Sidewalk Smart

By Felix Winternitz

Ron English, Over-the-rhine street artist, posing with original work. Photo Credit: Felix Winternitz

Ron English is busy dodging delivery vans and the odd streetcar when we first meet at the corner of 12th and Vine. It seems fated we’ll cross paths almost immediately three more times, once as he’s displaying his chalk art along Main Street during a Final Friday, then later on the crowded avenue outside the Pendleton Art Center, and finally sharing the Metro bus to Madisonville (on Jan. 20, 2019) where English is busy preparing to premiere his showing of paintings at the neighborhood’s community center.

“On the street outside” is a phrase that probably best describes this Picasso of the sidewalk set. He’s a longtime outsider looking inside the Cincinnati art world from a distance, a bad boy who inhabits the streets and corner stoops of OTR rather than the posh galleries of, say, a Mount Adams or Hyde Park.

“Hey, I know you!” English shouts at our last random meeting. It’s seems like karma has come calling, fateful crossings which demand a story on this outgoing street personality.

English, for his part, is happy to converse about painting: “My hand just starts to move, and I don’t know if I’m in control of it,” says English of his creative process. “It’s more like a dream.”

In a sit-down interview, Ron English appears animated and enthusiastic, prone to bold statements. English, in fact, is likely Over-the-rhine’s most visible street artist. His meandering home base can be found along Main and Vine adjoining the Liberty strip; his colorful chalk-on-cardboard canvas, however, proves universal …

“I want to believe in myself so that I can leave my legacy behind,” English remarks. “I want to live a life of honesty, righteousness, and in peace. … I have a dream of happiness and spiritual blessings, of a poor man’s honor, to achieve and thrive for growth, to form myself to be a very unique person.”

Ron English’s medium is plainly cardboard, chalk and colored pencils. He’s a vendor for the street-corner shoppers, selling his wares to make a living. His gallery is somewhere between the Brewery District in “NoLi” (North of Liberty) and the Gateway Quarter in “SoLi” (South of Liberty). English artfully crosses between these two districts, two distinct realms of Liberty that are worlds apart.

“I say you should be around people because you love them for who they are and not what they have,” states this artist, advocating – without any prompt – his unusual lifestyle; he gladly elaborates on his perceptions. “Love is the true power.”

Local artist Ellen Stedtefeld prizes the three English originals she owns: “I like the vibrancy of his pastels, but I like the precision of the colored pencils. Both have a great sense of energy and life.

“For my birthday, my sister and her boyfriend bought me three original artworks by Ron English,” continues Stedtefeld. “As I understand, English considers himself as an outsider artist as he has little to no formal training, but a strong desire to create.

“Like many outsider artists, he makes his work out of humble materials –cardboard, colored pencils and chalk pastels – and he sells them on the streets in downtown Cincinnati,” explains Stedtefeld of her fondness for the sidewalk art. “As the resident art expert in the family, I am often asked ‘Is that really art?’ and in the case of Ron English, I give a resounding YES.”

For an outsider, Ron English certainly has his fans. The Prairie Art Collective recently showed a selection of English’s pastel drawings on cardboard as well as a site-specific mural. As the reception announcement put it, “A well-known street artist, he’s seen showing his work on doorsteps and street-corners. English produces Cubist pastel drawings ‘inspired by the Lord.’”

The ebth.com web sales site currently lists this English original for $35: “An original triptych of marker and crayon drawings on found cardboard by contemporary Cincinnati artist English, (who) mainly produces Cubist figural drawings. These images depict stunning minimalistic abstracted portraits of three men drawn in black ink with subtle blue crayon accents. The pieces are titled Man, Man, and Lincoln.”

English even attracted the attention of well-known muralist Jan Brown Checco as part of a community project entitled the “Murals and Can-paign” project. The themes and images consisted of temporary murals created for the Vine Street corridor between Central Parkway and Liberty Street. The inspiration came from the hearts and minds of young people living in Over the Rhine. The workshop engaged 60 participants during five months at Peaslee Neighborhood Center, a convocation teaching the teens “to be more aware of the importance of public art and its responsibility to uplift life on the streets.”

Finally, there are these observations from the Intu Outsider Art web site, produced by a tag-team of area artists: “We drove down to Main Street bustling with the activities of the monthly Final Friday. We knew our destination. We saw Ronald English sitting on the stoop [and] was conversing with passers-by and had cardboard and his colored pencils. He waved excitedly and raised a framed piece as a flag.

“We parked and by the time we had gotten to the storefronts of Shadeau and Envoi, he had already made his way down the street. [English] said he had heard about ‘this website’ and said he wanted to sell the drawing he had done of a personality from American Idol. He said ‘it looks just like her ... it's Susan Boyle.’

“We purchased the work and began to pursue answers regarding his (recent) absence. He explained that he had been in the hospital for months recovering from the amputation of six more toes. He had previously had three removed, results of gangrene.

“We spoke about the direct or obvious transference of Ronald’s mood to the tone of the work. Choices in subject, tone, color, fragmentation, all appear as parallel.”

Ronald Leroy English was born in Cumminsville in 1955. He attended school here, won school spelling bees and excelled in sports, particularly basketball as a center. He mentions that he has a “bunch” of brothers and sisters as well as half-brothers and sisters. English says he served in the Army National Guard, according to one online artist’s biography. During the time he was away in National Guard service, his mother was murdered. English says he returned to discover he had no remaining possessions or a home. He’s since lived on the streets, experiencing the desperation associated with substance abuse.

English has participated in art projects sponsored by behavioral services associated with mental disease. His various projects have linked him with Visionaries and Voices, the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, and Our Daily Bread.

English says he actually began drawing in the late 1990s. He was staying in a room with the door open and he woke up to see paint cans in the hallway. It’s exactly as one onlooker observed, amid the crowd at the Pendleton Art Center: “That was his moment of discernment, his lightning-bolt flash of percipient insight.”

(Cincinnati’s English, by the way, is not to be confused with the better-known artist Ron English, a nationally known figure who coined the term “POPaganda” to describe a trademark fusion of high and low imagery, mixing superheroes and comic strips with art history iconography in a prolific output of paintings, billboards and sculptures.)

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