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The Interview: Mandi Caskey

The first time I met Mandi Caskey was three years ago—in an abandoned steel factory on the southside of town. She instructed me via text to climb through a hole in the fence on the outskirts of the property, hobble through the prickly August underbrush, climb the stairs, and meet her on the second floor [...]
Danny Hamen

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The first time I met Mandi Caskey was three years ago—in an abandoned steel factory on the southside of town. She instructed me via text to climb through a hole in the fence on the outskirts of the property, hobble through the prickly August underbrush, climb the stairs, and meet her on the second floor where she was working on her latest piece.

At five-feet-tall, she was a small splash of color in the grey expanse of expired industry, her dress patterned with bright yellow sunflowers; her combat boots paint-speckled, her smile freckled. Just 21 at the time, she was already well acquainted with the art of trespassing, cutting her teeth as a muralist in one of the largest free practice spaces in the city.

She was finishing up a naturalist-inspired mural based off of a black and white photograph of her grandmother drinking a glass of water, immortalizing her family member on the factory wall alongside scattered gang signs, graffiti lettering, and crudely painted phalluses. To me, this juxtaposition was intoxicating. Three years later, I still go back to that very same spot, her mural now crossed out by vandals, replaced with swear words and swooping grey circles. In a way, the impermanence of her work added a unique layer of beauty—a transformative expose of the temporal nature of art.

Back then, she went by the moniker Little Miss Birdy. For one, the majority of her early work was highly detailed murals of colossal birds painted in abandoned locations around the Midwest. Secondly, because most of her work was illegal, she needed a pseudonym. And thus, Birdy was born.

Caskey is the epitome of the starving artist success story—a CCAD dropout who used her intrinsic talent and social media savviness to gain success, debunking the constructed narrative that you need tens of thousands of dollars to make it as an artist. She has been commissioned to create murals by the city in government buildings, by eccentric millionaires for personal outdoor collections, and by an array of businesses—large and small—to create something beautiful, to give their brand a voice. Through her own craftiness, diligence, and skill, Caskey has climbed through the ranks and become one of the most sought after artists in the city.

What does the sobriquet Miss Birdy mean to you? Where did it come from?

When I was three years old, I was attacked by a bird roughly my same size … when I moved to Columbus in 2012, I had a dreadful phobia of birds. When my peers found out about my kryptonite, they were brutal. They illustrated me as a bird, squawked at me from across the campus and eventually started calling me … Birdy.

Around the same time, I was transitioning from “academic fine artist” into a “street artist.” During this period I was realizing my full potential, harnessing all of my fear and dispelling it. The larger and faster I started painting, I found that birds became the perfect image to explore. I didn’t realize it then, but painting giant birds onto walls was actually giving me the power I needed to defeat my fear.

So that is where Birdy came from—tell me about where Mandi came from. Were you a happy kid? Did art envelop you as a child?

I grew up lost in middle America, a.k.a Lima, Ohio. Living in a ranch-style house tucked in a neighborhood that had no kids my age gave me a great sense of self adventure and exploration. My teachers didn’t know how to interact with me as a child, so they placed me on a rainbow variety of medications for concentration. They even placed me at a desk facing the wall for a full year, completely excluding me from my classmates. That feeling of isolation forced me experiment with ways to express myself without being harshly judged or labeled as an outsider. That is when I discovered drawing. Art class didn’t start getting interesting until high school. I finally found the teachers that understood the way that I looked at the world and pushed me to achieve goals I never thought I would have. [They] both gave me the fundamental foundation to my artistic knowledge and became like family, especially after my father died in 2008. My dad was my biggest fan—he would always tell me how proud he was of my work. It was that year that I officially decided to become an artist. I know that’s what my father always wanted for me. Reflecting on my childhood, I see a very observant, rebellious, goofy kid that just wanted to create something memorable.

Did you feel defeated dropping out of art school, or did you know that it was the only way for you to succeed?

