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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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Coronavirus

Penzone shares: what to expect with salons

Julian Foglietti

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With the closing of Hair Salons on March 18th, buzz cuts and bowl cuts have made an appearance on the heads of Ohioans, young and old. Luckily for those desperate for a do, Dewine has announced that hair salons may begin to reopen on May 15th. To guide us through the transition, I spoke with Debbie Penzone, President and CEO of Penzone Salons, about serving on the Governor's salon advisory board, dealing with the business effect of the virus, and what we can expect from hair salons moving forward. 

I understand that you served as the chair of the Governor's committee board regarding reopening salons. What did you do in that role? 

On the committee, my role was pulling from my experience as a cosmetologist and business owner to assemble a group of individuals that represent our business in Ohio. We had everyone from 10 person salons to one person barbershops. braiding salons and nail salons, to schools and three health commissioners. From there, the job was building an agenda and listening to members while consulting health professionals on how to expand upon existing sanitation guidelines.  The Ohio State Board of Cosmetology has been enforcing for years. Beyond that, it was a lot of keeping time, guiding the conversations, gathering information and reporting it.  We also wanted to build plans if something did happen in a salon, and make sure that everyone could abide by these practices so we can remain safe and open.

In what ways has the virus caused you to rethink the way salons will function moving forward?

One of the things we did was go through a COVID specific certification process with Barbicide, which produces a lot of the sanitation products already used in salons and barber shops. A lot of people don’t realize that in the Ohio Administrative Code, there are very specific sanitation guidelines that you have to follow when you get your license, and there is a major component of constantly learning new sanitation practices all the time. The main difference you’ll see is us taking that sanitation to the next level: social distancing between booths, or barriers put in place, as well as reduced capacities in many salons. There will be more emphasis on reducing contact points and sanitizing things like doorknobs and counters as well. The biggest change will be the way we interact with our clients. We're a very emotional industry. We’re huggers, and we’re very close with the people we work with. Our clients are like family to us, so having to distance ourselves and not engage in that way will be different. 

What has been the greatest challenge to overcome over the past months? 

It’s really been adapting to the constant change we're all facing. We might spend all this energy sharing with our team new knowledge, but the next week it will change again. It’s been difficult to coordinate and continue to train everyone and update them with the new practices, as well as provide support for them while we're all distanced from each other. We're all scared right now, and it’s important to not lose our community so we can give each other confidence in the direction we’re heading in.

What have you witnessed over the past few months that gave you hope?

The biggest hope for me was serving on this committee. I’ve always felt so strong about our industry, so bringing so many people together and supporting one another during this difficult time. This whole thing has really brought us together as an industry, and shown that we can work together to support each other and raise each other up. There's enough clients for everybody, and it’s beautiful to see the incredible diversity of salons and see us all coming together to work with one another.

Are you worried about customers returning?

We’ve opened our booking today, but were not opening on the 15th, because we want to have a few days to go over the new procedures with our teams before we start to bring clients in. Every salon will only be operating at 50% capacity, and then we’re extending the hours to make sure everyone has the same hours they used to, and some of them are already booked out to July.

What would you say to ease the concerns of customers?

Really that we’re regulated by the state board and have so many sanitation practices in place. We have printouts posted showing the guidelines for clients that come to the stores, and for those who are high-risk, we are opening up early so they can be the first people to come in right after the salon is sanitized. What's important to remember about salons is that the regulators randomly check our spaces to make sure we're complying, and as we build on regulations, these checks are going to be taken to the next level. 

As a hairstylist, do you see any hairstyle trends emerging from this?

I definitely think there's gonna be a boom for bobs and pixie cuts, ‘cause people are just done. Maybe some bold colors, because everyone just wants to come out and say, “I’m back, baby.” Maybe just a little more attitude with the cuts people are getting.



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Coronavirus

Meet the Saviors: from doctors on the front line to PPE makers

Mitch Hooper

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While searching for Columbus’ helpers, we found that they come in many different shapes and sizes. And this month, we are telling as many of their stories as we can.

These are the stories of the saviors on the front line, working at hospitals, and assisting patients on a day-to-day basis. Or these saviors are at home and providing essential resources to these same folks on the front line. These efforts are quite literally saving lives and risking their own in the process.

Saviors: Pauline Vales, COVID-19 ICU Nurse at Riverside

It was just a little more than a week before Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would be going into social distancing orders when Pauline Vale and her husband had already begun leaving for a vacation to Texas. And when she returned home on March 10, the events preceding have been a rollercoaster ride of long days and nights, moments of sacrifice, and above all, bravery in the face of danger.

“We have to be mindful about what we need to do each time we enter a patient room because we can’t just run in and out when we need something. It’s harder to connect with our patients because they can’t see our faces, we can’t hold their hands without gloves on, and it’s harder for them to hear us talking through a mask,” Vales explained. “It seems like there is something new every single day, so we have had to adapt and evolve many times over in the last weeks. And there is just more stress and worry in general, but my unit has really come together as a team and done so many amazing things.”

The challenges are seemingly endless for nurses in the ICU like Vales. She said beyond medical professionals having limited contact with patience, hospitals are not allowing visitors unless it's a life situation or fits a different protocol.

