This Street Artist Is Spotlighting Women Leaders in Her Community through Meaningful Murals
Portrait of Stephanie Rond by Meghan Ralston. Courtesy of the artist.
As an art student in college in the 1990s, Stephanie Rond noticed how advertising always seemed to objectify women. Now an accomplished street artist working in Columbus, Ohio, Rond has dedicated her career to portraying women in a more honest fashion. “I thought it was important to present women as real, actual people,” she said recently.
Rond began by using ads from the 1950s to inspire her hand-cut stencil art, then progressed to featuring young women, to open a dialogue around how we are raising girls today. Her street art and murals have been gracing the streets of Columbus for the past 14 years. Over the past four years, Rond has shifted to ever-larger murals of local female luminaries, many of whom she has befriended over the years. “These are people that I really respect and are doing important things in our communities,” she said. “It’s not about me at all. It’s about, ‘How do I honor somebody else’s voice?’”
Rond’s current series of outdoor portraits, “Dare To Be Heard,” began in 2016; three such works are currently on display in Columbus. For these murals, she collaborated with local poets to add their words to her images. Rond has always incorporated diverse voices and perspectives in her artwork, believing that inclusivity is both important and inspiring. “Everybody has the right to see themselves in artwork,” Rond said. “I don’t think of what I do as public art, but an intervention.”
Stephanie Rond, Our Lady Justice, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
One of her works, Our Lady Justice (2020), is an enamel and spray-painted piece on wood panels displayed in downtown Columbus, covering windows at the Ohio Theatre. The work is a reimagining of Lady Justice, modeled by a fellow artist that Rond mentored when she was in high school. “Rather than have her blindfolded, I put glasses on her,” Rond explained. “Instead of holding the scales or sword, I combined them into a tattoo on her arm.” The piece features the words of six local poets, a collaboration facilitated by Barbara Fant. Each poet wrote a line about Rond’s Lady Justice, and Fant crafted and melded their words together. Both Rond and her collaborators believe that the combination of words and images elicits more empathy from the viewer.
“I have always been a big believer in the arts being a collaboration,” Rond said. “So with everything that I create, I try to have as many voices as I can.” The placement of her art in outdoor environments and thinking about how somebody might interact and engage with her art in these environments is key to her creative process. “I love the thought of someone walking along, seeing the image and reading the poem in their own voice and cadence—allowing them the time to process the piece on their own time,” she said.
“It’s been so empowering to have my words in neighborhoods where I wouldn’t find my body,” said poet Cynthia Amoah. “Stephanie acts as a hybrid, a bridge amongst artists. While many artists might need much interaction in collaboration, I need isolation. Stephanie trusted and gifted me with the space I needed to create and produce work I believe in.”
Amoah’s poem accompanies a portrait of Celeste Malvar-Stewart in Clintonville, a predominantly white and suburban neighborhood known for its landmarks, coffee shops, and parks. Malvar-Stewart has been a pioneer of sustainable and ethical fashion in Columbus for the past 25 years, designing zero-waste haute couture from alpaca and sheep fibers and working with animals she knows by name.
Stephanie Rond, Gesture to High Water, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Stephanie Rond, As Dawn Breaks, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
When beginning a new project, Rond will bring the model to her studio. She takes around 300 photos of her subject in different poses, in hopes of capturing the essence of who that person is. Rond then picks a favorite from the photos, and uses it to create a stencil, before hand-painting the final piece.
Rond’s mural of Malvar-Stewart is applied with wheat paste, a mixture of flour and water cooked on the stove until it turns into glue. Such works slowly peel away over time. With the weather in Columbus, she estimates that her wheat paste murals last for about nine months, creating an enduring conversation with the residents of the neighborhood. This mural is on an exterior wall at Pattycake Bakery. “They were one of the very first to support me and give my voice a space,” Rond said of the establishment. Over the years, she’s created eight different murals on the bakery’s wall.
Rond’s third mural in Columbus portrays April Sunami, a mixed-media artist, and Jessica Roach, founder and CEO of Black women–led reproductive justice organization Restoring Our Own Through Transformation (ROOTT). The piece is displayed in the Gateway area on the Ohio State University campus, accompanied by Dionne Custer Edwards’s poem “Gesture to High Water.”
“Having these pieces, this art, in the campus area, in the center of critical thinking, exploration, and growth, is essential,” Custer Edwards said. “Students can encounter this work again and again, and continue to think about what the work might be suggesting. That repetitive exchange is a shared labor, a creative collaboration between artists and strangers.”