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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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Scream Team: Behind-the-scenes look at local haunting industry

Mike Thomas

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Like many a fiend of silver screen fame, the origins of Kelly Collins’ career in terror involve some teens, a campground, and a fateful ride into the deep, dark woods.

Thirty-eight years ago, Collins was general manager at a campground. Every Saturday at noon, he’d hook up a wagon to a tractor and treat the young campers to a hayride through the woods. The route Collins followed circled around an old oak tree, before turning around and coming back to the start. One Saturday, some mischievous teens sprang out from behind the tree, giving quite a scare to the unsuspecting wagoneers. All of the children screamed in surprise—then they laughed.

Kelly Collins (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This gave Collins an idea. To spice up his little hayride, he would arrange for the teens to act out the same routine the next Saturday— but this time, he’d up the ante by giving them rubber masks to wear. His plan was set in motion, and this time, the startled youngsters on the wagon cried all the way back to the campground.

“That was a bad idea, but it got me thinking...Why don’t we have a hayride at night and call it the ‘Spooky Hayride?’ ” Collins recalls. By fine-tuning the balance between fear and fun, Collins’ new enterprise was a success, and would set him on the path to a lifelong career in the haunted house business, or “haunting” as it’s known to its practitioners.

Early in his career, Collins became a key figure in the Central Ohio scream scene. After his haunted hayride, he spent a couple of seasons overseeing the Hallowscream event at the now- defunct Wyandot Lake. It was there that he was approached by Ken Schnacke, General Manager and President of the Columbus Clippers baseball team, who tapped Collins to create and lead the “Terror Park” event that was held at Cooper Stadium for a decade.

When the Clippers made the move to Huntington Park, the Terror Park event was shelved. Collins set out again on his own, founding the Scareatorium: a haunted house attraction occupying a 40,000-square-foot space in a northeast Columbus strip mall.

Over the next decade, the Scareatorium would serve as a hub for haunters, attracting and nurturing some of the city’s top talents in the field. From actors, makeup artists, set designers and people who just appreciate a good scare, the group that grew from Collins’ enterprise came together over buckets of blood and latex viscera, but now enjoy the valuable connection of a genuine community.

A longtime compatriot of Collins, Keith Newsome was one of the creative minds behind Terror Park and the Scareatorium. Though he specializes in visual effects design and fabrication, Newsome’s talents in haunting are wide-ranging. Since retiring from 13th Floor, Newsome has remained a vital member of the community, teaching classes on topics ranging from makeup application to mask making and performance.

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

This season, he’s lending his skills to an attraction in Lancaster, Ohio titled “A True American Haunt: Birth of a Nightmare.” The house is set up in the Miller Building, a “poor house” originally built in 1828, which event promoters suggest may in fact be haunted. According to Newsome, the building is classified as one of the top-10 haunted houses in the United States, and was recently filmed for an upcoming episode of The Travel Channel show Destination Fear.

“It’s actually a haunted place. I don’t believe in that crap...I do now,” says Newsome. “There’s something in that place. I don’t go on the third or fourth floor anymore.”

Keith Newsome (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Whether patrons can expect to encounter bona fide spirits along with latex-clad actors in this haunt remains to be seen, but whatever the case, the event serves an important purpose. All proceeds from this haunt will benefit Habitat for Humanity’s plan to revitalize the historic Miller Building, and to help build housing for local veterans.

The charitable angle for this event comes as no surprise in an industry that at times seems like an extended family. People attracted to haunting come from every imaginable background, but are united by a common passion.

“I’ve had people who are financial managers of huge companies, down to people who are almost homeless,” says Newsome. “The cool part about it is that we treat everybody equally. When you walk in, you’re automatically family.”

One member of Newsome’s haunt family is Bobbi Jo Gonzalez, an artist who has turned a passion for body art and makeup into a year-round career.

Bobbi Jo Gonzalez (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

Gonzalez’s first foray into the industry came while volunteering with her eldest daughters at a home haunt. Stepping up to fill the need for a makeup artist, Gonzalez gleaned what she could from YouTube videos. Her tool kit at that time consisted of, as she calls it, “that really crappy makeup you get at Kroger around Halloween.”