Art school, art school, art school … going into art school and dropping out were both necessary actions to my path to success. As we learn and develop, we start consciously and unconsciously visualizing our future, tracing imaginary paths to the outcomes of our standing position. I remember sitting in my small one bedroom apartment in Olde Town East, smoking weed, and visualizing that very future. I wrote down my current position and the many outcomes in which it holds. I didn’t like what I saw. I was 20. I wasn’t producing the work I should have and nothing seemed to fit. So, this little Birdy decided it was time to stop cold turkey. There was two weeks left in the last semester of my sophomore year. I was on the President’s list and had a very good reputation with the school when I completely stopped going, I didn’t turn any projects in. I didn’t say a word to my teachers. Even though I had everything done, I just couldn’t see any point leading my life in that direction anymore. Sure, I felt defeated, but used street art as a way to build that artistic confidence back.

When did you first realize that this was something beyond a hobby—a way to make a living?

I don’t ever recall a time where I needed or wanted validation for what I was doing as an artist, I just wanted to do it and do it well. This decision is never easy, and hands down the riskiest thing you can do as a young professional with no money saved up and only a small reputation as an artist. In 2015 I was just a waitress, a coffee maker, a person that worked a normal job. As I looked at myself, I started to realize I was putting so much of my time and effort into these jobs that didn’t define me. Being Mandi Caskey, the nice girl that served tomato basil at Brioso, wasn’t enough for me. I knew that if I jumped in I’d have to start swimming. There never was nor ever will be a backup plan. I never found the right time to drop out of art school and I never found the right time to quit my jobs to start my own business. Just doing it made sense at the time.

What inspires you to create? What excites you?

Most of my work is fueled by emotional havoc, whether its inner turmoil or a reflection of my surroundings. Creation is the only way for me to process my existence. It may sound lame or cliche, especially given I’m no savant, but the struggle with making art is the only thing that has never let me down. I’m always learning and expressing myself in different ways. I gather a mixed breed of ambiguous perceptions and recreate a feeling. Up until two years ago my work was purely selfish. It was always something I wanted to do for myself and if you didn’t like it, you didn’t have to look at it. As I mature, so does my attitude toward creating art. I learn my audience and the individuals I’m speaking to. I want my viewers to engage in a conversation with the work, place themselves in a vulnerable state and to receive unguided honesty. Now that I work more in the public realm, it’s extremely important for me to understand culture and human nature.

What would you say your art says about you as a person?

As a traditional painter and artist, I don’t create prints and I won’t recreate a piece the same way a second time. I believe this depicts me as a very honest and blunt person. Anyone that knows me personally understands that I wear my heart on my sleeve but I’ll be the first person to take off your rose-colored glasses. When the work is good, I’m happy and inspired. When the work is lacking, I become extremely introverted and my confidence plummets. As I think about it, I realize that I’m never the person that influences the art, the art has always influenced me. If I don’t finish something, I won’t sleep. If something isn’t good enough, I won’t stop until it is. Or I will start over. I hold my work to a very high standard because as an artist my biggest fear is leveling out and not progressing. There are a lot of people in this city that have been working to make public art more of a movement instead of an accessory. I feel like Mandi and Birdy stepped in at the perfect time to make arguments and point fingers at the things that need to change in order for the contemporary mural movement to live and survive in Columbus. I will always continue to push our cities art scene, with honest, unfiltered passion.

What projects are you working on now?

Currently, I’m working on three  private commissions, several mural proposals to go up in downtown Columbus, a collaboration with an international artist, a proposal for a solo show in Fort Wayne, a collaboration show with Ruth Award at 934 Gallery, a three-month residency to do three large scale murals in Lima, Ohio, a collaboration with a stalwart in the fashion industry, (I can’t name names yet,) was just nominated and chosen to be on the Create Columbus Commission, a mural in Cleveland, and several murals in Louisville, KY. These are the things for 2018 so far, and I would really like to force myself to make more work for me this year. I find myself going through that very familiar transitioning point. I can tell that it’s really a good year to work on self-reflection and my artistic needs. So stay tuned for some weird shit … 

You can see Caskey’s work on the top floor observation deck of the Rhodes Tower and at the Open Air Art Museum at The Inn at Honey Run in Lithopolis. To find more of Caskey’s work, visit her website birdyco.com and follow her Instagram at @miss.birdy. 

