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Wednesday, December 07, 2022
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‘Public art is my sport of choice’: The story behind UB’s Title IX mural

Artist Cassandra Ott opens up about loss, growth and her inspiration to create

<p>Artist Cassandra Ott created the Title IX commemorative mural, which sits outside of Alumni Arena.</p>

Artist Cassandra Ott created the Title IX commemorative mural, which sits outside of Alumni Arena.

The sidewalk outside the entrance to Alumni Arena is exploding with pops of color. 

This eye-catching mural, the latest installment in UB’s “contemplative sites” initiative, commemorates the 50th anniversary of Title IX, the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools and education programs. 

“The prominent location will be a constant reminder to all who enter Alumni Arena of the importance of this initiative to the university,” D’Ann Keller, senior associate athletic director for Sports Administration, said in a statement

Behind every “contemplative site” is the artist that brought it to life. Cassandra Ott, a Buffalo-area creative, worked tirelessly in both sweltering heat and bone-chilling cold to paint this celebratory vision into existence. 

Using nine squares of the sidewalk, Ott dedicated a quadrant to each of UB’s eight women’s sports teams — which outnumber UB’s men’s teams, much to Ott’s surprised delight. The ninth quadrant pays homage to Title IX and unifies all of the individual squares into one cohesive mural. 

“I’m not the sportiest person,” Ott said. “However, I realized in doing murals that it’s super physically demanding and I feel like that is my sport of choice at this point. So public art is my sport of choice.”

If public art is Ott’s sport of choice, it’s safe to say that she wasn’t always the MVP. When Ott painted her first public art piece back in 2019, it was only a small mural in a gallery. Drawing on a large wall was entirely outside of Ott’s skill set at that point;  she had only worked with regular 11-by-14-inch size canvases. This was an intimidating transition for Ott, but she learned to enjoy painting murals. 

The response to Ott’s first public mural commemorating the Elmwood Village Association’s Buffalo Garden Walk was overwhelmingly positive and life-changing for the fledgling mural artist.

“It was fun seeing people walk by and getting instant feedback,” Ott said. “They were really excited about the project, and they had a lot of questions. I really appreciate that public art puts beautiful things directly into our environment where people can live with them and interact with them. I find that super exciting.”

.”This newfound passion for this niche subdivision of her craft shines through in the Alumni Arena mural where Ott once again dove head first into the opportunity to share a meaningful message with the community.

Despite gaining more experience in mural painting since her first public art piece in 2019, Ott has still encountered new challenges this time around. For instance, she’d never painted a mural on a horizontal plane: the ground. 

Ott says this was a completely different “can of worms” compared to anything she’d previously tackled. 

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It opened the door to new obstacles such as debris on the ground, pesky falling leaves and anti-slip paint with the gritty consistency of pudding mixed with sand. These unforeseen obstacles and minor annoyances did not phase Ott in the slightest.

“Like anything, you just kind of have to take a bit of a leap, and there are so many ways that I feel like art is representative of life,” Ott said. “There’s only so much you can plan for. So at a certain point you need to take the leap and see if you can figure it out as you go.”

Ott doesn’t shy away from figuring things out as she goes in her life either. 

As a child, Ott frequently visited the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts with her parents, both artists, who supported her creativity from the very beginning. She fondly recalls watercolor classes with dad and making glass beads with mom, but says a photography camp was central to her artistic awakening. She earned a BFA with a concentration in photography in 2001. 

After graduating college, Ott took the summer with her now-husband to have one last hoorah before entering the workforce. With a world of adventure waiting for them, Ott and her partner booked their plane tickets to Amsterdam. The only problem: their flight was scheduled to depart on Sept. 11, 2001. After her plans for an unforgettable European getaway became unforgettable for all the wrong reasons, Ott experienced another tragic loss. In the following months, Ott’s grandparents passed away in a devastating plane crash. Her grandfather was flying the plane and her grandmother was his only passenger. 

“Those two events really changed my universe,” Ott said. “I think about how time can be therapeutic. 

Still reeling from these traumatic circumstances and the lack of a regular artistic structure that college provided, Ott did not produce any serious bodies of work for 13 years outside of graphic design jobs for her family’s glass dinnerware business. Eventually, Ott gave herself assignments to complete, and her creative flow returned with a vengeance. She painted on others’ old photographs that she had either purchased from eBay and second-hand stores or received from family, friends and acquaintances. 

Through time, healing and self-determination, Ott was able to pour all of her talent into UB’s new Title IX commemorative mural. The mural’s celebration of inclusion and equality resonates strongly with Ott. 

“In sports and in the current climate, there are a lot of people who have a lot of hurdles, unnecessary hurdles,” Ott said. “And there is such a giant lack of equality in our society, and I feel like anything that recognizes these hurdles or how far we’ve come is important to pay tribute to so that we can feel hopeful for making more progress. It’s important to commemorate and honor the progress that we’re making so that we can continue to make sure that everyone is on a level playing field.”

The arts desk can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com


ALEX NOVAK

Alex Novak is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum

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