Illustrating Little Italy: Artist depicts neighborhood history, life, in mural and Art Walk

Cleveland’s Little Italy has long boasted a bustling art scene. It’s a neighborhood filled with artists’ studios, galleries, arts and crafts shops, and other makers. Every summer, these galleries and studios, as well as outdoor exhibits, showcase the talent packed into a few Cleveland streets.

As Little Italy prepares to celebrate its 39th Summer Art Walk from Friday, May 31 through Sunday, June 2, artist Tara Seibel has been hard at work, creating her latest collectible Summer Art Walk poster to commemorate and promote the event.

Little Italy Art Walk 2024 poster by artist Tara SeibelLittle Italy Art Walk 2024 poster by artist Tara SeibelSpecializing in illustrations and cartoons, Seibel has been creating the Art Walk posters since 2014—shortly after she opened Tara Seibel Art Gallery above Presti’s Bakery in 2012. The posters depict familiar shops, people, locations, and scenes in and around Little Italy.

To date, Seibel has a series of 14 collectible posters for the Summer Art Walks in a range of themes that depict the neighborhood.

“I love to draw people; I love to draw places, and especially Little Italy, since I've been down there, looking out at it, looking at everybody for a decade,” Seibel reflects. “I know the feel of Little Italy, and I love when people come to the gallery, and they want to buy the posters—and a lot of people are collecting them now.”

Her work has also appeared in the "New York Times," "USA Today," the "Funny Times," and several other local publications—just to mention a few. However, the Summer Art Walk posters, featuring Seibel’s signature illustrations that pay homage to the neighborhood and its restaurants and stores, are the main indication that the popular event is coming around.

Going large scale

While the sites and activities around Little Italy have inspired Seibel to create the posters for the past 10 years, her talents also grabbed the interest of Presti’s owner Claudia Dibartolo, who last year commissioned Seibel to create a mural in the bakery.

“[Dibartolo] knows my work because she's seen it in the gallery,” explains Seibel. “She's a big fan of the posters I've been doing for the past 10 years. I've just been watching everybody at restaurants and the festivities, events, and things like that. I have been documenting Little Italy for so long.”

The two women sat down together in the bakery and paged through Seibel’s sketchbook, and Seibel says Dibartolo, who particularly liked the café scenes, chose the sketches she liked best.

Seibel says she began the process by imagining the city streets and created a series of sketches to build a panoramic view of the neighborhood.

Working in stages, it took Seibel almost a year to complete the three-panel, graphic arts-style mural “Happy Feast” in December, which depicts the revelers gathering on the street around the bakery during the neighborhood’s annual Feast of the Assumption.

“I wanted there to be an energy that came off the painting,” explains Seibel. “You're not looking out of a window, you are looking in.”

“Happy Feast” mural inside Presti’s Bakery“Happy Feast” mural inside Presti’s BakeryShe says the Presti’s mural is meant to illustrate the creative pulse of Little Italy—from the excitement of the Feast to portraits of Presti’s parents to the stonework of nearby Lake View Cemetery—with University Circle encompassing the base of the work and the Cleveland skyline in the distance. She says she included Lake View Cemetery because the Italian immigrants who settled in the neighborhood crafted so much of the stonework found in the headstones and mausoleums.

The middle panel features Holy Rosary Church’s Virgin Mary statue carried during the Feast of Assumption procession. “That's the most magnetic,” Seibel says. “That's where all the energy comes from. And the big thing with me was [Dibartolo] wanted a lot of color, which I can provide for sure.”

“Claudia loved the fact that I have the procession [during the Feast] going on, and then the architectural pieces—like scenes of the different Victorian buildings,” Seibel says. “It was like a village, cityscape, an historic neighborhood. The setting was really important to me. And I wanted everyone to see how the [Little Italy] neighborhood is set in the City of Cleveland, so you have University Circle sort of hugging it, and you can kind of see downtown."

But the most difficult part, Seibel says, was capturing the likenesses of Dibartolo’s parents and Presti’s founders, Charles and Jean Presti, who are featured in the bakery scene.