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Former OSU player starts career as Columbus Firefighter

614now Staff

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Former Buckeye and New Orleans Saints running back running back Antonio Pittman is trading the pads and helmet of the gridiron for a fire hose and a...different helmet in his new career, according to ABC6.

https://twitter.com/mariawsyx6/status/1228415062051819520?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed&ref_url=http%3A%2F%2Fabc6onyourside.com%2Fnews%2Flocal%2Fformer-ohio-state-nfl-running-back-opens-new-chapter-as-a-columbus-firefighter

Having recently graduated from the Columbus Fire Academy, Pittman is now on his first week on the job at fire station 12 on the city's west side.

A native of Akron, Pittman played for Ohio State from 2004 to 2006, and was part of the number 1 ranked team that defeated number 2 Michigan 42-39 in the "Game of the Century."

Pittman was then drafted by the New Orleans Saints, but was forced to retire from the NFL following a persistent knee injury.

"My goal was just to play football and honestly, I did that. And the dream was to have a ten-year career and to retire at 32 years old and be off in the sunset and just living comfortably. But you know, plans change and in life, you have to adapt to the change," Pittman told ABC6.

"My goal was to one day give back to a community, a city that's given me so much. A city that changed my whole outlook on life as a kid growing up in Akron."

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The Rest Is History: Couples in Columbus share their stories of falling in love

Mitch Hooper

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Illustration by Sarah Moore

If Hollywood would ever pick up a romantic comedy about a couple falling in love in Columbus, how would it look? Would it be an epic story ending in an intimate proposal on the Scioto Mile, or two strangers bumping into each other at the Varsity Club on game day?

Funny enough, both are very plausible.

This month, we wanted to answer the question: what do love stories in Columbus look like? And what we found is sometimes love stories don’t happen in Columbus; instead they happen because of Columbus. While some folks were high school sweethearts who rekindled the flame, others struck up conversation in countries far away just because they shared the same ZIP code. In part, where you’re from shapes who you are, and for these couples, the capital city holds a special spot in their hearts. And, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Rachel Grauer and Aaron Guilkey

Aaron and I first met in the early 2000s at Eli Pinney Elementary in Dublin. He was my first boyfriend in fourth grade and broke my heart on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger, for the young folk). We didn’t speak a word to each other all of high school, thank you high school social hierarchy. I went on to OU and he to OSU. We reconnected after college while on a bar crawl in the Short North and the rest is history. We are getting married September 2020!

Lauren Sheridan and David Tripp

All of this is true: We met at a Clippers baseball game. It was a team outing for work. I worked with his mom and she was setting us up. This story is meant to be a complete disaster. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Our first o cial date was at 16-Bit, where we would take our engagement pictures over two years later. He lived in Arizona for 10 years before moving back to Columbus in 2016. It’s been fun reintroducing him to the city, especially our food and beer scene. I can’t imagine having these adventures with anyone else.

Misty and Erin Dickinson

We met at Rendezvous Hair Salon, where she is a hairstylist. Then we spent time together at Drauma at the Bluestone, followed by a night out for a Nina West show at Axis complete with dinner at Union and after party drinks at Macs. We were with my friends and I o ered to walk her to her car which had been towed because, well, Columbus. I stayed with her until we finally found her car at 3 a.m. We started hanging out a lot after that while we both swore we were “just friends”! Almost five years later and we are back in Columbus after a two year move to Tampa. We married (twice, but the story will be way over 100 words! Second time at LaNavona), and have a thousand Columbus stories. Columbus is our home. The place we love and always come back to. There is no place like it.

Kellie Anne and Carl Rainey

I moved to Columbus from LA in 2014 and met my now-husband a month after the move. We found out quickly that we were both California sports fans and went on our first date on Halloween. Lakers vs. Clippers was on the TV at the bar, so we made a bet and the loser had to pick up the tab. My Clippers beat his Lakers, so he had to pay up. We’ve been inseparable ever since. We got married March 23, 2019, and I’m so happy to call Columbus my forever home now!

Daniel Custer and Jenny Harris

I met Jenny on a wine cruise in Santorini, Greece. I saw her from across the pier before we boarded and knew I wanted to chat her up—she was gorgeous. She and her friends sat by me on the catamaran and we began telling one another where we were from. When it got to Jenny, she said she was from Columbus. I said, “Where?!” and she said “Grandview!” We spent the rest of the weekend together, along with the past three years.

