Artist Katherine Chilcote’s contributions to interfaith relations in Cleveland began while she was halfway across the country. In 2005, while still a graduate student in New York, Chilcote came home to northeast Ohio to create a mural at St. Paul’s Community Church. Not long after the mural’s completion and during another trip to her hometown, Chilcote planned to meet Pastor Doug Horner of St. Paul’s, for an informal lunch on the east side. Instead of meeting her home church pastor, she found herself face-to-face with twelve pastors from the neighborhood. Together Horner and his colleagues challenged Chilcote to found Building Bridges, pledging to make it possible for Katherine to “come home (and) get going on this.” “I just dropped my job in Brooklyn and started this,” Chilcote recalls. “It was a real challenge but it was a good one.” To show their support, community members pulled together to produce another mural, this time together. The canvas? The concrete base of a freeway at the intersection of Detroit and West 25th streets in Cleveland’s West Side neighborhood. The theme for the mural was unity between neighbors and the collaborative visioning process involved members of area churches, block clubs, and the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority.
This communal kick off event launched Building Bridges, an organization Chilcote founded “to create community based public art that fosters youth development and supports emerging artists, thereby public art becomes a tool for community engagement in a common spirit, through urban revitalization and beautification.” With that first communal mural, everyone reflected on individual and collective hopes for the neighborhood. The completed mural gives the viewer the perspective of peering through a wall at a neighborhood where people hold hands, work and gather food together, with depictions of blue skies, green trees and grass, sunshine, and doves. As an organization, Building Bridges supports and promotes public art in Cleveland, recognizing its value for community engagement. The organization also partners with the City of Cleveland through its Summer Mural Institute, an initiative that engages local youth in job development and leadership training. Originally, the Institute hired ten youth for the first summer. Today, Building Bridges hires 140 youth and continues to foster a unique caucus of creative young alumni leaders in Cleveland.
Although not strictly an interfaith organization, Building Bridges recognizes that “murals with a mission” can value faith and interfaith understanding as a foundation for art. As a testimony to this commitment, the organization includes an Interfaith Arts Committee within its board. Chilcote explains that in an interfaith setting, art—be it through murals, music, or sculptures—transcends the intellectual and allows for human connections in deep ways. This is an important pathway for interreligious dialogue, Chilcote adds.
The Case Western Reserve University campus is home to one exemplary interfaith mural. Located on the east side of Cleveland near Little Italy, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art, the mural is a collaboration between Building Bridges and the majority of the religious groups on Case Western’s campus. Participating student organizations included Hillel, three Protestant organizations, the Newman Catholic Student Association, a Buddhist group, and the Muslim Student Association. The mural depicts “the spiritual meaning of water as an expression of peace between our faith communities” and can be viewed at the Interfaith Center of Case Western Reserve University. The mural shows a long winding blue river with different scenes occurring near or in the water. Women at the base of the river are moving water as an act of reconciliation, and people of all races and creeds are sharing food and water. Others are shown cleansing before prayers, and another scene depicts hands passing water from person to person as a sign of hospitality. Recognizing that humanity is from a common source of creation, individuals are shown kneeling and planting together. The mural is vivid and colorful with blues, greens, reds, and yellows, a pop of color against the beige concrete walls along campus pathways.
Although the mural provides a strong visual for interfaith dialogue, the research and events leading up to the creation of the mural show how the process of creating art emerges as a viable model for promoting interfaith dialogue and understanding. At the start of the project, Chilcote interviewed approximately 300 students about their understanding of sacred space and what it means to express interfaith understanding in the arts. From the rich pool of stories, Chilcote narrowed her focus to the common themes of water and reconciliation. She recognizes that “common ground as a concept is hard to get to” but the imagery in the mural is a gesture toward that goal.
In addition to creating the mural, Building Bridges offered supplementary interfaith programming. Programs included an Artists Lecture Series where fourteen artists shared their own faith journeys through art; conflict resolution workshops that explored communication, collaboration, and resolution; and an interfaith Seder where participants explored together the traditions and practices of the Seder. When the Interfaith Mural was unveiled, five different campus ministries shared “a blessing prayer or perspective on the meaning of water in their faith tradition.” These reflections were interlaced with musical offerings from the Cleveland Boys Choir and sitar player Hasu Patel.
Building Bridges continues to make an impact in Cleveland, bringing together diverse communities for reflection and inspiring collaboration among people of all ages, races, economic status, and religions. An organization founded with the creation of a mural on the side of a freeway continues to build bridges that link neighborhoods, generations, and faith communities.