After encouragement from her peers at smaller attractions, Gonzalez eventually made her way to the Scareatorium, where she met Newsome. Newsome introduced her to higher-quality, water-based makeup, and she went on to mentor under the more experienced effects artist for two years.

Photo: Brian Kaiser

Today, Gonzalez is the owner of Aftershock Art, a thriving face painting and body art company that operates year-round. She’s also found a healthy sideline doing moulage—the art of creating realistic, simulated injuries on actors during training exercises for the military and first responders.

Like her mentor, Gonzalez sees the past support and encouragement from members of the haunt community as a foundation of the success she now enjoys.

“It’s something that we’re all passionate about, so once you find your niche in that community, it doesn’t matter what your background is, what your religion is, what your sexual orientation is—you have that weird background, and you have a family for life,” Gonzalez explains.

While basking in the warm embrace of your fellow ghoul is reason enough to keep some hooked on this line of work, there’s another essential element that unifies all haunters: the love of the scare.

“I fell in love. I didn’t know you could have so much fun scaring people,” says Ashley Shilling, another former employee of Collins from the Sacreatorium days who today serves as general manager of the 13th Floor Haunt.

Ashley Shilling (Photo: Brian Kaiser)

“Being an actor is a huge stress relief,” Shilling explains. “Getting to scare people kicks in your endorphins, especially if you can make a big man that looks very intimidating scream like a little girl—that’s a lot of fun. At the end of the night, you’re just relaxed.”

Whether drawn to a sense of community that can sometimes be hard to find in the world at large, or simply in it for the thrill of scaring people, the haunting industry has an undeniable pull for those that find their way into its spooky ranks. Even retired industry veteran Collins is unable to fully step away from the work, and is gearing up for his first season as manager of a Spirit Halloween supply store in Newark, Ohio.

“When you scare people, and they scream and run away from you, it’s a great way to let out pent-up frustration,” Collins says. “You could have the worst day in the world, and within a few minutes of working at the haunted house, you feel so much better. It’s a great tension reliever.”

In professional haunting, one person’s fear is another’s bliss.

For more information on the 13th Floor Haunt and other haunted houses happening in October, click here.

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People

Photo Gallery: HighBall Halloween

614now Staff

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HighBall Halloween is the nation’s most elaborate costume party. Staged in the Art & Soul of Columbus, the annual event bridges runway style with the culture of the Short North Arts District.

Much like in years past, the city turned out in full force and full costume to celebrate fashion, fall, and fun with host Nina West.

Here's a look at some of the best looks of HighBall 2019:

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People

I Love My Job: CBJ national anthem singer Leo Welsh

Regina Fox

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Every day, people all around Columbus drive/ride/walk to their jobs, eager to contribute their passion and talent to the city. This series aims to highlight those people and give them a platform to spread their love for their careers. Welcome to I Love My Job.

You may not know his face (depending on your seats), but you definitely know his name: LEO! Longtime Columbus Blue Jackets national anthem singer Leo Welsh has been stealing the hearts of hockey-goers at Nationwide Arena with his impressive pipes and passion for the game since 2003.

Here is why he loves his job so much:

614: What do you love most about your job? 

LW: The thing I love most about my position with the CBJ is being such a fan and being part of the game experience. It is a total thrill every single time. 

614: What parts of your job do you find most challenging?

LW: The most challenging part would have to be maintaining my health during the winter. Hard to sing well when you aren’t feeling your best. 

614: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

LW: The most rewarding aspect is when I am singing and I can see young people singing along to our National Anthem.

614: What’s the best story you have from your time with the Columbus Blue Jackets?

LW: So many great stories and interactions with fans and our military honorees. Most recently the playoffs from last year strand out. The CBJ had a World War II veteran on the ice with me every night. These men were all special and excited the crowd and made it very easy for me to be focused on honoring our country. Several were arm in arm with me and singing along to our National Anthem, very special moments. 

614: Who has been the most influential mentor in your career so far?

LW: I have had many great teachers and mentors. Maestro William Boggs stands out. He is one of the reasons I moved to Columbus following graduation from Ohio University. He offered me a job with Opera Columbus. He was critical when he needed to be, demanded preparation from his singers and was supportive by offering examples and best practices at all times. Truly a great mentor.

Leo will be leading players and fans in the national anthem this Friday as the Blue Jackets open their season against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Nationwide Arena. Puck drops at 7pm.

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