“Claudia gave me a photograph of her father and her mother,” explains Seibel. “The information is there but [I asked myself], do I see it the same way [Dibartolo] does? Do I have the picture that she's carrying around in her mind of her father?”

It took three sketches for Seibel to capture Charles, but she perfected Jean on the first try.

Tara and Aaron Seibel before the unveiling reception in the galleryTara and Aaron Seibel before the unveiling reception in the galleryCreative inspirations

Little Italy grabbed Seibel’s interest even when she was a youngster growing up in Wickliffe.  Her grandmother lived across the street from Seibel’s high school, and the house became an incubator for her artistic dreams.

“I was a closet artist,” she recalls. “Sometimes [my grandmother] would call the school to call me in sick so I could stay at her house and draw, decorate cakes, practice hand lettering, and paint all day in her kitchen-turned-art-studio for the day.”  

As Seibel went through adolescence, she often went back to that oasis.

“I feel like working with your hands is so therapeutic,” she says. “Growing up, I remember having a lot of…little conflicts. Because my grandmother lived so close, I could just go to her house and lay on her sofa. She was my talk therapist. She was my art therapist. She was everything.”

After graduating from Edinboro University with a degree in graphic art and illustration, Seibel pursued a graphic arts career in Chicago and Cleveland, working for companies like American Greetings. While in Chicago, Seibel met her future husband, Aaron, an optical engineer. Today they live in Pepper Pike and have three grown children.

In March 2008, she met underground comic book writer Harvey Pekar, of “American Splendor” fame, at the Jewish Authors Symposium at Lakeland Community College. Seibel worked with Pekar every day for the next two-and-a-half years, until he passed away in 2010.

Little Italy’s Toulouse Lautrec

There’s a serendipitous pattern to Seibel’s life. From her days on her grandmother’s couch to finding the love of her life across the hall in Chicago, to a ubiquitous Cleveland snowstorm enabling her to sit next to her creative idol, Seibel is smart enough to see how all these creative forces came together to help her to build a successful artistic life.

The gallery space (above Presti’s Bakery) during the ArtWalk event held December 1, 2023The gallery space (above Presti’s Bakery) during the ArtWalk event held December 1, 2023“I feel like [19th Century artist Henri de] Toulouse-Lautrec in a way,” she says. “I'm not in Paris, I'm in Cleveland; and I'm not in saloons, I'm in a bakery. But I am observing everyday life that's going on down here. And I'm expressing that. I feel very lucky to live in Cleveland and be able to have that kind of an outlet and be able to create real art and to be a working artist.”

Seibel knows how to pay these artistic gifts forward. Seibel’s studio is now an incubator for other artists. During the Summer Art Walk Seibel’s Art Gallery will be featuring Will Wilson's multi-media paintings on canvas, Jeff Suntala’s watercolors, Brigitte Fiorille’s ceramic mugs and sculptures, and Marjorie Falk’s fused glass jewelry. A series of Seibel’s Art Walk posters will also be on sale in the gallery.

Guests can view “Happy Feast” downstairs in the bakery. Additionally, this year guest artists from Cleveland Bazaar will be exhibiting in the Murray Hill Schoolhouse, 2026 Murray Hill Road.

Seibel says she loves how much time she gets to spend in her favorite Cleveland neighborhood—especially when people tell her that she’s captured the essence of Little Italy.

“That's where I earn my paycheck because I love hearing that,” she says. “They call me from all over the country because their husband or grandparents grew up in Little Italy.”

You can follow Seibel on Facebook and InstagramLittle Italy’s 39th Annual Summer Art Walk runs Friday, May 31 from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday, June 1, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; and Sunday June 2 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Tara Seibel Art Gallery, above Presti’s Bakery, will be hosting a Summer Art Walk opening and reception on Saturday, June 1 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

About the Author: Katie McMenamin

Katie McMenamin has written across a range of platforms, from broadcast news and published novels to promotional brochures and back cover blurbs.