By Dedra Cordle
A sense of sadness would come over Patti Von Niessen as she neared the racquetball courts at Westgate Park.
There, on the west face of the wall, held a beautiful piece of artwork by Aaron Grover that she enjoyed.
It was colorful, playful and dedicated to the children and the community who find joy on its grounds.
But surrounding that piece of art was rusting concrete and a patchwork of white paint to cover past tagging incidents.
“The rest was just miserable looking,” she said.
It was a sentiment that many in the community shared.
Feeling the need to do something about the 80 percent miserable wall, Von Niessen and the rest of the Summer Jam team began brainstorming ways to spruce up its look in time for this year’s Summer Jam Music and Arts Festival.
After a long discussion, they came to a consensus: commission a muralist to make the rest of the wall as joyful as the piece by Grover.
In the summer of last year, the team sent out a request on artist websites for sketches that only required two things. The first requirement was that the sketch meet the theme for this year’s festival – The Fantastic Food Garden. And the second, but most important, requirement was that the sketch became an extension of Grover’s artwork.
Von Niessen, the executive director of Summer Jam, said they received many great sketches, but the rendering by Upper Arlington artist Danielle Poling stood out amongst all the others.
“We just fell in love with her idea and her artist statement,” she said.
In August, Von Niessen brought Poling, who is widely known for her Sunwall-Moonwall mural in Clintonville, to the site of her latest transformative project.
Like Von Niessen, Poling felt a sense of sadness looking at the wall.
“It was this bare concrete wall with rust stains and graffiti and a mural that was so pretty, but you would never know how great it was because it was left in a corner surrounded by a truly ugly wall,” said the Dayton native.
But beyond the sadness came a sense of determination to make that wall live up the potential left by Grover.
Poling, an art teacher with the Upper Arlington City School District, said she became somewhat obsessed with this mural.
“I would wake up and think what colors I would use,” she said. “I was impatient to get started.”
In mid-June, she did just that.
After priming the wall, Poling began to bring her sketch to life. She drew and painted pumpkins, tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries, squash, melons, corn, carrots and peppers. She added ants, bees, birds, butterflies and the Hungarian Partridge that has been spotted in Westgate Park. She even incorporated sunflowers, wildflowers and dahlias that would soon be filled in with the handprints of children in the community.
Von Niessen, who has visited Poling at the site almost daily, said watching the mural come to life has been an absolute pleasure to witness.
“It’s like going into a candy store where each day there is new piece of candy for you,” she said.
She said that she believes Poling’s work will further the conversation on the importance of art in the community as well as the importance of healthy eating.
“The Hilltop is something of a food desert,” said Von Niessen. “There are so few grocery stores around here.”
She said she hopes The Fantastic Food Garden will inspire people to start their own backyard garden or experiment with healthy foods.
Poling said she thinks that has already happened.
As she was in the lift painting one morning, a grandmother and her grandchild came over to get a better look at the mural. As they were gazing at all of the fantastic food, the child asked what those huge purple things were at his eye level.
The grandmother said that they were eggplants and asked if he had ever tried them.
When he said no, the grandmother said they were going to go to the store, buy an eggplant and have it for dinner that night.
Poling said overhearing that conversation brought home how much looking at a piece of artwork can inspire someone to do or try something they have never done before.
As the end of the project nears, Poling said she is filled with excitement and nerves for the public unveiling and dedication on July 12.
She said she wants the community to find as much happiness in looking at this mural as she has found undertaking the project.
“I just hope it brings people a little bit of joy.”
The public dedication for The Fantastic Food Garden will take place on July 12 at 6 p.m. at Westgate Park, near the racquetball court. Poling will also be attending the Summer Jam Music and Arts festival, which will take place at Westgate Park on July 16 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.