By Renée S. Gordon
“Your imagination does not go blind.”
Selecting a travel destination can be a lot like choosing a date on a website. Do you go for the overwhelming flash of New York City, the sophistication of Paris or the glamour of LA? There are also those who opt for places with less obvious treasures that reveal themselves more gradually. Such a place is Columbus, Ohio, a cultural Mecca filled with enough attractions and events to keep you on the go. Best of all, a “date” with Columbus comes at an affordable price and is ideal for a family excursion.
Columbus is a city of distinctive neighborhoods, many historic, but we’re going to focus on the Discovery District created in 1989 in the downtown area. The Columbus College of Art and Design (CCAD), the Columbus Museum of Art (CMA) and Columbus State Community College (CSCC) bound this complex of cultural and educational organizations, historic churches and homes and outdoor artworks. Maps and information on cell phone tours are available online as well as information on walking tours published by the Columbus Public Health Department. www.discoverydistrict.com
A walkway connects many of the sites in the district and functions as a creative link between Columbus’ artists and its institutions. An 8-ft. bronze statue of Elijah Pierce, one of the city’s earliest renowned artists, stands on the corner of E. Long and Washington Streets. Pierce was born in Mississippi in 1892, the youngest child of a former slave. He began carving as a child under his uncle’s tutelage. By his early 20s he was married and earned his living as a barber. After the death of his first wife he took to the road but managed to earn a license to preach.
In 1923 he wed Cornelia Houeston and moved to Columbus. He carved her a small elephant as a birthday gift, she adored it and he promised to carve her an entire zoo. At this point he began to carve animals for sale and as gifts. Considered the greatest folk artist of his time, “The Book of Wood,” his most famous creation, was completed in 1932 and depicts carved episodes from the life of Christ. He died on May 7, 1984 after receiving international recognition and numerous awards. CSCC commissioned the Pierce statue that was sculpted by Steven Weitzman. It was installed in 2000 on the former location of his two-room barbershop and art gallery.
A massive mural, “A Street Called Home” by African American artist Aminah Robinson, can be viewed along the pathway that links the attractions. CCAD students painted the mural in 1997 at 480 E. Broad Street. Located at the opposite end of the area is the District’s iconic 100-ft. red metal A-R-T Sculpture. It sits astride Gay Street adjacent to CCAD.
The Columbus College of Art and Design is one of the country’s best-kept secrets. The 130-year old college is one of the oldest and largest art colleges with a 16 building 10-acre campus. The college fosters its belief in the power of design through a curriculum strong on the design arts and a series of outstanding public programs. Twice a year the student and alumni art sale and annual fashion runway show are held in the 10,000-sq ft public gallery with international participants. Tours are available upon request. www.ccad.edu
The largest festival in which CCAD participates is the Columbus Arts Festival. While this is held in June as Columbus summer kick-off activity, it is never to late too mention it or too early to plan for next year’s 50th anniversary. This free event draws several hundred juried artists chosen from a field of more than 1,000 international artisans. Mini-galleries line the streets, music and performance artists take to the stage, food vendors are arrayed around food courts and interactive activities take place throughout the grounds. Since 2006 it has been designated the “essential festival to attend” by American Style Magazine. This is really the place to purchase unique handcrafted items. www.columbusartsfestival.com
On January 1, 2011 the Columbus Museum of Art will reveal new thematic galleries and additional exhibition space. The museum’s permanent collection consists of late 19th and early 20th century art from artists such as Monet, Hopper, O’Keefe, Renoir, Matisse, Lawrence and Rockwell. Aminah Robinson, famed artist and author is featured there. The gift shop carries her award-winning book, “Elijah’s Angel,” an interfaith homage to the woodcarver and spiritual mentor. The museum also showcases the largest public collection, more than 300 pieces, of Pierce’s work. www.aminahsworld.org.
Visitors are welcome during the reconstruction and a full schedule of adult and children programs, including a children’s activity center deemed “The Wonder Room,” are both ongoing and in the planning stages. The museum strives to encourage a relationship with the artworks and it is successful. www.columbusmuseum.org
Topiary Park in Old Deaf School Park is the only topiary park in the world based on an artist’s work. The painting, Georges Seurat’s post-impressionist “A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte” is made of 3-dimensional sculptures, yew trees on handmade frames. There are 54 people, eight boats, three dogs, one monkey and a cat that can only be viewed when looking at the scene from the rear. The park opened in 1991 on seven-acres of land enclosed within a fence that dates from 1873. Seurat’s work was chosen for replication because of the sense of community it conveys. Admission is free. www.topiarygarden.org
The Columbus Historical Society focuses on all things that make Columbus a special place to live and work. You can drop in for information or to book one of the 90-minute narrated tours they offer twice a month from July through October. www.columbushistory.org
A few days away is the former home of one of America’s greatest humorists. The Thurber House and Museum was the residence of James Thurber from 1913-17 and was mentioned in many of his works. Interestingly the land housed a lunatic asylum in the mid-1800s. It burned to the ground in 1868 and the, reportedly haunted, Victorian house was constructed in 1873. During the tour take note of the plaques identifying each room with cartoons drawn by Thurber and text from his works, Thurber’s typewriter, letters, photographs and family memorabilia.
James lost the vision in one eye as child while playing William Tell with his brother. Later in life he lost all of his vision but could retain 2,000 words in his head as he edited his work and dictated the finished product. He wrote 32 books, five for children, and created numerous cartoons.
The Thurber House hosts a series of literary events including author’s readings. A “Wall of Fame” on the back stairs has autographed photos of participants including Toni Morrison, Garrison Keillor, Nikki Giovanni, Scott Turow and John Updike. www.thurberhouse.org
Columbus’ most notable Underground Railroad site is the Kelton House, 586 E Town St. The house was built in 1852 and was in the same family until 1975. Owner Fernando Kelton and his wife Sophia were active in the UGRR and the Kelton House is one of a handful of fully authenticated stops in the nation. It is also the only house museum in the city. The house is interpreted as a station on the UGRR and tours are regularly scheduled. www.keltonhouse.com/ugrrandkh.html
The Westin Columbus is a four-star, centrally located, historic hotel that is an ideal base for any visit to the city. Built in 1897 it was known as “showcase of the Midwest.” It has managed to maintain that reputation and today offers all the modern amenities and unequalled service and hospitality. The Thurber Bar has a full martini menu and is adorned with Thurber prints. Specials and packages can be found on the website. 310 High Street. www.westincolumbus.com
Make a date to discover the Discovery District. All the tools you need are found online. www.experiencecolumbus.com
I wish you smooth and surprising travels.
“The Black Past Remembered” is the best African American heritage website I have seen. You can enhance your trip with information from the site. Check it out. www.blackpast.com