A bar of Ivory soap the size of a barge floats down the Ohio River. A foaming glass of beer towers above the skyline. The long-gone Cincinnati Gas Light and Coke Co. peeps out over the cityscape. In James Billiter’s world, a series of color-bursting murals, the treasured past and fantastical present meet.
And the people who see these paintings every day – employees at Duke Energy’s Customer Service Center in Cincinnati – are the ones who helped inspire them.
When Duke Energy consolidated three customer service locations into one renovated building in 2017, bare walls set executives thinking: Why not create an environment with images from all three states – Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky – where employees lived?
“We were bringing about 150 people from three cultures into one space,” said Tiffany Dennison, director of accounts receivable. “Art truly makes your environment a happier place. We went to ArtsWave (a funding consortium and information clearinghouse), which gave us artists to talk to, and James really got what we wanted to do.
“He did focus groups with employees, asking, ‘What do you think of when you think of Cincinnati?’ We heard about favorite places, favorite foods, favorite memories. So we have anything from a big fireworks display to piles of chili and cheese.”
Billiter, a native who studied graphic design at the University of Cincinnati, has spent the last seven years capturing the essence of the city “near to my heart: nature, architecture, local culture, things I see when I’m bicycling.” He investigated places employees mentioned – he especially enjoyed finding fish-and-chip shops in the Bond Hill and Avondale neighborhoods – and incorporated one fond memory from his own childhood: the steamboat Delta Queen.
“My dad had a small runabout he’d take out on the Ohio River on special occasions,” Billiter said. “He was switching the fuel tanks one night, and suddenly a spotlight came at us out of the fog. The Delta Queen was coming straight for us! I felt like I was in a Mark Twain novel, but we managed to get out of the way.”
Billiter enlisted two painting assistants, recent University of Cincinnati graduates Gillean Dublow and Sammi Hayes, and embarked on six months’ worth of work. Over time, other students and friends dropped by to take part. They produced a 54-square-foot painting as the centerpiece for the lobby and more than a dozen others, ranging from paint on wood or stretched canvas to laser-cut, low-relief murals on wood.
“I love how these pieces showcase all the interesting and unique aspects of these areas,” said Revenue Services employee Scott Nicholson. “I have been on the floor over two years and am still noticing new things. There is even an homage to (Cincinnati-based modernist artist) Charley Harper in several pieces. Being an amateur photographer, I can really appreciate how (Billiter) frames up different landscapes and creatively arranges the symbols for that area.”
Nicholson and his cohorts have also discovered a unique alignment. Art in sections facing Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio contains landmarks from those states, and the paintings are geographically correct from west to east and north to south.
“We had coloring books made of the artwork for employees to share with their kids,” Dennison said. “Before we came, this was a trading floor full of computers, which we had to gut. Now it’s a vibrant place, and employees feel they’re a part of that.”