There’s also the battle of resources; now more than ever, folks on the front line need protection like gloves and N95 face masks. Luckily, that call is being heard by larger corporations who can do something, such as Battelle. Battelle now works with hospitals, including Riverside, to decontaminate face masks for these front line workers.  And coincidentally, Vale’s husband works as a virologist at Battelle while she was also a former microbiologist for Battelle.

“I have been able to share my knowledge about virus research and testing with my co-workers at the hospital. It has been very helpful to understand the challenges in developing reliable testing and treatments,” she said. “When we first realized that PPE supplies were a real concern, we were worried about how we would be able to protect ourselves and still care for our patients. The relief of having enough PPE available was really palpable on the unit.”

Vales also faces challenges in her personal life. As a mother to a six-year-old boy, the outbreak of COVID-19 has severely changed his day-to-day without much preparation. Like most young children, social distancing is stopping him from going out and playing like he normally would.

“It’s difficult to convey the situation without scaring him,” she said.

But still, Vales and the rest of the team at Riverside continue to fight on the front line, day-in and day-out. And through all the adversity and tough times, she is still taking a moment to recognize the silver lining on these cloudy days.

“The outpouring of support for health care workers has been amazing and people have been so generous to our unit. We have gotten sweet treats, thank you cards, coffee, and so many encouraging words, which has been very much appreciated,” she said. “Different departments in the hospital have been doing kind things for each other, and our food service staff have been a huge support. I have seen many kind acts across Columbus as well. Food drives, to organizing financial help for families in need, to the support of local businesses. It has been great to see so many people doing what they can to help others.”

***

Saviors: Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP

Sometimes the battle against COVID-19 in Columbus means taking your talents elsewhere; and that’s what Travis Ulmer, MD, FACEP, is doing. And even then, it’s an uphill battle.

“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with is that I’ve been applying and registering to help New York City for multiple weeks,” Ulmer said. “But extensive red tape has prevented me from being where the healthcare workers are truly overwhelmed and need us the most.”

Ulmer specializes in emergency medicine here in Central Ohio. As someone who has worked on the front lines here, he’s been reminded of the importance physicians like himself can have—especially during an international pandemic. And all the extra steps medical workers have made to further protect their families, he said the outbreak has been eye-opening within his own life.

“I will never take for granted the impact and importance of being present for our families when we are home,” he said.

But, while there have been many struggles, he’s found the silver lining in moments like this.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve seen is that so many people appreciate the entire medical staff, not just us as physicians. There is an incredible workforce that collectively cares for patients. I am so glad they are being recognized and appreciated for the heroes that they are.”

***

Saviors: Kim and Kallie Mallett, Mask Makers

Life was normal for Kim and Kallie Mallett just a few months ago. While Kim worked at Burn Boot Camp, Kallie was busy as an American Sign Language interpreter. And then in a flash, as it has been for most of us, life was far from normal.

Gyms were one of the first of businesses to close due to COVID-19 so Kim was out of work. And Kallie was also temporarily laid off from her position. Though the financial losses have been tough to manage, the biggest thing the two said they miss is getting to interact with and help all the people they meet through their jobs. So it makes sense that the two found a way, even through social distancing and shelter-in-place, to help by making face masks.

“I have been sewing off and on for years so when an EMT friend expressed a need for homemade masks as a way to extend the life of hers and her fire stations N95 masks, we felt called to help,” Kim said. “We quickly realized how significant the shortage of PPE was across all essential workers and just kept going. In the three weeks we’ve been making masks, we have completed almost 700.”

Through mask making, they’ve been able to raise more than $900 in donations—$700 of which will be donated to the Mid Ohio Food Bank and the rest will be used to purchase more fabrics to make more masks.

“It’s been amazing to see Ohio come together and lend a helping hand to their neighbors—from six feet away, of course,” Kim said.

“I’m further reminded of how interconnected we all are and how we need to continue to rely on each other because we truly are all in this together.”

And of course, they’ve learned lessons along the way.

“I’ve learned to take it slowly and one day at a time,” Kalie said “I will be more appreciative of time with friends, the ability to workout with my gym family—really, just normal life in general.”

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Govt & Politics

NY Times lauds Dr. Amy Acton with video tribute

614Now

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If you live in Ohio, you'd have to have been living under rock these last 6 weeks to not know who Dr. Amy Acton is. Now the NY Times is making sure the rest of the country knows too with this nearly 7-minute tribute video titled, "The leader we all wish we had".

As the state's lead spokesperson on the healthcare side of the pandemic, Acton has received wide praise from both near and far. Despite recent protests that occurred outside of her Bexley home, most Ohioans believe she has been a shining star in these dark times.

She has a tribute t-shirt, "Not all Heroes Wear capes" created by Homage

Her own (Ok, Gov. Dewine too) tribute parody video

Her very own bobblehead from the Bobblehead Hall of Fame

A Facebook Fan Page with over 133,000 members

Here's our profile piece from the April issue of (614) Magazine - the cover of which is featured in the NY Times video. Very cool, Sarah!

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