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Camp Washington's art community is weird, wild and growing

Artists Mark Harris and Madeline Ndambakuwa chat next to a field of tulips spelling out "Let it Go!" just off Hopple Street in Camp Washington.
Nick Swartsell
Artists Ernie Loop and Nicole Weiss at Camp Stew, a collective arts studio in Camp Washington.

WVXU's Round the Corner series takes you into the heart of Greater Cincinnati's communities. This time, we're getting to know Camp Washington. WVXU's Nick Swartsell explores the neighborhood's grassroots arts community.

Hopple Street is a hectic place. Cars fresh off the highway stream through day and night, most speeding right past Camp Washington's business district. But on a recent Friday, right during rush hour's crescendo, a few dozen people sit just off the street in a grassy field. They're eating a meal prepared by a chef who immigrated from Cameroon, making art and enjoying poetry. Freshly blooming tulips spell out the words "Let it Go" with an exclamation point.

Artists Mark Harris and Carmel Buckley planted the tulips. It's the third art project they've made in the neighborhood. This one has deep ties to the community. There are stones around the flowers to keep people from driving over them. Those were dumped on the site during the construction of the neighboring bridge over I-75. And there's a more personal connection. Harris says the design was inspired by a woman staying nearby at Talbert House. She participated in a writing class put on by local gallery Wave Pool.

LISTEN: With industry out, artists move into Camp Washington

"If you see it from the Hopple side, it reads 'Let it Go,' which is Michele's phrase that she'd written when she was in the halfway house here in Camp Washington," Harris says. "We were looking through these diaries that the residents kept, and this page of hand-drawn letters, quite large, colored in, struck us as a great design for tulip-planting."

Wave Pool organized the dinner and planting as part of a series called Cincinnati's Table. The gallery includes a wood shop, ceramics studio and gathering space. It's occupied a historic firehouse on nearby Colerain Avenue for the last nine years. Founder Cal Cullen says Camp Washington is the perfect place for Wave Pool's experimental spirit.

"There were vacant buildings, and artists take up space," Cullen says. "So having affordable and available space is a huge plus, and I think a reason why a lot of artists and art projects end up here. Also, the people here are eager for just about anything to happen and excited to participate in maybe weird or interesting or strange things."

A perfect fit

Artists Ernie Loop and Nicole Weiss at Camp Stew, a collective arts studio in Camp Washington
Nick Swartsell
Artists Ernie Loop and Nicole Weiss at Camp Stew, a collective arts studio in Camp Washington

Wave Pool isn't the only space fostering creativity in the neighborhood. Just down Colerain from the firehouse, The Well offers programing that explores the connection between wellness and the arts. There are classes using music to promote mindfulness, poetry readings and a series called the True Body Project. The space is also open for art shows and meetings.

RELATED: Though Camp Washington struggles in some ways, it's 'still high energy'

And new spaces keep bubbling up. A little further down Hopple from the tulips, a group of artists calling themselves Camp Stew have been working in an old industrial building for the last six months. Painter and sculptor Ernie Loop says Camp Washington's character is a perfect fit for what the group is trying to do.

"I would say the industrial nature of Camp Washington makes it both affordable and also really meshes well with the ethos of The Stew, which is about a really unselfconscious and accessible place to be creative," Loop says.

The second-floor industrial space has comfy couches and places for painting, collaging and drawing. It hosts occasional movie nights and clothing swaps, but at its heart, it's a place where members have the space and freedom to enjoy the creative process without worrying too much about the outcome being profitable or popular. Photographer Nicole Weiss is another of the space's organizers.

"To have a space to come where you can just be as weird and outlandish as you want has allowed my art to go to a different level, I think," Weiss says.

RELATED: Camp Washington was vibrant before I-75 came through. Can it be that way again?

Wave Pool founder Cullen is wistful about her involvement. She recently accepted a new job outside the neighborhood and soon, someone else will be running Wave Pool. But Cullen says she's confident the community's creative spirit will continue to thrive. She notes the neighborhood's creative character isn't new — she can name a long list of galleries that came before Wave Pool in Camp Washington. Those spaces go back as far as the 1980s.

"I do think there's a heritage, and I think it's for those reasons I mentioned earlier, about it being available and convenient and central," Cullen says.

Nick has reported from a nuclear waste facility in the deserts of New Mexico, the White House press pool, a canoe on the Mill Creek, and even his desk one time.