Colleen Houston Paints Cincinnati’s Empty Walls


ArtWorks CEO and artistic director Colleen Houston is engaging community and beautifying the city one mural at a time.


Photograph by Tina Gutierrez

Why do you do what you do?

In school, I started studying feminist art and artists like the Guerrilla Girls who were really challenging notions that art belongs in institutions with white walls. So, I just really fell in love with this idea that art is a tool of our culture—it belongs to everyone.

How are you changing Cincinnati’s public art space?

When we started our mural program in 2007, there was one mural to speak of in the city—the [Homage to] Cincinnatus mural that was commissioned by Kroger. We’ve been a real leader in creating the public art world because there really wasn’t much of one.

What project are you most proud of?

There’s a lot of deep community engagement behind every single project. It’s not just art that’s placed there—there’s strong, authentic ties. Price Hill Will purchased a house that was sitting empty in East Price Hill. So, we brainstormed what a welcoming installation could look like, inviting the artists to consider every surface of the house as part of the installation. [The artists] employ some traditional Mexican folk art materials, cutting and painting tin, some cast concrete tiles. Also, the butterflies. Hundreds and hundreds of Monarch butterflies adorn the window boxes of the house [and] symbolize that migration is beautiful. There are so many hostilities across cultures; the art itself breaks boundaries.

When do you know you’ve made a difference?

When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of civic pride—a lot of kids couldn’t wait to leave Cincinnati. It’s been incredible to see people who move back and just value what an amazing place it is. It’s small things; it’s people thanking the artists, people changing their foot paths like, This is how I’m going to walk to work every morning now because I want to experience this beauty every day. Public art, it’s like a backdrop for life.

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