Meet painter, muralist, and activist Miss Birdy, who uses the city of Columbus as a site for her vibrant, figurative paintings. Passionate about her city, its future, and supporting local artists, she uses her art as a form of community activism, uplifting the stories, people, and community that she is a part of. Concerned with the sustainability of being an artist and creating a stable livelihood, she and her business partner launched Catalyst Columbus, a nonprofit that supports and creates community mural projects. These murals quite literally change the landscape of the city, transforming abandoned houses and overpasses into art. For the artist, these murals are sites for gathering and an opportunity to spark conversations within the community.
Join me in this inspiring conversation as Miss Birdy tells us why she dropped out of art school, how she got in to the world of graffiti and murals, and about her incredible performance piece Seeds Sown in Fire, where she created murals on two houses that were then burned—a testimony to women’s collective anger and resilience in the face of the overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
How did you get into mural work? Did you mostly paint on canvas before branching out to painting on building, or vice versa?
My mural journey took me completely by surprise. In 2011 I moved to Columbus from Lima, Ohio. Up until that point I hadn't stepped foot into an art museum let alone a gallery. There was no street art scene in Lima and honestly not a booming one in Columbus either. I attended Columbus College of Art and Design for two years. Studying fine art, I found the classes boring and non productive to my growth. Until of course I met a boy in figure drawing class. He was a street artist, and on our first date he took me painting in an underground tunnel, gave me spray paint and told me to do whatever I wanted. The freedom in that was enough to start my addiction to painting illegally, and I knew school wasn't the right thing for me; so I dropped out. Being a more classical painter at the time translated really well into abandoned spaces. We would travel to places like Cleveland and Detroit to paint in crazy dilapidated structures and create pieces that fit with the environment seamlessly. During that time, Instagram was really starting to open up a platform for artists, so I started putting my work online. Locally, people started following along and were traveling to these places to take pictures with the work; some businesses started to take notice and asked me to do a few murals. It was all history from there, each mural got bigger, more complex. In 2015, I started my own business and have painted murals full time since.
Your figurative work is incredibly striking. Who are the people in your paintings? Are they folks you know personally?
I actually use a few different methods to get the faces and figures that fit with the compositions of my paintings. Sometimes I find a muse in a friend, or peer, and even folks online that I know will fit the particular narrative that I’m trying to create. We will do a photoshoot, or I will ask them to take some reference photos for me and go from there. I will also use myself a lot of the time as well, especially if there's a certain position that I have the need to capture. Other ways I get more whimsical looking figures and faces is I have a magical folder that has thousands of facial references. I will use them to create different faces while I'm drawing. I’ve also utilized AI to get specific angles of a figure and then build a structure of the face or body upon that while drawing. I find that all these ways are very effective and it’s also fun when I can combine it all together, using my best friend's eyes or hair, paired with the lips and nose or facial structure of another and I build a whole new person. It’s a game to see what pieces go together nicely.
Although your work is realistic, there is an element of fantasy—are you inspired by this genre, whether it be within books, film, or video games?
The world of fantasy is where my brain lives. Growing up, I was privileged to have parents and older siblings that loved the adventures of sci-fi and fantasy. Shows like Star-Trek were a staple in my life, movies such as Willow, The Labyrinth, Hook, Wizard of Oz, and so many more became our way to bond and enjoy time as a family. Then me and my little brother started to get into video games and I personally dove deep into fantasy books so I could also escape school. The world of whimsy has figured out how to translate deep emotional values in a way that makes facing emotional trauma and feelings less scary. In a story like The Labyrinth, the young girl is struggling with her reality without her mother. Living in a world where her father has “moved on” with a new child and wife, makes her spiral deeper and deeper into the last theater play her mother ever acted in. It was in that fantasy world that she healed that inner wound, and started to have ownership over her life, and then broke out of the fantasy. Having lost my father at the age of 15, these movies and shows began to be a way for me to connect with that part of him just like the girl in The Labyrinth. I create work now that has stories connected to them, about adventure and loss, triumph and fear. I hope to allow this to be a place for communities and families to connect in front of an image and establish a memory that can withstand time.
As an artist and a community activist, how do these practices feed into one another? Can you talk a bit about your community work in Columbus?
When creating work in the public realm there's automatically a space to contribute to everyday events, questions and ideas. The activist work that I have done just happened naturally when me and my business partner Brian Suiter started the nonprofit Catalyst Columbus in 2019. We made our first statement piece in 2020 with the making of a 400 ft long mural across an abandoned overpass in Columbus, Ohio, which read “We Are Stronger Together.” In the height of covid we were itching to get out and make something for the public so we decided to push to have this bridge, that is now torn down, painted. The day we published this piece, the protests for George Floyd and BLM erupted. When making something initially for Covid, and seeing its message change so quickly was super interesting and the conversations that were held around it became very powerful. In 2022, we were able to work with the city of Whitehall on a project, where a neighborhood of 150 condemned homes that have been left empty for several years prior have become a sad scene for the residents. Brian and I saw this as another opportunity to strike conversations in the community. We painted the facades of 23 buildings facing the main road where they stood for all those years. We wanted to bring color and life into something that has been actively lost and forgotten. A lot of people hated it and loved it, so we were able to be a catalyst for real conversation for the city of Whitehall before the homes were demolished in early 2023. Though both of these particular projects were meant to be demolished, we found a way to give them one last voice, one last memory, and allow Columbus to look upon them one last time, not as a blight but something to think about and to create meaningful conversation.
