The Arts District in downtown Zanesville sits in a notch of land next to the Muskingum River. The district consists of distinct architecture, the well-known “Y-Bridge” over the river, and numerous artists working to revitalize the area. I arrive on a pleasant evening in June for the “First Friday Art Walk,” where local artists open their studios and galleries to the public. My guide is Douglas Swift, a local teacher, writer, and filmmaker. The town is lively and the normally quiet streets are filled with people moving from place to place.
We begin our walk visiting the Yan Sun Art Museum on South 6th Street. Sun, a local artist and teacher, was friendly and generous. As he shows us around the building, I am struck by his ability to work in many styles, where he adds symbols and meaning from his own life to paintings referencing different art periods. I am also impressed with the building: four stories high (all with Sun’s artwork) and in an Art Deco style, Sun is working to restore and breathe new life into it.
We left Yan Sun’s Museum and rounded the corner onto Main Street and the oldest surviving block of buildings in Zanesville. Some buildings are in use while others are struggling. One has handwritten signs in the windows pleading “Save me!” To my eyes, I see buildings full of potential. Yet there has been contention between those wanting to save them and others wanting to tear them down. Several buildings have unusually large keys, three or four feet wide, affixed to their signs. When I ask about these keys, Swift says the block is known as the “Old Quarter” and that the keys are a metaphor: each building is “key” to saving the block, and the block is “key” to saving the town.
We head south on 7th Street, a noisy one way once run down but now slowly being revitalized. We stop by the art galleries of Joel Yeager and John Earl Entrekin, both located in an unassuming scruffy building. As we step through a narrow passageway into Yeager’s studio, a special world opens up of paintings, carvings, and sculptures amid ornate wood floors and windows and gold leaf trim. Apparently, this was once home to a guild of woodworkers, and now past and present come together, with Yeager’s art sitting comfortably next to his working and living spaces. Likewise, Entrekin’s studio is deceptively large and open (it was once a dance studio) and is filled with his many canvases. Both artists spur each other on, and their collective efforts bring community into an environment that can be hard to thrive in alone.
Further down 7th Street is Michael and Kathleen Seiler’s Studio, located in an old church. A row of “radical knitters” from the National Trail Knitters Guild sit outside, and it is easy to strike up a conversation with them about the past and present of Zanesville. The studio inside is airy and open. Here, I learn about the Seiler’s efforts to invest in their block with purpose: they bought several of the run down houses and are fixing them up to resell inexpensively to artists. They are transforming their neighborhood into an artist-led district of people committed to place and the creative life of renewal and revitalization.
We turn back and head north. Behind the old Clossman Hardware store sits Paul Emory’s studio, a back-alley brick building. Unassuming on the outside, we walk in and are greeted with a warmly-lit open room with paintings lining the exposed brick walls, a carved wooden snake bannister leading upstairs, Victorian architectural touches, and different music groups performing on each level. Emory is hard at work on a sculpture, what looks like a cabinet in the shape of a chicken. When I ask him about the buildings of Zanesville, he passionately describes his own struggles to purchase and preserve them, as part of a larger plan to revitalize the area. Like so many others, he dreams of places to work and eat and socialize, and wants to share these places with a larger public. Emory’s message, reiterated again and again by many others, is this: these places and the artists who work in them can’t stand on their own, but together they can. Just like the “keys” in the Old Quarter, the artists themselves, when working together, are crucial for building a new economy in town.
Our final stop is the Masonic Temple, an imposing, sturdy, six-story building on 4th Street. Inside it is festive and chaotic, full of artists from all manner of backgrounds. The mood is celebratory, and I sense something special here in all of its messiness. We meet a self-taught artist named Raymond, who, despite only painting for a couple of years is now being commissioned by a local bank to create public murals. We also meet a young artist name Hillary, a transplant from Kansas who is doing site-specific artworks in the alleys of Zanesville, bringing life to neglected spaces.
Walking to my car, I can’t help but think about both short- and long-term visions of Zanesville. At this moment, there seems to be a critical mass of diverse artists here working across many skill levels and mediums. It also feels like the community being made is just as important as the art. I relish witnessing the collective excitement and efforts to build spaces that both welcome visitors and strengthen ties between residents. The Zanesville artist community is helping to preserve the town and its traditions, yet is also open to new ideas and visions of how it can be in the future. Like many other people along the Winding Road, the artists here are forming a creative economy, one that we can all draw inspiration from.
About the author: Brian Harnetty is an AmeriCorps volunteer whose service is with The Winding Road network and Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area. Part of his work is to tell the stories of Appalachian Ohio, focusing on successes of small businesses, tourism, organizations, and local economies. He believes that listening to and telling these stories can help transform the region’s future.