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Good Mixture: How a Group of International Artists Transformed a Downtown Akron Plaza & Empowered Students in the Process


Category: Downtown Akron Blog

Photo: Tim Fitzwater

You can’t miss the geometric explosion of shape and color at the intersection of Broadway and University Avenue in downtown Akron—the series of overlapping parallelograms spanning the plaza with disjointed, distorted letters adorning nine three-dimensional forms that emerge towerlike from the ground. The space is flirtatious, inviting you to move within and through it, to play with perspective until you stumble upon just the right vantage point(s) for the letters on the forms to come together and seemingly float before your eyes. “If you don’t look back,” reads the air, “the future never happens.”

These are the words of former U.S. Poet Laureate and Akron Native Rita Dove, from her poem, “Dawn Revisited.” They are the words chosen democratically in 2018 by learners at Akron’s National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM Middle School, when asked by a group of international artists to decide what sentiment the art installation adjacent to their school should convey.

Photo: John Aylward

The Roots of Rubber & Boa Mistura

Named the Roots of Rubber, the artwork was commissioned in 2019 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NIHF STEM Middle School, and the site was chosen as an excellent opportunity to celebrate the school, engage the learners, and begin enacting recommendations from Copenhagen-based Gehl Studio, who conducted an 18-month-long study with Knight Foundation support that ultimately called for improved public spaces using art, light, and activity throughout the district.

The concept design for the plaza’s installation was inspired by the geometry resulting from the cuts on the bark of trees during rubber extraction and is completed with Rita Dove’s line of poetry. It reflects the city’s history as the former rubber capital of the world, while also asking us how we might reimagine Akron’s identity as we look to the future.

Photo: DAP Staff

Boa Mistura, the team of artists behind the work, is a Madrid-based multidisciplinary collective established in 2001 with roots in graffiti. The founders of the group met as teenagers and now travel to cities around the globe making large-scale art in public space. They were selected to create a mural on Akron’s STEM Plaza based on the team’s expertise with large-scale, dynamic installations; the level of community engagement involved in their efforts; and a unique anamorphosis technique that incorporates science and math principles into the work. 

Four members of the collective returned to Akron for two weeks this May to refresh the paint on the plaza and create another mural, Human, on the High Street parking deck. They had most recently completed projects in Miami and Fort de France, Martinique, before stopping in Akron and then returning to Madrid for a book launch commemorating their project, Ubuntu, which features fragmented installations of an entire work in 36 places around the world. 

Photo: Tim Fitzwater

When they first came to Akron in 2018, the Boa Mistura team had a number of ideas for how their artwork on the STEM Plaza could contribute to a more vibrant urban center. They approached the project with a range of goals, among them to highlight local identity, generate empowerment among the community, enable dialogue and discussion, encourage teamwork, create a landmark, and spawn a much-needed shift in perception. These were lofty, intensely optimistic goals to meet in such a short period of time, but miraculously and eventually, they did it.

Why It Matters

Before the Roots of Rubber, the STEM Plaza was a lackluster space—a mere stepping stone to a museum turned middle school. The concrete blended into the surrounding gray buildings, streets, and often, skies. Not to mention, the relative drabness of the plaza contributed to a feeling of disconnectedness and emptiness already established by vacant lots, steep hills, and a lack of inviting public space at eye level, all of which at times make building vibrancy in downtown Akron a literal uphill battle. 

Photo: Tim Fitzwater

In 2018, as DAP was on the cusp of intensifying year-round programming and public space improvements thanks to a multi-year grant from the Knight Foundation, only 73 percent of our annual survey respondents reported feeling satisfied or very satisfied with downtown safety. While this number may not seem abysmal at first glance, it is not particularly reassuring that more than a quarter of all survey respondents indicated feeling unsafe downtown, especially considering that new development and retail—desperately needed in downtown Akron—as well as actual and perceived safety, talent attraction and retention, sociability, walkability, and property value are all affected by how public space is designed and programmed.

By 2022, a handful of years into said year-round programming and public space improvements—including the STEM Plaza and a number of other spaces around the neighborhood—92 percent of survey respondents felt satisfied or very satisfied with downtown safety. Additionally, 41 percent of respondents indicated their willingness to walk more than three blocks from their car to a downtown destination (up from 28 percent in 2018), 96 percent of respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with downtown’s physical appearance (up significantly from 54 percent in 2018), and nearly $150M has been or is soon to be invested in building and public space renovations at the heart of Main Street.

This movement of renewed investment, improved connectivity, and increased vibrancy is the impact the Roots of Rubber, combined with other projects like it, can have on our city center. 

