Dreaming of an art sanctuary in South Collinwood
February 22, 2017
South Collinwood is a neighborhood built upon the broad shoulders of Cleveland’s industrial past.
Roughly bisected by St. Clair Ave. on Cleveland’s east side, It was one of the city’s first suburbs, prior to its annexation – along with North Collinwood – in 1910. Many of its streets predate the annexation, and some are still paved with exposed red brick.
It’s a stone’s throw from the Collinwood rail yards, where many of the neighborhood’s residents have worked throughout the years and decades, operating and repairing the engines and tracks that hauled countless tons of freight in and out of the city.
South Collinwood’s legacy is one of steel, smoke, dust and the clatter of heavy machines. Yet, amid all of it, Malena Grigoli sees the potential for art to grow.
“I’ve always been involved in the arts, from an early age," Grigoli said. "It’s always been a positive influence in my life."
Grigoli, 17, is an Ohio Virtual Academy student taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College through its College Credit Plus program. As part of her coursework at Tri-C, she also participates in the Robert L. Lewis Academy of Scholars, a program designed for students with a passion for social justice and a desire to make a difference in their communities.
As part of participation in the Lewis Academy's yearlong program, students must complete and present a community improvement project by the end of the academic year. For her project, Grigoli knew she wanted to tie her love of art into community activism, but she needed some guidance along the way.
That’s when she met Tri-C professor Todd Williams.
“I took a night course at Tri-C, and Professor Williams came in to speak with the students during one class,” Grigoli said. “I told him about what I wanted to do, and he was really enthusiastic about it. I decided to choose him to be my mentor for the project.”
Williams is a Tri-C business professor with connections in the South Collinwood community. With Grigoli’s vision and Williams’ connections, the pair developed an idea: Grigoli would submit plans to turn an unused house in South Collinwood into an art sanctuary.
“I’m hoping it will be an art oasis that will encompass many different types of art,” Grigoli said. “Each room in the house will be dedicated to a different art form – one for painting, one for writing, a dance studio and other rooms. The idea is someone could move around the house and have multiple creative options.”
Williams is providing Grigoli with assistance on the business side, including direction on how to file for nonprofit status, apply for grants and organize meetings with South Collinwood community leaders. Grigoli also has to find a suitable property for her project. Grigoli and Williams are working with community leaders to identify and vet potential sites.
“Even though she doesn’t have a site yet, she is still way ahead of the curve,” Williams said. “She is extremely motivated and has an infectious personality, and she has no problem getting people on board with her.”
Williams praised Grigoli’s high level of ambition, particularly for someone who doesn’t even graduate from high school until this spring.
“Here is a young person with a dream and a goal, and she’s following it,” Williams said. “Our job as educators is to open doors for her and offer all the support we can. For a young person still in high school to have this type of ambition, where they want to make a major difference in the community, it’s just incredible.”
Grigoli wants to attend a four-year university and major in a humanities-related field before pursuing a law degree. To her, the development of an inner-city art sanctuary is an opportunity to pass along some of the things that have helped to shape her life.
“There are lots of studies out there that show how beneficial art is to people, and particularly children and teenagers,” Grigoli said. “Students who are involved in the arts are higher-achieving, they generally score higher on the SAT and ACT, and they have more of a sense of fulfillment. I really want to give that opportunity to people in the community who may not have that opportunity otherwise.”