Breaking Through: The woman behind ArtWorks

Published: Aug. 31, 2023 at 5:43 PM EDT
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CINCINNATI (WXIX) - A Tri-State organization is bringing Cincinnati alive one mural at a time while also creating jobs, leadership, and unity.

Colleen Houston is the CEO and artistic director at ArtWorks.

“We have about 300 murals around the city which have really created an urban gallery and put Cincinnati on the map for being a welcoming, vibrant city,” Houston said.

Part of that success is due to Houston who helps recruit the artists and establishes the artistic direction for the nonprofit’s programs.

“We support young artists, and emerging artists ages 14 to 24, and then we also hire professional artists and art educators to mentor artists. And we hire about 300 artists a year to work on community-based, especially public art projects,” Houston said.

Houston has been CEO for the past three years, but she’s been with the nonprofit for 26 years, starting out as a youth apprentice when she was just 18 years old.

“In the very beginning, ArtWorks was primarily focused on retail, so making art to sell, so I painted furniture, furniture that was discarded by the curb, so free materials and supplies, fix it up, and then we would paint beautiful masterpieces and sell those,” she said.

Houston has helped the apprenticeship program evolve over the years with young students now helping to paint and design murals across the city including a new mural, called “Love Wins”, that now sits in Over the Rhine above Queen City Radio.

It was just finished and debuted last week to celebrate 50 years of pride in Cincinnati.

“I think it builds real pride, civic pride when you get to be a part of something that’s bigger than yourself. And you learn about people from different neighborhoods, different backgrounds,” Houston said.

Growing up on the East Side, Houston says her love for art was nurtured by her family since she was a child.

“I did art from a very early age. My grandfather was an artist, my great-grandmother was an artist. I would say it’s definitely in our family. We would celebrate birthdays by going to museums,” she said.

While Houston says she always loved art, she wasn’t sure about making it a career when she enrolled at Warren Wilson College.

“When I found the potential to do community-based and public art, it really brought all of my passions together, Houston said. “I never thought I would be CEO here. I believe in this organization so much that I decided to lean in and not be scared to take a chance,” she said.

Houston says there is joy and pride in watching and mentoring the young artists that come into the ArtWorks program, and then seeing them go on to lead successful careers.

“Here at ArtWorks, I definitely see how art has changed many lives. It has changed the trajectory of young people. They’re putting their personal expression on full display. An experience that builds confidence and self-awareness,” she said.

A display of love and passion that she says the entire city can benefit from.

“I think ArtWorks adds so much vibrancy and builds community. I think it’s one of the most exciting community-based organizations not only in Cincinnati but in the country,” Houston said.

ArtWorks is in Walnut Hills and they are currently renovating a historic paint factory on East McMillan which will be their new home with studios for artists.

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