Local muralist Chad Watt remembers walking through the old pedestrian tunnel to get into the Toledo Zoo when he was about 10 years old and thinking of it as a canvas.
“I specifically remember touching the walls and thinking I would like to paint these,” he said.
Now at 38, the local muralist is returning to the almost-restored tunnel to do just that, as one of about 10 local and national artists who have been commissioned to paint one of the tunnel walls. The artists, who include local artist Ken Dushane and creators from Atlanta, Seattle, Detroit, Chicago, and other U.S. cities, will work on the public art piece starting Saturday.
When the last artist steps from the narrow tunnel Nov. 17, the entire 300-foot wall is expected to be covered with a street-art subway theme that, of course, will include animals. The original tunnel, a Works Progress Administration project that opened in the 1930s and closed in 1997, did not include artwork on its walls but was built with a New York subway feel, said Jennifer Van Horn, director of construction and planning for the zoo.
“The original WPA headhouse [main entrance on the south side of the tunnel] actually has a title that says ‘Subway’ on it. We wanted to go for the retro style of a subway,” she said. The $27,000 art project will cover the commission costs of the artists, their overnight stays in Toledo, and art supplies.
Ms. Van Horn said adding public art was a way to continue progress in the Old South End neighborhood and along the Broadway Street corridor, which in the last several years has experienced a renaissance of public art. Mr. Watt was among the groups of artists who helped produce more than a dozen murals along a half-mile stretch of Broadway, under the direction of San Diego artist Mario Torero.
For the art portion of the $3 million renovation project, the zoo contacted the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo, which in turn connected with local graphic designer, creative director, and curator Dustin Hostetler, a former Arts Commission board member who volunteered to curate the project.
“I grew up by the zoo, on Amherst; that was literally my stomping grounds as a kid ... so to be able to have an impact on it as an adult is really exciting to me,” Mr. Hostetler said. “My whole goal has always been to help the arts community grow in Toledo in any way I can, and, whenever possible, bring in out-of-towners to expose them to just how quirky and cool this place can be.”
A street-art themed project calls for street artists, and Mr. Hostetler put out feelers to the professional community. Those artists will have to wear masks and use industrial fans to help them breathe while they use spray paint in the closed-in space.
You won’t find a detailed artists’ rendering of the project. Rather, the artists were given a few theme guidelines — zoo, subway, street art, family friendly — and then will be given the liberty to create in their space, Mr. Hostetler said.
“You might have someone show up on the first day who does something unexpected, and that completely changes the tone and everybody else responds to it. Part of the exciting element of a project like this is only being able to visualize it so much, and then the surprise of the unveiled,” he said. “It’s really going to be a live event.”
Mr. Watt, whose street-artist name is Havek, said he and Mr. Dushane, also known as Phybr, have been given a stretch of wall at the entrance of the tunnel to paint a welcome to guests who get to either experience the tunnel for the first time or revisit a piece of their nostalgic past.
“It’s most definitely a unique project and a great opportunity to do something entirely different than what I usually do. And it’s great giving back to the community,” Mr. Watt said.
The tunnel’s other 300-foot wall will be covered in commemorative tiles that can be purchased by the public. The tunnel opens ahead of the Lights Before Christmas opening day on Nov. 23. Donors who already purchased a tile can enter the tunnel at 4 p.m., followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 5 p.m. that will officially open the tunnel to all.
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