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Dreams Take Root and Blossom

Their ambitions may sound lofty, but they are keeping their feet on the ground.

Next to the big green house on the hill at 501 N. Seventh St. in Martins Ferry, a small stand of trees stretches to the sky out of a makeshift wishing well. The "well" is constructed of corrugated steel and has a rusty metal frame, a symbol of both the whimsy and industry of the homeowner, the late Mitch Wozniak.

Today, Wozniak's 23-year-old granddaughter, other family members and friends are renovating the 100-year-old home. Fresh out of art school in St. Louis, Siena Baldi and Sylva Johnson are creating a sustainable living space that also will provide studio space for artists of all kinds, including visiting artists, and give local residents the opportunity to explore their own creativity.

They call themselves the MITCH Collective: an homage to co-founder Baldi's grandfather but also an acronym for Mastering Innovation Technology & Creativity House. Baldi and co-founder Johnson adopted the tree-sprouting well as their symbol. "I think it's neat that's where the trees have taken root and are blooming and blossoming. We're here in this house, which everyone had written off, and we're growing in this unlikely place," Johnson said.

Their ambitions may sound lofty, but they are keeping their feet on the ground. They have filed paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit. Their website, www.mitchcollective.org, lists ways supporters can donate in exchange for MITCH swag. Donors have responded from New York, California, Florida, Europe and Australia, among other locations, helping them raise money to buy two antique printing presses and a cutter.

Baldi's parents, Martins Ferry native Diana Wozniak Baldi and her husband, Bruce, who live in the Chicago suburb of Libertyville, Ill., have provided both financial support and hard labor in the renovation of the house where Diana Baldi spent her childhood. A 1973 St. John Central High School graduate, Diana Baldi and her husband have traveled to Martins Ferry every holiday break for 14 months to work on the house.

"In August of 2010, we were looking at tearing the house down," Diana Baldi said of the home where her father lived until his death about 12 years ago. Since then, it had become a "money pit," and a string of renters succeeded in rendering it uninhabitable. She told her children - including Siena; Josie, who lives on Scotch Ridge and Brooke, a student at Ohio University - if they wanted it to speak up or it would be demolished.

In October, after consulting with some professors and fellow art students at Washington University in St. Louis about the idea of creating an artists' collective, Siena told her mother she would "like to give it a go," Diana Baldi said.

Indiana native Johnson, also 23, was Baldi's college roommate with whom she had gone on an overseas art study trip to Florence, Italy. She was excited to embark on this new adventure with Baldi. A photographer and painter, she always had wanted to renovate an old home, she said, and they all were interested in using sustainable methods and materials in their project. They put down a cork floor in the kitchen, for example. They plan to build a community garden in the yard, where Baldi remembers her grandfather growing "delicious tomatoes."

"We just started dreaming and it's been a lot of work but we're doing it not just for ourselves but we want to share it with the community," Johnson said.

Chris Cleary, Martins Ferry councilman-at-large, said thinks Baldi and Johnson's enterprise is remarkable.

"I think it's fantastic what they are doing, giving the arts more exposure in Martins Ferry," Cleary said. He said he has seen them at the Chamber of Commerce and getting involved in city projects. Johnson has been attending Grace Presbyterian Church, where she has found herself welcomed by the congregation who is like a big family, she said.

"They are getting it out there, offering their services to everybody in the community. ... They're really good at bringing their ideas - they have a million ideas. And you can see they are trying to inject some life into the arts community," Cleary said. He added the city would love to see more people take an interest in renovating some of the city's dilapidated homes.

One way the women are engaging the community is by opening their house up every Monday from 7-9 p.m. for Mondays @ MITCH, to give residents an opportunity to make art, use the printing presses, socialize, study, sew, read and share music. One of Baldi's specialties is printmaking, and she uses the presses to make, among other things, cards and postcards promoting the collective. She is willing to show anyone who stops by how to operate the small presses using the many die cuts, wood cuts and metal letters she has collected or created.

Baldi also offers a kids' art class every Thursday at the Children's Museum of the Ohio Valley in Wheeling, which is free with paid admission to the museum. Plans are in the works to offer art classes at the Martins Ferry Recreation Center, as well.

In addition to printmaking and textiles, Baldi is a sculptor and painter. Her mother said when Baldi was applying to art schools, professors shared with her that it was unsual for an artist to be so talented in both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art.

Baldi's talents have given her the opportunity to be flown by HBO to study in Berlin, Germany, with renowned large-scale artist Olafur Eliasso - probably best known for his "Waterfalls" in New York Harbor - for its "Masterclass" documentary film. She has illustrated children's books, had her work exhibited in the U.S. Capitol and won numerous regional and national art awards.

Johnson's specialty is photography but she also is a painter. Johnson offers wedding photography services, and goth women work "day jobs" to help support themselves in their artistic endeavors.

An exhibit of both women's works opens Thursday, April 5, at the Wheeling Artisan Center Loft Gallery, 1400 Main St. Titled, "Shouldered by Rivers," in reference to the Ohio River and the Mississippi River, which runs through St. Louis where they went to college.

"Shouldered by Rivers is an exhibition of artwork displaying fresh ideas and perspectives by two very talented artists working in a variety of mediums including photography, drawings, ceramics, and screen printing," said Chris Villamagna of Wheeling National Heritage Area Corp., who coordinates the gallery's exhibits. "Both artists are a wonderful addition to the Ohio Valley not only for the great work they produce but what they can teach and share with our communities."

The exhibit runs through April 26. A free artists' reception will take place from 5:30-7 p.m Thursday. The public is encouraged to meet these two young ladies who are blossoming where they have decided to be planted, in an old green house on a hill above a river in Martins Ferry.