Brittany and Ethan Monk

We met as employees at Scioto Country Club in UA. He was a broke server and I was a broke student working as a hostess. We spent many holidays away from family but with each other. We are complete opposites that were impossibly attracted to one another. We married and have 2 children. Still opposites—I work in clinical research and he is a musician and stay-at-home dad. We both have made Columbus our home!

Nicole Erdeljac and Andrew Crowell

We spent the day (separately) at the 2019 Memorial Tournament and were hanging out at the Bogey Inn afterwards. He was standing at the bar and I was behind him, waiting to be served. His friend kept accidentally hitting my shoulder while trying to reach over me to get his attention. I was visibly annoyed when he asked me to tap him. But, I did. We spent the rest of the night dancing to the live band and had our first date a week later at the Columbus Arts Fest, once again, dancing to the live sounds of Anderson East. The rest is history!

Tracie Lynn and Adam Douglas Keller

It was one month to the day after my mother had lost her battle to cancer in 2007. It was one of my favorite nights for being out in Columbus—Red, White, and Boom. After my sister’s and my friend’s group persistently encouraged us to go out for fireworks and time with friends, we agreed. We needed something light and fun. What could possibly come of that?

I’ll never forget the moment that I made eye contact with this handsome, tall and smiling man. He had happened to be out with a mutual friend of our group. We made small talk, listened to live bands, and, well—the rest is history. Nearly 13 years later, we now have two great kids, two dogs, and a rich, full life in Columbus. This is the city we met in, and the one we made a life in. I couldn’t ask for a better love story.

Rebecca Scha er and Peter Yeager

We met at Ledo’s, the first bar on our OSU senior bar crawl list. Flash forward 12 hours later at World of Beer, we bumped into each other again and he handed me a raw russet potato with his name and number written on it in Sharpie. Super weird and random but it did the trick. I called him my soul mate to his face that night. Last winter he took me around town. We stopped at both those bars, reminiscing about our time together. He asked me to be his wife in the middle of the same World of Beer where he gave me that first potato, hiding the ring in a large toy Mrs. Potato head. There’s no other way I would have liked the beginning of our story to go.

Victoria and Ryan Metzinger

I met my amazing husband in Columbus on a blind date set up by mutual friends (sounds very 1995, but it was actually 2011). He suggested a casual drink at Grandview Cafe and I upped the ante for dinner at Third & Hollywood. We continued to Spagio and ended at Grandview Cafe and the rest is history! Now, with two beautiful boys, our WiFi network will always be labeled “Third and Hollywood” as an ode to the perfect setting for a first date. We also visit the restaurant every year on our anniversary and it will never lose its luster.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Author Saeed Jones

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Saeed Jones has traveled across the country promoting his new memoir and chosen Columbus for his own next chapter.

Author and new Columbus transplant Saeed Jones finally has a break after wrapping up his 16-city tour to promote his new memoir How We Fight for Our Lives. It’s a book that isn’t solely about his past, but is designed as an earnest conversation with readers. The book succeeds Jones’ previous poetry collections and a stint as Executive Editor of Culture at BuzzFeed, and is already receiving numerous honors and highly- publicized acclaim.

“It took a long time to write the book, almost a decade. So, I had a lot of time to think about writing it [being] one thing, but when you publish it, it becomes something different. I tried not to think so much about other people and the audience, but I think I trusted that if I could write to myself sincerely [and] candidly, that would be a bridge for other people,” he said. “It’s like you’re encountering someone when they just had a transformative experience. Something that’s really important for me in my writing is the cost of silence and the ways we silence ourselves. I think it’s powerful—as a writer, with the fortune I’ve had in my career—for people to be like, ‘I’m going through it’, and for me to be one more person who goes, ‘Me too.’”

Though some authors intend to tell their stories later in life, Jones wanted to focus his story on the time period from his upbringing in Texas through his mid-twenties to capture a specific ethos that informed his narrative. Concerned that segments of his life would become deemed irrelevant to readers, he found the immediacy of the news sparked him to publish the book sooner than later. Soon after Jones considered writing in detail about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, which shifted the LGBTQ+ conversation, the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting occurred.

