If you’ve noticed any of the several colorful, whimsical murals around Dayton, most likely they were created by Dayton artist Tiffany Clark, founder of the Mural Machine.
Clark, who painted her 100th mural in the city this year, is forthright about the power of art in the community and how it helped save her own life.
Clark, our Daytonian of the Week, tells it best in her own words:
Tell us about your background.
Most of my life was spent in Fairborn with my two sisters and my mother, an artist herself. Another supporting role has been my stepdad, a Fairborn high school physics teacher and a local eccentric hero who came into my life more as a I was a teen.
The females in my family have been through quite a bit together. Looking back, it always seemed like more than the normal family trauma, but maybe our experiences were not so different from many struggling Americans’ stories.
My sister/best friend was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 13. There were surgeries and experimental chemo for a couple years. With all that struggle we lost the house and then there was bankruptcy. Through those struggles we have grown into a strong family and ladies with real grit.
As a teen, my mother got a job at my choice college. This was a way we could afford tuition. I went to school for education at Antioch in Yellow Springs. I found myself taking nearly 50% art classes. I was still under the delusion no one could “survive” as an artist, but I couldn’t help myself. I spent all my time in their art labs. My eldest is even named after one of my art professors, Nevin Mercede. Art has always been my home.
When did you found the Mural Machine?
In 2014, I was hired to paint an opiate overdose memorial mural. I had never painted on that scale. It was a full building. I was asked because my new collage and painting work was gaining attention. And I suppose there weren’t too many other artists in the area openly discussing losing a soulmate to an overdose and being in recovery herself. My previous tragedy gave me a unique perspective to create such work.
One thing that was important with a piece so public yet somber, I wanted people to see and feel loved — to feel hopeful. It needed to strip away the shame of our losses or poor choices. To help this purpose, there is an area on the “Poppy” mural located on the corner of Xenia Avenue and Dover Street, where people can sign along the wooden fence in honor of those lost to an overdose. It is public art therapy.
During the beginning of the mural painting, I invited friends to help with the background. A friend brought her brother Matt. After that day he kept offering to volunteer. At one point he asked about my inspiration. I told him about the loss of my loved one, Jason Dryden, and that now art is my addiction.
I was on a ladder and remember his eyes looking up at me saying, “Art is my addiction too.” We started the piece in November and had to break due to weather. There wasn’t a way for Matt to help us paint those few cold weeks. That’s when we lost him.
His sister told me what painting that piece meant to him. And I recall the moment realizing what all this had meant and what it could become.
That is the beginning of The Mural Machine. That is when the cosmic two-by-four hit us over the head. Public art is for everyone, because it heals us all in different ways. And it can truly have the power to save some of us. We can leave our mark on the city. We all desire to be seen and connect. We want to know someone cares and hears our stories.
The Mural Machine is my business of using art to connect us, tell your stories, and change the view of our spaces which seem to add to our day-to-day lives.
Over the years we have created memorable spaces such as two-block neighborhood murals, photo opportunities, optical illusion murals, small business signs, food trucks, or even live human painting and charity work.
Many pieces are collaborations, including the most recent work with the talented Leslea Hipp. Many community pieces have been in collaboration with other artists or volunteers wanting to leave their own mark on the city.
This year you created your 100th mural in Dayton. How does this accomplishment make you feel?
It’s not something I expected to do, but making murals seems to be an art form that I am uniquely qualified for. I would have never dreamed of myself creating so vulnerably and publicly. But once I realized the impact this art obsession can have, well, that work speaks for itself.
It is a little mind-blowing when I add up all the gallery work such as drawings, ceramics, paintings, etc. created in this time as well. I can’t even count the work, it goes so fast. It’s really been an adventure of my wildest dreams mixed with a lot of sleepless determination.
What are your favorite murals in the community?
Oh, all the community pieces are near and dear to me. The Xenia Avenue Poppy Piece because of all I previously mentioned, and it has portraits of my lost love, Jason, and our lost painter-friend Matt.
The “Love You” Mural on Keowee between First and Third street is the most impactful piece we’ve created. It’s truly a collaboration of other wonderful local artists and volunteers affected by similar tragic losses.
Each painted piece of paper is a reminder of a loved one lost to suicide. It was inspired by the loss of too many people we love. We decided to paint their artwork, portraits, and memories to show everyone they were seen. In their darkest hours they were light to others. We want to remind people in the darkness that they are light, too.
We have continued on the eastern side wall this year for suicide survivors. Luckily, Miracle Clubhouse has been able to partner with us this year. We will have a QR code connecting those who may need to reach out to find information about the Clubhouse. We had a few community paint days and will continue work in the spring. Funding support and memorial art submissions are accepted all year.
