Earliest Art Memories: I grew up in Pittsburgh. My first nickname was “Leisel the Dancing Fool.” I could not stop dancing, or singing, or whistling. In public. Along with choreographing dances on roller skates to Blondie or Aretha Franklin songs, some of my earliest memories of art and culture stem from sewing and picking berries and pressing flowers in the country with my Grammy Miller. Other fan favorite artsy times included god’s eyeing and making UB40 stained glass signs at Camp Harmony, and kickin it with T-Rexes, a Sabretooth Tiger, a few shrunken heads, some precious gems, and knock off Greek columns at the Carnegie. I spent days in the botanical gardens and got pumped to dress up in my “posh” 80’s outfits to attend off Broadway musicals with my family. I never thought about art in a formal way. Slam dancing at local bars or checking out graffiti in the train yards and on old barges abandoned on the banks of the Monongahela or sitting for a long time to listen to a guy play drums on buckets in the South Side were just things we did growing up. I had no idea at the time, but art and culture were the lenses I wore in my everyday life. And those things made everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, extraordinary for me.
First Intro to Art in Summit: It was late fall. I am 162% sure it was grey and cold out. My freshman year at Denison University. 1991. Thinking back, I had some really big eyebrows at the time. My friends and I rallied for a road trip to see Rush and Eric Johnson at the Richfield Coliseum. No idea where Richfield was. If I had one of those AAA trip tics, it would have told me in 37 fold outs, to just go north, but not so far as to drive into a lake. Anyhooooo, Rush was incredible. I saw Neil Pert play drums in the sky and heard Cliffs of Dover blast out of Eric Johnson’s guitar. It blew my big eyebrows right off. And that would mark the first Summit County art experience of my life. Killer!
Places I like to find things to do: Tiki Underground, Old 97, Akron Recording Company, Blossom, Annabel’s, GAR Hall, and Musica are few local fave music listening hangouts. And I must add that EJ Thomas annnnnnd the Civic Theater annnnnnd the Akron Art Museum annnnnnd the Library annnnnd Downtown Akron Partnership do a bang up job curating super cool, interesting, inspiring, entertaining and diverse shows, lectures, concerts, exhibitions, garden parties, beer tasting extravaganzas, and more. I regularly experience FMO (Fear of Missing Out), but it’s an awesome problem to have.
Things I dig most about Summit County Arts/Culture: There’s a lot of talk of the town about this area being a good place for tech startups or small business incubators. Howevvvvs, something I don’t hear a lot about, but know from experience to be true: Akron is a SERIOUSLY RAD ART INCUBATOR and CREATIVE IDEA STARTUP ROCKET SHIP BLASTOFF “WE SUPPORT YOU!” kind of place. For the two decades I have lived here, I have been overwhelmed and humbled by the opportunities to initiate and grow (with the help of amazing colleagues like Dan Coffield and Marissa McClellan) some my own creative practices with Arts LIFT and the Art Bomb Brigade in the community. I have also witnessed the uber transformation of the arts and culture scene in our region during this time. Our county’s investments in John Brown Houses, County Fairs, Crafty Marts, Stan Hywets, Art Bombs, Bounce Hubs, Hale Farms, Curated Storefronts, Countryside Markets, Metro Parks, Pride Festivals, Soul Trains, and Rocking on Rivers, and sooo many amazing mainstays and popups and yet to comes make me really proud to raise my family here.
Three Magic Genie wishes for arts and culture in Summit for the next 5 years: 1. I wish we could find a way to encourage and promote street performers in the downtown area, near our coolest murals (shameless plug), and/or in our neighborhood corridors; 2. I wish opportunities to participate in the arts were not so expensive. The “pay to play” or “pay to listen” or “pay to learn” models, while may be necessary for organizations to thrive, discourages inclusivity, removes art from the context of our everyday lives, and predominantly accommodates those with higher incomes; 3. I wish for the mind blowing idea of county supported artist communities to come to fruition. For example, it would be so jamma ramma to see affordable housing or repurposed industrial apartment studios, low rent store fronts/performance spaces, and designated “Art Communities” like Highland Square or North Hill with specific zoning regulations to support the arts!
Best view in Summit: In early to mid-May for no more than one week, like something right out of Ray Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day, a sea of bluebells carpet the whole floodplain along Furnace Run in The Cuyahoga Valley National Park. I make an annual pilgrimage with my kids and have been known to blindfold them on the trail before the miraculous reveal. My kids named it, “The Wonderland.”
My commitments to giving back: I promise first to train student art teachers to be the most bodacious, tenacious and efficacious leaders of all time. I will push them to thread love and justice and confidence building and divine coolness into their arts curriculum for EVERY KID they ever teach. EVER. I promise to keep growing arts and education and leadership programs around these parts for young people, so they can exercise their voices, contribute some beautiful public art, become the next generation of creative leaders and change agents, and wheel me around at PorchRokr when I’m too old. Finally, I promise to keep my own children’s arts and culture lenses free from dirt and smudges so they too might find every song played on the street, every well designed devil strip, and every splat of paint on the sidewalk most extraordinary.
Elisa Gargarella, Associate Professor of Art Education, began teaching at UA in 2001. She earned a PhD in Curriculum and Instructional Studies from the University of Akron; an MA in Education from Chatham College; and a BA in Communications with a Minor in Studio Art from Denison University.
Dr. Gargarella is faculty and coordinator of the Art Education program at UA. She is creator and director of the award-winning Arts LIFT program, a summer arts residency for inner city high school students that has produced 16 major public art installations throughout Summit County. She is also the creator and co-director of the Art Bomb Brigade. Art Bomb Brigade is a two-time winner of the Knight Arts Challenge Award by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and facilitates murals that are designed and painted by professional artists and art students at UA. Art Bomb aims to breathe new life into Akron neighborhoods through high impact public art, while fostering a new generation of creative organizers who use art to transform their communities. Art Bomb students and alumni have helped to create 19 murals in just four years for Akron.
Dr. Gargarella’s research is based on community based art education, creative placemaking and social justice education through the arts, pre-service teacher engagement, and urban revitalization through public and school arts partnerships.