This month’s perspectives column was written by Bruce Petrie, Jr. 

So you and a group of friends decide you need a summer break from news of divided politics. You could all use a little civic inspiration. “How about a scavenger hunt,” a friend suggests. “Okay what’s our theme?”  “How about great Cincinnati artwork about freedom.” To get the civic endorphins flowing, the group decides no motorized vehicles allowed: you have to bike/walk/jog the route.

You’re in charge of writing the clues ahead of the contestants. Your first stop is the Freedom quilt at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Then you head over to Lytle Park and put a clue under Lincoln’s very big bronze shoe. Then over to OTR, Washington Park and Memorial Hall created to honor veterans after World War I, stopping first at the Neil Armstrong Artworks Mural (think freedom of exploration). Then on to the Weinold Reiss murals (think freedom of commerce). You decide that the finale clue needs to be a really tough one: artwork that’s less well known but is still spectacular and maybe newer on the scene.

On your bike, you chug up Gilbert Avenue to Eden Park and the Cincinnati Art Museum, greeted by Jim Dine’s 12-foot high bronze Pinocchio whose joyful, giant outstretched arms say “Everybody is welcome here! Free Admission too!” Now that’s freedom. Pinocchio gets a clue. But you can’t end this thing at CAM’s front steps; you have to go inside. 

There you find the final clue, the piece de resistance. It’s in the newly renovated Schmidlapp gallery, sunlight from the courtyard flooding through expansive windows into the communal space which thankfully includes seating to rest your lactic acidy bike legs. The gallery is vibrant with visitors. A group of Charlie-Brown-sized kids is standing agog and upward-gazing in front of an enormous canvas. Half the fun of a museum is the shared experience with other people, much more fun, by the way, than looking at art on an iPad. You sit and allow yourself to soak it in visually: an eighty foot long painting titled Mural of Cincinnati.  

There are a mind-boggling 67,000 works of art at CAM, an encyclopedia of the freedom of human creativity over 6,000 years. Each of the 67,000 has a story. Masterpieces are stories in layers, from the artist’s story, to the object’s story and, being powerfully connective, to our stories. The Mural of Cincinnati’s was painted soon after the end of World War II in 1947 by Saul Steinberg (1914-1999). His life story was shaped by the world’s monumental struggle to defeat totalitarianism. To escape the facism and antisemitism of his home in Romania, he embarked on  an immigrant’s story of seeking refuge in the United States, escaping to a free democracy that freed not only his physical existence but also his imagination. Commissioned by the Emery family to paint a mural for Cincinnati’s gem of post-war modernism the Terrace Plaza Hotel, Steinberg used his liberated imagination to capture the spirit of post-war Cincinnati. He filled the canvas with fanciful images of dancing couples, Cincinnati landmarks, public architecture and sculpture, all choreographed to a visual musical score that dances along the gallery wall. An upside-down angel-spirit plays a golden trumpet next to The Genius of Water atop the Tyler Davidson Fountain. The Fountain’s water theme merges with Steinberg’s version of a golden-hued Ohio River dotted with barges, paddle wheels and Seuss-like ships. There is the John Roebling Suspension Bridge (connecting our scavenger hunt to its starting line). Ladies are sporting fantastic hats with plumes, flowers and who-knows-what, a scene of headdressery that still resonates with the Cincinnati Parks’ Hats Off Luncheon in May.  

Steinberg’s panaorama draws you into a celebratory spirit of a beautiful midwestern City. This post World War II masterpiece of very American art depicts a monumental sigh of relief that American liberty has won. The Mural is about a certain reclaimed civic happiness.  Through work and play, industry and art, building and creating—through what the Constitution calls our common defense and our general welfare—the Mural reminds us that a people’s liberty, our domestic tranquility, is not just a given but is something we need to strive together to seek and to find. Civic happiness is a pursuit, like a scavenger hunt.