover the entirety of the wall.
Lofthus’ painting was taken to Central Graphics and blown up 30 times. It was then cut so that each portion of the painting would fit each of the granite slabs of the wall.
“I’ve made the joke repeatedly that this is just the step-child of walls,” says Lofthus. Each slab is a different size, and because the granite cannot be painted on, the mural was printed and cut on vinyl specifically for that wall. However, the large stucco perimeter was hand painted to match. Lofthus conjectures it may be the first of its kind.
Work on the mural began May 15 and continued for the next five weeks. Local supplier January Paint and Wallpaper delivered the paint needed for the entire mural. Lofthus was present 100 percent of the time. It was a theater performance. On reactions from passersby, Lofthus says, “I thought that people would say ‘Oh, look how beautiful!’ and keep walking, which was really silly on my part. … 100 people a day would be so excited and want to stop and ask questions.”
Abstract and educational
The finished mural is an abstract landscape. It begins with greens and earthy tones and paintings of blades of grass. The grass transforms into sunbeams that shine onto the more uniform blue and purple brushstrokes that invoke the canal and night cityscape. It’s the perfect painting to educate the public about the canal that turned wilderness into city after its completion in the 1830s.
The completed mural was dedicated on June 22. The iTowpath project also includes an archway designed by artist John Comunale. “I’ve finally stopped dreaming about brushstrokes,” says Lofthus. But her work in art is hardly over. She is the art curator for Western Reserve Hospital, where she will be selecting art for the oncology wing.
“To transfuse [the patients] with the understanding that there are greater potentialities awaiting them on the other side of this is one of the most blessed experiences I could be given,” says Lofthus. “Pretty much every art experience that I’ve been gifted or asked to be a part of all had to do with people healing,” even if not physically.
Lofthus’ art will bring healing to more than just people, though. It plays an important role in revitalizing the city. Lofthus feels strongly about art’s influence in the life of a city. “As an empire nears degradation, people yearn for expression. Out of greed, and corruption, and consumerism, emphatically rises the great beauty,” says Lofthus. “Artists translate stagnation into movement.” Akron is, in a sense, in a period of renaissance. What was once a city that thrived on its industry is now a city that thrives on its beauty.
When asked about future projects, Lofthus expressed great interest in designing the mural on the wall next to the Akron Civic Theatre overlooking Lock 3. “Put that in. I have no shame,” she jokes.
Lofthus’ original 9-foot painting will be exhibited at the Akron Art Prize. If you’d like to learn how to support Lofthus or would like to see more of her art, you can find her on Facebook or visit her website at jessicalofthus.com.