'Life is Sharing the Same Park Bench' mural rededicated in Cleveland
A message of unity from a half century ago is taking on new relevance. Artist John Morrell wanted to promote brotherhood in divisive times back in 1969. The contemporary resonance of that message speaks to the enduring significance of an iconic mural.
Maybe you’ve seen the painting near E. 9th Street and Superior Avenue. It’s called “Life Is Sharing the Same Park Bench,” and it depicts four people of different races, genders and ages, all sitting together. Morrell's son, John Jr., recalled that some people found that simple sentiment controversial.
John Morrell high atop the scaffolding in 1969 [Morrell family]
"He was getting death threats from people that they were going to shoot him off the scaffolding," he said. "They did not want that Black figure on there. They were literally calling up the house and threatening him."
His father painted the mural in 1969 as a tribute to the first Black mayor of a major American city – Carl Stokes. Stokes’ election in 1967 had brought the eyes of the nation to Cleveland, especially after the devastation of recent racial uprisings across the country. Stokes’s son Cordell said his father’s victory was a moment of optimism in troubled times.
Cordell Stokes recalls the promise of his father's historic election [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]
"The optimism came from his belief that, in America, a black man can be elected in a majority white city," Stokes said.
The idea to celebrate that spirit came from a guy who was the creative director of an advertising agency. But, John Morrell also used his skills to design graphics for a number of social and educational causes. Morrell’s daughter, Katy Panasiewicz, said he was a strong believer in the power of art to move people.
"He believed in public art. He wanted the public to see all art. Everybody should enjoy art and should be able to see it, no matter what," she said
And he figured that a painting of four diverse people sitting together, 30-feet high, on the side of a building would be seen by a lot of people.
"He found the building," she said. "They went in, and they asked the owner, 'Would you mind if I put this on this wall?' And the guy's like, 'Okay.'"
Katy Panasiewicz and brother John Morrell Jr. are coming from Rochester to attend the rededication of their father's mural. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]
Morrell not only wanted the public to see the mural, he invited passersby to come up on the scaffolding to help paint.
"And nowadays, I don't think you could, just for legal reasons." Panasiewicz said. "But, people would just climb up and slap a little paint on. He didn't really care if it was perfect."
John Morrell's daughter, Katy, was among the many people who climbed the scaffolding to add a little paint. [Morrell family]
The mural was dedicated by Carl Stokes on June 7, 1969. The festivities included an eclectic group of Cleveland area cultural performers, ranging from Native American dancers and a Karamu ensemble to a Latino vocal group and the Cleveland Banjo Club. Looming over the proceedings were the four people on the park bench, who have remained on that wall for more than a half century.
"I think it's a really wonderful example about the sort of integrity and the sort of longevity and the importance of this piece," said Greg Peckham, executive director of the public art agency LAND Studio.
LAND is sponsoring a rehabilitation of Morrell's mural, including a fresh coat of paint, new landscaping and the installation of new park benches.
"The significance of the park bench still resonates," said Cordell Stokes, adding that the message of the mural that his father inspired has only gotten stronger, even though sometimes it seems out of reach.
"That's why we fight, and that's why we organize and that's why we create partnerships with people who don't look like us," he said.
Stokes said, like his dad, he remains an optimist but also a realist.
"Well, I'm optimistic the fight's going to continue," he said.
The Old Soul Sign Company's Alan Giberson puts the finishing touches on a 52-year-old message that still resonates today. [Mary Fecteau / Ideastream Public Media]
The “Life Is Sharing the Same Park Bench” mural will be rededicated in a noon-time ceremony in downtown Cleveland at E. 9th Street and Rockwell Avenue Saturday.