One story I don’t always share about this mural is how it has already saved lives.
It is a memorial piece, but it is more than that. A woman pulled over while I was painting and let me know she had been watching the progress. She drove past the mural on her way home from work every day. A few weeks before she had a tough day at work, felt she had enough, and was on her way home to make an unchangeable choice.
That was the first time she had driven past the mural since the “Love You” signage was added. It encouraged her to stay that day. The artwork and message showed her that someone she had never met wanted her to love herself. She then had me add a memorial piece of a silhouette of army boots for her fellow veterans who may struggle as she did that day.
I talk about the Nordale Park mural in my TEdx Dayton talk “Art is my Addiction.” In short, it was another moment of ideas and community all being motivated at once. Giant flowers each honoring someone either in recovery or someone who had passed away due to addiction, all one big garden growing together. It stretches the wall and floor in front of the park’s picnic shelter.
We had neighbors from the community participate in painting and commemorating themselves or loved ones, keeping them inspired to remain true to their recovery.
No matter how grateful I am to create unique works that better people’s homes or businesses, it’s these public works that have truly changed more people’s lives than I will ever know. They are my favorite pieces.
If you could travel anywhere in the world to see a mural, what and where would it be?
Well, it’s not a mural, but the work I want to see most in person is that of sculptor Beth Cavner. She creates large textural clay animal sculptures that contain an almost surreal humanistic quality. She gave a weekend workshop in Kettering a couple years ago discussing her process and inspirations. I long to connect with her creatures and stare into their eyes.
As far as murals go, in 2017, my favorite street artist known as “Swoon” had a show at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. I was lucky enough to see the end of the exhibit. Her style and color palette is a great influence for my unique collage style. But she and I ended up sharing more similarities than I could have imagined. Later I would get to connect with her personally. We are products of similar childhood trauma. Art has been our savior in times of struggle, and now she also uses her work to educate people about trauma and hopefully heal others from addictive cycles.
Why have murals gained in popularity?
The simplistic answer is they add color and dreamscapes to the gray neutral city buildings that create the world around so many. But most street artists choose to paint because it helps them use their skills in a multitude of ways to better their community. They have a message, a story, a new idea to change the way we navigate through our quickly growing society. If an artist wants to share a message, it’s wise to put work where everyone will see it: outside. When we change what we see we can change the way we see.
Artists are 70% more likely to volunteer for their community. Most popular street artists, even internationally known, are using their voices as well as their art to initiate thought. They are having a large impact because they are not only seen but are also changing their communities in new unique ways and making real differences people see.
How has art helped you?
Art gives back what I give to it. My work never lets me down when I give her my all. But it has saved my life. Seven years ago, while in the beginning of heroin recovery, I never thought I would make it. I don’t even mean “make it” as an artist, but simply as a human to survive another day. But at a certain point I started making work at night. It was work that was more vulnerable and unique than anything I’d ever created.
I had lost almost everything. But then people started to see my new work. Strangers connected and friends who had once lost hope in me, saw my redemption song. As I doubled-down on my work, people invested in me. Eventually I was asked to make murals for the city. Art allowed me to use my trials and life lessons to personally help others. We change the feeling of our city and it has become my own recovery therapy. Art is my addiction and it has saved my life.
What would surprise people to know about creating a mural?
For every win there are so many more fails. Sketches, submissions, fundraisers, each mural is a different learning experience. Some take a year of planning. Some are thought up in the moment and painted in two hours. There’s no handbook on what needs done because there’s always a new surprising obstacle. We also appreciate the waters, coffees, thank-yous and, even when we don’t turn around, the honks.
I don’t like to share too much until a piece is in progress. (It’s one of those failure lessons learned along the way.) This spring we have about half of the cats donated to the Dayton Cat Mural at Lily‘s Bistro left to paint.
The “Love You” mural survival side is a quarter painted and a quarter funded since it has gotten a little colder. We will be working on that this spring as well. Also, there is the Oregon District memorial mural funded by citizens of Dayton in collaboration with the signage queen, Atalie Gagnet. There will be a Dayton firefighters history piece and a few more in the works I’ll keep hush-hush for now.
I always have new gallery work at Toxic Brew, Butter Café, and Clash Consignment so that people can purchase work to connect with me at home. Decoy Art Center is the studio where I have the pleasure of teaching teen drawing and adult pottery. My artistic background was that of a teacher and gallery artist. So, it’s nice to mix up the ways I can connect with others through artwork.
What does ‘Dayton Strong’ mean to you?
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.” -- Confucius
When we rise, we find a way to grow others with us. We did not become the city of inventors by also being an example of endless perfection without trials. We are dreamers, and through struggle and love, we will create the reality we wish to see.