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Derek Toebbe stands in front of the finished piece.

Power of Possibility and Education Inspired New Mural at Cincinnati State

When Cincinnati State Technical and Community College began considering artwork and artists for its latest Percent for Art project in the Advanced Technology and Learning Center (ATLC), the college’s selection committee first thought deeply about the people who attend and visit the college.  

“Where do they come from and why are they here?” was the starting point for the committee'" said Jason Caudill—the chair of the committee and former chair of Cincinnati State’s graphic design program.  

He further explained that the ATLC is now the gateway to Cincinnati State’s campus for prospective and current students, the public, and those visiting on business. It houses the college’s welcome center, financial aid office, and registration, along with the cafeteria, a culinary program-run restaurant, a bookstore, and several degree programs and corresponding classrooms. Various administrative offices are also located in the ATLC, including the office of the president and several vice presidents.  

“We felt like the mural that we were looking for could be something that afforded people the opportunity to take a deep breath and to have that mini-meditation, or that change in mindset,” said Caudill. “So, we wanted something that was going to be uplifting, but also was going to give people a moment to pause and take a breath.” 

With these ideas at the core of their decision-making, the committee shifted its focus to designs that were open to multiple interpretations. They also decided to work with ArtWorks, a Cincinnati nonprofit dedicated to creating public art and providing opportunities for local artists and students through partnerships with a wide range of area organizations, agencies, and community members. Since its inception 26 years ago, they’ve helped to facilitate more than 14,000 public and private art projects, including more than 250 permanent outdoor murals.  

“One of the things we really love about ArtWorks is that they have a very similar mission statement...and approach [to ours],” said Caudill. “The community they serve and the community that we serve are very, very similar.” 

Together with ArtWorks, the committee worked to refine and solidify their ideas about the project, ultimately deciding on a mural and selecting Derek Toebbe to design it.  

Toebbe is an artist and designer who lives and works in the Greater Cincinnati region. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Northern Kentucky University. After graduating, he was active in the local gallery scene before being drawn into projects involving large-scale public works, first in skateboard parks and then on buildings. In 2014, Toebbe started applying for projects through ArtWorks that he could do in the summer months. During the academic year, he taught high school students studio art as part of Cincinnati Public School’s alternative pathway arts program. Since 2014, he has completed around a dozen projects with ArtWorks. 

Much of Toebbe’s work is informed by his interest in blending the concepts of fractal geometry and sacred geometry.  

“Every natural organism is produced by a fractal geometry equation, which is sort of a process of self-similarity...If you go to churches, sacred sites, there’s often very ornate, geometric patterns. And that was considered the language of God—the purity of mathematics and the perfect nature of mathematics,” said Toebbe. 

Growing up, Toebbe said he was exposed to a variety of visual and traditional art forms that also informed his work. His grandmother drew, painted, and made dolls. She—along with his mother—was also a quilter. “I picked up some of those [quilting] patterns and just started to play with them, in a fractal, sort of expressive way,” he said.  

These influences and inspirations became part of Toebbe’s design for the Cincinnati State mural. He also worked with the school’s official colors, creating variations and different combinations he thought would work well together. 

In describing how he approaches design, Toebbe said, “’s a process I’ve learned and expanded upon. It’s endless variations of a fundamental process. For [the Cincinnati State] project, I was able to make a few versions, and [the committee] chose the one that they felt really fit the space,” said Toebbe. 

Once the committee settled on a design, the project moved into the painting stage.  

For its projects, ArtWorks hires a lead teaching artist—sometimes the designer, other times a different local artist—to bring the mural to life. The teaching artist also guides and mentors a team of youth apprentices. Using this collaborative model, the organization has hired more than 3,500 professional artists and provided professional training to more than 4,000 youths ages 14 to 24. Hannah Smith, a Cincinnati-based artist and educator with a background in sculpture and printmaking, was the teaching artist for this project. She worked with two youth apprentices: Shelby Ivins and D’Airion McCullough. 

Toebbe had a chance to work with the team to show them his method for painting murals.  

“They started the project by doing a projection...then, I was able to show them my process with pretty simple tools, which is setting a center point and then setting up a string line with a protractor and compass, and drafting the actual design...That’s the whole part of my process, just being able to approach any wall and expand on that formula and quickly map out a composition,” said Toebbe. 

This method, Toebbe explained, removes the worry of subtle variations that can happen when using a projection, which can throw off the design. A high level of precision was particularly important for this mural because it covers the entirety of one two-story wall and extends onto another. 

Completed in September 2022, the mural was unveiled and dedicated later in the fall. 

Reflecting on his first viewing of the completed mural, Caudill was drawn to Toebbe’s use of space, vibrant colors, and the uplifting feeling it gave. In many ways, it encapsulated the multi-faceted meanings and openness to interpretation the committee sought. “I felt like [Toebbe] really hit the nail on the head when I saw it for the first time,” Caudill said.  

The mural is untitled and is Cincinnati State’s second Percent for Art project. It is also the first Percent for Art project ArtWorks has completed on a college campus. Established in 1990 by the Ohio General Assembly, the program fosters arts and culture and encourages the development of Ohio’s artists and craftspeople by providing funds for works of art for new or renovated public buildings with appropriations of $4 million or more. Since the legislation went into effect, more than 200 Percent for Art projects have been installed across the state. 

Learn more about Ohio’s Percent for Art program

See more of Toebbe’s work on his Instagram page

Learn more about ArtWorks.  


Article by Andrew Paa, Communications Strategist 
Feature photo: Derek Toebbe stands in front of the finished piece. Photo courtesy of Jacqueline Norton, manager of traditional marketing and creative at Cincinnati State 

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