YSU Jambar Column: The Arts are Where it’s at in Youngstown

By Jillian Smith

Growing up, Youngstown, for me, held the same academic curiosity as the one time I watched a tarantula start to digest a fly from behind the glass of a pet store tank. Interesting, gross, but safely removed enough from myself so as not to impact me too much.

I was taken aback when I was forced to confront this strange Youngstown world while on assignment for the Yo!Mag during my freshman year. My task: track down and cover a mythical figure of Youngstown lore, the artist James Pernotto.

A hidden studio, perched atop a rather colorful gentlemen’s clothing store in the heart of downtown, would house what was my first exposure to the secret world of Youngstown artists. Dominating the space amongst scattered Rorschach type pencil sketches and steel pyramid sculptures hung a huge mural painted in bold reds. It was entitled: The Passion — a stylized image of Youngstown’s steel-producing skyline interposed with a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Pernotto was one of these bohemian Youngstown art people who managed to keep a tiny quivering heartbeat of the creative culture in the city alive. They faithfully put brush to the canvas while crime raged around them, while the river near them was condemned with a no-contact ban, while I went “urban-spelunking” in the abandonded Theater next door.

I returned to Youngstown last year, after having left to pursue the sorts of cultural amenities that bigger cities had to offer. But whatever this place is that I have come back to; it is remarkably different from the one I left. Youngstown truly is in the midst of a renascence, and the artists are some of the ones leading its charge.

The Youngstown I have returned to is one that is pulsating with creative energy, electrified with this artistic passion that constitutes a zeitgeist, unlike anything I could have predicted.

This city I once considered the cultural outpost of a few eccentric painters hit me with the full force of its deep bench of creative talent when I attended what was billed as a “Discussion about Art in Youngstown,” at a new nonprofit private art gallery in downtown, called the Soap Gallery.

Here, bohemian artists old and new met and discussed issues surrounding the arts. They were all finding innovative ways to connect art in Youngstown with business, science, food and economic opportunity. There were elected officials, university faculty, community organizers and these incredibly dedicated and talented artists.

There is this cultural ecosystem of creativity beginning in Youngstown, with art quickly becoming one of our greatest assets. It’s being led by people who have stopped asking, “where is the opportunity,” and are instead asking, “How can I use my talents to create opportunity?”

These brave, passionate and maybe weird souls are my favorite cultural attraction in Youngstown. YSU students I implore you to meet them, explore their work and get to know the world class artistic talent that exists in our backyard.