Photo: DAP Staff

Working with Learners

Even alongside international artists, the learners at NIHF STEM Middle School were arguably the most important players in the effort to reinvigorate the plaza and enact the work of art designed by Boa Mistura. After all, the work—much of Boa Mistura’s work, in fact—centers community engagement and prioritizes working in public space, using their art as a tool to transform cities and create links between people. The students at the school were instrumental in helping the project meet the goals outlined by the art collective.

NIHF STEM Middle School houses Akron Public Schools students in grades five through eight, all of whom are in attendance as a result of having their applications drawn from a lottery system. There are roughly 400 students enrolled, and their curriculum is built upon embracing a future that moves beyond 20th century learning. Students learn through problem-based modules in an environment that allows them to think, invent, communicate, inquire, and innovate. They partner with the nearby University of Akron and several downtown organizations to solve real-world problems and participate in the community.

Photo: DAP Staff

For two days in May, while Boa Mistura was in town, groups of students came outside hour after hour wielding paint rollers, a willingness to learn, a dedication to precision, and a nearly sacred excitement as they internalized a sense of ownership over the plaza they were painting. Many students protested when their hour to paint was up, not wanting to go to their next class, wanting to stay longer and keep filling the faded shapes with new life, wanting to leave their mark.

The group of students who first painted the kaleidoscope of colors on the plaza in 2019 has grown up, the youngest among them freshmen in high school and the oldest, nearing graduation. A few of them returned to participate in a community painting day this May while the artists were in town. 

Photo: DAP Staff

Harvon Hamilton is one of them. His feelings on the transformation of the plaza adjacent to his former school:  “This is an important piece for me; I was a student here when I saw something that was originally dull and gray turn into something beautiful. I think this artwork shows how beautiful Akron can be.” 

This shift in perspective experienced by Hamilton is just what the artists hoped to inspire. In a post-industrial time, Akron, like other cities in the Rust Belt, has suffered greatly from urban decline. A slew of complex factors has contributed to the dejected if not unfair perception that Akron is a lifeless remnant of the past—a place whose heyday has long since gone, a place where there is nothing to do and nothing to see, where there are more reasons to leave than stay.

Photo: DAP Staff

There is promise in Boa Mistura’s work, though, and promise in the community engagement they rely on. Work like theirs, as Hamilton reminds us, shows the people who live here—and people who might decide to live here one day—that there is color, life, and innovation in our city, that we can be proud of it, as proud as we are of our history of innovation and production. We can imagine ourselves awake with a second chance, asking ourselves how we would like our new day to unfold. We can look to the future. We can get up and see, as Rita Dove would suggest.

The plaza also reminds us we are capable of empowering ourselves to take ownership of our public spaces and, more largely, the community we live in. We do not need to wait for international artists to visit to make beautiful things happen in Akron.

Thanks to the collaborative process at the center of Boa Mistura’s work and the hope and agency it inspires, countless other students over the years will be able to feel this pride and power, to impact their school and community in a way that is beautiful and unifying.

Photo: DAP Staff


As a special treat, the Nightlight, a nonprofit, independent cinema located on North High Street in downtown Akron, hosted a screening of the art collective’s documentary, Crossroads, that depicts their adventures through Cape Town; São Paulo; Kibera, Kenya; northern Chile; a Syrian refugee camp; and a fishing village in the Dominican Republic. This screening was free and open to the public, and was followed by a Q&A session with the artists.

Through their journeys, they ignite inspiration, joy, and a sense of ownership, in much the same way they did while working on the STEM Plaza here in Akron. In its debut showing on U.S. soil, the documentary, filmed over the course of two decades, further demonstrates the transformational power art holds, especially when practiced in community.

Photo: Tim Fitzwater


On the final day of the artists’ stay in town, we celebrated. We placed jumbo chess and checker boards around the STEM plaza, arranged supplies for cornhole, played popular music through a loudspeaker, and secured 400 individual scoops of ice cream from Chill, a downtown ice cream parlor and sweet shop. Every student at the school received a free cup of ice cream specially curated by Chill to honor Boa Mistura and the students’ work at the Plaza and enjoyed the sprinkly, cake batter flavor while running in and out of the forms, throwing bean bags in the air, gathering for games of chess, line dancing, and marveling at the legacy artwork they created. Later in the afternoon, the celebration opened up to the larger community, who did the same.

Boa Mistura’s work in Akron is supported by Knight Foundation, Ohio Arts Council, Akron Community Foundation, GAR Foundation, the City of Akron, Akron Public Schools, and NIHF STEM Middle School.