Her Strategic Seduction of Cle
By John Benson
For the past few years Buffalo, N.Y. transplant Sarah Paul has turned the Rock Hall City into her own canvas. Her creative vision is called Little Miss Cleveland & the Flaming Sunset, a collection of work exploring the story of a scandalous beauty queen and her seduction of the flaming smokestacks, Lake Erie and the city of Cleveland. From photos to video, the character has embraced our Rust Belt town like, as 50 Cent not-so-eloquently said, “a fat kid loves cake.”
Before your politically incorrect meter gets pegged, you have to understand part of the appeal of Little Miss Cleveland is that she’s big and beautiful. Not only does this make the malevolent analogy apt but basically gets to the core of what Paul, an assistant professor at the Cleveland Institute of Art, has in mind for her alter-ego of sorts, Little Miss Cleveland.
Cool Cleveland talked to Paul about her “I Heart Cleveland: The Strategic Seduction of a City” lecture taking place Fri 11/18 on the Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) campus.
Cool Cleveland: Just so we’re on the same page, how do you describe what you’re doing with Little Miss Cleveland & the Flaming Sunset?
Sarah Paul: It’s hard for me to talk about the character Little Miss Cleveland. As her, it is a persona to a certain degree but as her I attend public events, I embraced Cleveland and have developed this narrative and love story as this giant beauty queen who is in love with the city, the smokestacks of the steel mill and in love with the lake. There’s this kind of romantic notion of embracing and celebrating the Rust Belt, basically, and Cleveland in particular. That’s what is behind that work. But it blurs into me being in public as her, in public spaces, at baseball games, events.
So who or what is Little Miss Cleveland?
She’s just this really playful giant chubby girl. She’s very sincere. That’s something that I want to talk about and it’s hard to do. Obviously there’s a façade. I’ve crafted this narrative and this character and all of that, but the passion and the motivation behind it is rooting for the underdog that Cleveland is, that the Rust Belt is. There’s a sense of humor in it and in her; she’s this giant, self-crowned beauty queen and half the work I do when there’s video involved, sometimes she’s 30 feet tall. It goes to an absurd degree. She’s embracing herself, her large body. Whatever is technically “wrong” with her, she embraces all of that and celebrates it to a point where she becomes this sexy, vivacious irresistible character.
So you’re not mocking Cleveland, which over the past half century is something generations of Northeast Ohioans have sadly become accustomed?
She’s the self-declared ambassador. She’s more into the very authentic, kind of gritty elements of Cleveland, some of the underground music scene.
So she hangs out at DIY club Now That’s Class!?
Absolutely, but at the same time it’s not to dismiss the Rock Hall and all of the other elements that are part of the big picture. It’s a bit of an us-against-the-world thing but it’s everybody. I live in downtown Cleveland. I love the city.
So when we see you around the city or attending public events, are you performing?
No, that’s the interesting thing. I don’t consider that a performance. When I go to attend I try not to distract. People love it. She’s kind of hard to not find playful. Some people may think it’s too freaky but I have families who want their kids to have pictures taken with me.
So where does Little Miss Cleveland & the Flaming Sunset come out?
I have a band. We’ll be playing Now That’s Class in the next couple of months. That’s one facet of the project. The project is numbered in this series. [On] my calendar is Little Miss Cleveland & the Flaming Sunset No. 4. So, there’s a calendar, there’s a band, there’s just a presence that shows up in public. There’s fine art photography, big multimedia installations.
And Little Miss Cleveland appears in all of these?
Yes, but there isn’t always the body. The piece I just took down in Buffalo had all of this footage of her in the lake swimming during a storm on Labor Day. So there are usually elements of the lake, smokestacks and her. Sometimes it’s not her body visually, it might be her voice.
What can we expect from this lecture?
They’re calling it a lecture but I consider it more performative than that. I do incorporate live performance and music into a lot of the work so it’ll be a playful lecture. I’ll be talking about the intersection of pop culture and fine art with the intention behind it of affecting social change but not in a really formal way. I’ll use that body of work kind of as a jumping-off point for talking about strategies of trying to foster a more broad dialogue about social change. It’s not always political but about bringing pop culture into a fine art context and vice-versa to potentially talk to a broader audience.
Whether it’s seeing your work on stage, in person around town or in photos or video, what’s the message you hope people understand?
That Cleveland is amazing. It’s prospering and just has so much potential and so much creative energy that is unlike any place I’ve ever been. The big picture is all about embracing yourself and loving yourself and just letting go of societal constraints and whatever insecurities. That’s the thread that happens through everything I’ve ever done as far as art and music.
Sarah Paul speaks at the “I Heart Cleveland: The Strategic Seduction of a City” lecture/presentation at 12:30PM on Fri 11/18 at 323 Guilford House, 11112 Bellflower Road on the Case Western Reserve University campus. For more information, call 216-368-1508. http://ArtSci.case.edu.
Freelance writer John Benson spends most of his time writing for various papers throughout Northeast Ohio.
When he’s not writing about music or entertainment, he can be found coaching his two boys in basketball, football and baseball or watching movies with his lovely wife, Maria. John also occasionally writes for CoolCleveland.com.