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Showing an Unvarnished Picture of Cleveland to The RNC

group portrait
l. to r. Kate Sopko, Tanese Horton, Marvetta Rutherford, and Christina Vassallo

From the airport, to the lakefront, to Public Square, Cleveland has been spruced up for the RNC. But a group of filmmakers and community organizers says the pretty picture is not an accurate one.

In today’s State of the Arts, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman previews “The Fixers” film series.

Kate Sopko says she got the idea to make short films about what life is really like in Cleveland as soon as she heard that her city had won the Republican National Convention.

The lead artist of "The Fixers" film series calls her art “social practice work, work that creates human interactions.” 

The collage and installation art she has shown in local galleries has been evolving.

“I’d say that over the past six years, my art has been moving more into a social realm, being as much about facilitating an experience as it is about creating an aesthetic experience. So I’ve been convening people and setting up venues where we can sort of have a transformative experience together.” 

Kate Sopko
Kate Sopko is a visual artist who came up with the idea for "The Fixers" film series and served as its lead artist.

Deeper dialogue
It’s the kind of art she thinks Cleveland needs with Donald Trump and the Republicans coming to town.

"It seemed like a really important moment to bring together a lot of people to deepen the dialogue that would be created by the presence of the convention in Cleveland."

Sopko and the filmmakers she assembled for “The Fixers” project wanted every-day Clevelanders to be part of the conversation.

So they asked well-networked neighborhood residents to show them around.

“The central question that all of us have responded to, and mainly the fixers have responded to, is, ‘What tour of the city would you give RNC delegates if you had the chance?’ "

The collaborative art work of "The Fixers" will be screened immediately after the RNC, Monday night at the Bop Stop.

Helping to get the real story
Journalists often work with local guides or “fixers,” to take them to the heart of the story.

“They can immediately sort of answer the question of, like 'OK, I want this particular story,' so the fixer will like drive them everywhere. They will translate for them. They will say, 'Oh, these are all the people you need to meet and the places you need to go,’ so a journalist can get a story very fast.”

The filmmakers on Sopko's project are Robert Banks, Angela Beallor, Chelsie Corso, Elizabeth Press, Paul Sobota and Tom Laffay. All have Cleveland ties.

But they needed fixers to show them the ropes.

“It’s been a really lengthy process of talking to people around town who are policy analysts, journalists, organizers, activists about who are voices in our community that are doing amazing work that can show things that can tell us a lot more about where political priorities should lie.” 

Marvetta Rutherford
Marvetta Rutherford is a native of East Cleveland and a long-time resident of Cleveland who works for change in her community.

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A fixer’s story
“There should not be a tale of two cities, not in one city,” says Marvetta Rutherford of Cleveland.  She is one of the fixers.

“I’ve ridden public transportation for over 45 years,” says Rutherford in the narration of her film. “Cleveland has a long way to go to become a major metropolitan city when it comes to public transportation.”

Other riders she interviewed help underscore her point.

“I got to walk way up there, up the hill, when the No. 2 could pick me up right there,” a bus rider laments. 

“Right,” Marvetta concurs. “And they want to reduce the service. And you know where they’re going to reduce the service?” 

“In the inner city,” her interviewee quickly responds.

Rutherford has never appeared in a film before. She says she’s usually camera-shy, but she says Tom Laffay, the videographer she worked with, put her at ease.  “After a while I forgot that the camera was even going.” 

Disorienting changes
Rutherford forgets sometimes how to find her way in a city  transformed for the RNC.

“I got off of transportation one day downtown,” she says, “and I had to look around for a landmark. And I’ve lived here all my life.” 

Marvetta Rutherford has no doubt RNC delegates will get a positive impression of Cleveland. “Now, is it accurate? No. It’s a very white-washed variant of what this actual city is. And it’s going to be a shame that most convention go-ers are only going to see what has been presented for them.” 

She wishes they would take a ride on an RTA bus or train so they might  understand what it’s like for her.

“God forbid you call in to complain about something; they’ll tell you ‘Well, it’s the Cavaliers game,’ or it’s this going on, or it’s a movie going on.' And so I can only imagine what the riders are going to endure as the powers that be finally figure out how close they’re going to let them into downtown, and the many inconveniences that they’re going to experience on their way to the RNC.” 

Tanese Horton
Tanese Horton is one of the 25 site supervisors who work with the principals of troubled schools to bring community resources to children and parents with the help of United Way.

Multiple issues and a few solutions
Besides public transportation, other films in “The Fixers” series look at infant mortality, gang violence, and police- community relations.  All are problems in the city that have long been in search of solutions.

But one of the films is about how Clevelanders are working for better food options in the inner city. And another is about a woman with a passion for education who thinks her work is making a positive difference.

Tanese Horton is a site coordinator at Harvey Rice Wraparound School. She was hired under the new Cleveland Plan for school reform to connect children and parents with community resources.

“And we all communicate,” says her principal, in the film Horton helped make for “The Fixers” series.

“Everything from what’s going on there academically and what we can do to help out with what we notice with children’s behavior. We can immediately identify children, and call over.”

“Right,” says Horton, in the film.

“They’re on the way,” says her interviewee. “It’s just a whole different culture. Period.”

Her school and her neighborhood
Horton works in the re-purposed building where she was born. “It’s the old St. Luke’s Hospital. It’s awesome. It gives me goosebumps every time I think about; I have arrived in the place where I actually first took my first breath, and that is where I’m giving a lot of my energy to.”  

Horton also lives near Harvey Rice Wraparound School.  “I have a vested interest in my neighborhood moving toward a positive direction, and I understand that my school is a prominent piece of that puzzle.”  

“The Fixers” series has been screened at community gatherings since May, and the 5-minute films are also on view at SPACES, a contemporary art gallery on the Superior Viaduct in Cleveland's Flats.

One of the six films is always playing, and visitors can wear headsets to watch the others.

“We hope that they will have enough time to sit and let all of the films wash over them,” says Christina Vassallo, executive director of SPACES. 

Christina Vassallo
Christina Vassallo, Executive Director of SPACES, welcomed the film series as part of the gallery's focus this year on the concept of invisibility.

Art to counter invisibility
“The Fixers” lead artist Kate Sopko has shown her own art at SPACES. “And I’ve always really valued its role in Cleveland as a place that really encourages artists to experiment in new forms.” 

Vassallo says “The Fixers” series ties in with the SPACES theme for 2016: invisibility.  “Inherent in invisibility and a discussion of it is a discussion of power, who has power, who has access to power, and what are they doing with it.

"People like Tanese and Marvetta are doing the work that we often don’t see. We live in a great city, and we don’t always know the people who help make it great.” 

While the RNC works to, in Donald Trump’s words, “make America great again,”  Kate Sopko hopes that after the GOP clears out of Cleveland her film project will continue.

“It’s created a whole bunch of new relationships. We hope that that’s just the beginning actually, that each one of these films can open up a conversation about that specific issue or around how issues are connected in the city, around creative problem-solving, around how resources should be applied.” 

The film series will remain on view through the end of July at SPACES Contemporary Art Gallery in Ohio City.