I love what you all are doing at Catalyst Columbus! What inspired you to co-found this organization? What is your mission?
Thank you so much! My business partner Brian Suiter and I, funny enough, met for the first time when we were both invited to be on a panel discussion about the importance of public art. As usual I was the only artist in a row of mostly developers, but this one stood out. Brian and I were echoing each other on every point, with passion and disbelief on how far behind Columbus actually is in terms of its artistic expansion. After that we exchanged numbers and decided that we could bitch more over a beer or two. After a few meetings in the following months we decided it was time that we took action and became the change we wanted to see for the arts in Columbus. We started first to create documentation for building owners, business owners, and of course artists to be protected when they create in the public realm. Since this is still unmarked territory in the city, we wanted to make sure we are solving the problems of underpaying artists or art being wrongly misused or harmed. Once we did the groundwork we started on projects around the city ranging from big and small, we became problem solvers for people that didnt know how to approach the mural world while also being a backbone for artists that may struggle with getting their voices heard. In 2023 we teamed up with The Women's Fund of Central Ohio to pay 10 artists to create illustrated designs talking about what femininity means to them. We had artists from many backgrounds included and the outcome was beautiful. We were able to do a city wide take over of these designs in one night. We printed off each design in multiple sizes and had volunteers come out and put these pieces up all over the city gorilla style with wheatpaste. Not only did we create conversation, but we trained a new generation of street artists on how to make the wheatpaste and how to put up their voice. Catalyst Columbus started as an organization that wanted to bring contemporary art to everyday people. We wanted to uplift artists' voices and make sure they were getting paid for their artistic power. We soon became an organization that wanted to feed the underground art scene such as street artists and graffiti writers. We found that paving a path of the unconventional, like painting an abandoned highway, demolished buildings, and burning a house down, was a way to get people talking about the impact they could have on their community through artistic expression.
There is a performance piece/project of yours I just have to ask about—can you tell us about your mural that was intentionally burned?
Seeds Sown In Fire was a performance piece that was created in response to the overturn of Roe Vs. Wade. While working with the city of Whitehall, I caught wind that the fire department does training fires on the abandoned houses that we painted earlier in the year. So I had an idea strike me and I proposed the performance piece to the city. They were so excited that they called the fire chief right in front of me and he said yes immediately. To my delight, I was also informed that the house burning will also make the house next to it melt from the heat. I saw an opportunity to make a statement that was literally burning in my body since the overturn. In 2014, I had to make the difficult decision to have an abortion. I look back on that time and think about how grateful I am to be able to make that call for myself and body. It tore me apart to think that young girls may not be given that same choice and so much grief and anger struck me. In the murals are two women; the house to be burned was a depiction of a woman about late 30’s with lilies starting to sprout around her and the house that will melt was a woman in her early 20’s with the lilies in full bloom. These two women were supposed to be a warning tale about the seeds you sow today will actually bloom tomorrow and the effect on future generations should not be something that we take lightly. Lilies' most common meanings are also purity and fertility, so I felt they fit naturally with the story. The women were looking at each other without emotion--are they mother and daughter? Sisters? Just two strangers? Or past and future? I wanted any person to be able to see themselves in the piece. On the day of the burn, the skies turned dark and the burning was rain or shine. The performance was open to the public, we allowed people to navigate the grounds of the abandoned homes to walk to the event. We had a food truck and beer of course, we even had an amazing local band called Mungbean that was going to play at the climax of the burning. The storm had other plans for that. Though the rain deterred a lot of people from coming, we still had 150 come out to watch the house burn down and boy was it a sight. The house was lit and within five minutes it was ablaze. As the storm poured, I could feel my body getting drenched and at the same time being dried by the heat of the fire. At the climax of the burning lightning flashed through the sky, and the second mural started to melt away like it never had a structure at all. Kids running around screaming with excitement, people laughing and crying. I was in a wild-eyed frenzy of emotions. When everything started to calm, the fire burned its last ember… it’s hard to believe, but the rain also stopped and revealed the most elegant rainbow holding the bones of the lost house. It was amazing the amount of conversations this started in my city. A lot of people loved and hated this piece, but I have also found that a lot of people didn't want to cover this piece, whether from controversy or not. Thank you for asking about this performance, it was very meaningful to me and all that witnessed it.
Being from and being based in the Midwest myself, I love asking artists in my region this question: what do you love about your city (and/or the Midwest)? What keeps you there?
Columbus is a city that feels like it’s just getting started. In many ways this is good and bad, but I like to look at this logically. Columbus is, believe it or not, the second largest city in the Midwest, and the 14th largest city in the country and we continue to grow at a demanding rate. Though we don’t have lush mountains or identifiable bodies of water, what we do have is an incredible amount of integrity and grit. Ingenuity and such kindness. I love Columbus because I can grow here, I can make real change here, impact lives quickly and create a ground floor for the art scene that I know can lift this city into a place where it impacts nationally and globally. The people that live and create here have so much passion and love for each other. We work together and lift each other up. We are truly a small town acting like a big city. It’s still reasonably cost-wise to live here, and that makes traveling easy when I need to leave for a month or so on a job. I have been able to create a pretty strong position for myself in Columbus and I stay because I know that I have real value here, and I can truly change the lives of the community that I care about. I also know that I have the support of the entire city, no matter where I go in the world. All my biggest fans are right here cheering me on, and they let me know that all the time.