“Whenever I would get a little hard on myself about the book’s intentions, it felt like America would go, ‘We gotta do this now,’” Jones said. ”Everything’s not perfect but a lot has changed from 1998. [While writing,] I was like, ‘I don’t know if it’ll be a perfect book, but it’s gonna be the book that I want and need now.’”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

After his mother’s passing in 2011, Jones is attentive to their relationship in How We Fight for Our Lives, endearingly dedicating the book to her even after a moment of uncertainty that occurred when he came out. In spite of having a vibrant relationship with his mother, Jones jokes that the two weren’t able to naturally discuss sexuality. Promoting the memoir before Thanksgiving, Jones mentions that some LGBTQ+ readers confided in him about their own awkward conversations with family.

“Sure, it’s important for us to write about clear and present danger, whether that’s police brutality, homophobic or racially-driven violence, [but] I think that it’s also important for us to pay attention to the more subtle hurts that come to define us. Sometimes those hurts are a result of failings; loved ones who just can’t support us because they’re like ‘I don’t get it’ and they kind of give up,” he said. “My mom was working two jobs, so a lot of times she was just tired. She was like, ‘Sorry, we can’t have a heartfelt conversation today, I gotta go to my second job.’ That had an impact on me, and I know that has an impact on a lot of other people in those moments. In any meaningful, long-lasting relationships—certainly family relationships—it is going to be complicated. If you don’t have multiple colors in how you’re thinking about that relationship, the truth is that something is being deadened, something is being intentionally or unintentionally ignored or silenced.”

An avid reader of works by Margaret Atwood and Audre Lorde, Jones recognizes a similar urgency from his memoir through his influence James Baldwin, admitting to reading his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room repeatedly, revisiting it at different points of his life to gain a new perspective. Identifying with different characters each time, Jones focused essentially on Baldwin’s deconstruction of queerness and social dynamics, which intersected American politics with racial identity. “[Baldwin] wasn’t going to pretend that there was this monolithic Blackness. He wasn’t just going to pretend that there weren’t Black men—who he was advocating for in terms of civil rights— who weren’t homophobic. He was like ‘We’re gonna do all this together’” Jones said. “He’s drawing from his background in Christianity, but he’s changed; he’s not practicing his faith in the same way. He [was] just doing a very good job of showing how we’re in flux and that it’s natural and better to embrace that. I feel like that set me up to start paying attention.”

Habitually enthusiastic about settling in Columbus (or what he calls “the promised land”), Jones speaks gleefully about The Great Migration and Ohio boasting essential Black authors—Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacqueline Woodson, Hanif Abdurraqib and Toni Morrison. While he notes that Black authors have thrived

in Ohio through a formidable writing scene, in How We Fight for Our Lives, Jones touches keenly on the fragility of Black life. Days prior to our conversation marked the one-year anniversary of the death of 16-year-old Julius Tate, who was shot by Columbus police during a sting operation.

“If we’re able to villainize people we have wronged—and Julius was certainly wronged—it eases the rhetoric of brushing the wrong aside,” Jones said. “It happens so often and so much of our culture grooms all of us to move on. I’m not the one to say what justice for Julius and for Black people impacted by that violence looks like, but I would love to hear it. I have no interest in telling people to be quiet. I’m a writer, so I think a lot about editing and revision, and how you polish and the drafts you don’t want people to see. Cities are text, too.”

While Columbus continues to be a work in progress through systematic tensions, Jones is embracing the city’s tangible LGBTQ+ scene after residing in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco. In support of the Black Queer & Intersectional Collective, he attended the Columbus March for Black Trans Women in November, where he felt a sense of cohesiveness within the city. “I feel like the march was a great example of waking me up—unsurprisingly, it’s easier for cisgender gay men to live and feel embraced here than Black trans women in Columbus,” Jones said. “The stakes are high, but it feels possible. Here it feels like, ‘start reading up, go to that march, talk to people,’ as opposed to ‘here’s the finished story.’”

With a story far from over, Jones reveals that his next life work is to write about joy to balance the scales with his past struggle within How We Fight for Our Lives. Avidly writing about pain and loss, he vows to dabble into more written frameworks outside of his comfort zone. “I feel like I’ve written about myself so damn much, maybe learning to write in other forms—fiction—would be fun. I want to learn more, I feel that’s when I’m most alive, when I’m learning and realizing that I’m learning,” he said. “That’s when I feel fully present as a person, not when I think I know the beginning, middle and end.”

Follow Saeed Jones on Twitter and Instagram at @theferocity.

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