More than two decades ago, Jacob Sukosd attended the Columbus Arts Festival with his then-girlfriend, Julie (the two are now married), and his brother. While there, the trio stopped at a crafting booth and painted their self-portraits onto a single tile that was later installed in the ceiling at the Blue Danube – an iconic diner on the corner of Blake Avenue and North High Street in the Old North neighborhood that .
And that was the last Sukosd thought of the painting until it turned up for sale recently on the website of Fresco Furnishings, a consignment shop on West Fifth Avenue in Grandview, listed alongside a dozen or so that were once part of a colorful mosaic covering the entire ceiling expanse within the Dube.
"My brother went to art school, and my wife loves to paint, but as you can tell by my [self-portrait], I have zero artistic ability," said Sukosd, who pegged the painting to the summer of 2002, since that was the year he graduated from Ohio State, and he painted himself wearing a cap and gown. "I can’t even say that I ever saw it in the restaurant. The fact that it even still exists is amazing.”
Fresco Furnishings owner Anne Robinson said the store started to receive the tiles from the Dube – along with assorted light fixtures – beginning in December. The shop has since sold “20 or 30” of the artworks, she said, including a handful purchased by a longtime customer of the restaurant who intended to use the pieces as a means of introducing “a bit of Columbus history” into their Airbnb rental properties. (Sukosd will also soon be reunited with the tile he painted alongside his wife; the couple purchased the piece this week and plan to display it in their Maryland home.)
The tiles were removed during extensive renovations currently being undertaken by Blue Danube owner Teri Cataland, who purchased the building from George Margetis last year. Cataland said he is working toward reopening the diner in the next three months, pending permit approval, and that he intends to keep the Blue Danube name in place but update the menu with “a Mediterranean twist." "We're going to have octopus and squid and all sorts of neat things we have in Greece," he said.
Cataland said he was able to purchase the building from Margetis due in part to the shared history between the two families (Margetis partnered with Teri’s father, Max, to open the Aegean Supper Club on Parsons Avenue in the early 1970s), and that he has a deep respect for the what the business Margetis built meant to the neighboring community.
“During the week, people will come by the Blue Danube and take selfies, and I always ask them what they’re doing. ‘Oh, my mom and dad came here when they went to Ohio State, and I had to get a picture,’” said Cataland, who has lived down the street from the Dube for 60 years. “There have been several generations that have passed through here, and I always get inquiries, and people asking what’s going to happen to the place. I’m hoping to open it and still have it be the Blue Danube, but a lot cleaner, a lot nicer.”
According to Cataland, the interior of the restaurant had to be gutted, partially due to a leaking roof that created significant mold issues in the nearly five years the building sat vacant. “I had to rip everything out – all the seats, the booths, everything had to go,” he said.
While many of the restaurant’s ceiling tiles succumbed to this water damage, Cataland said he was able to preserve about 100 of them.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and there are definitely some wild ones in there,” Cataland said. “But I understand that people have feelings for them because of the time, or how it was done, or what was painted. … People definitely have a connection to them.”
Artist Davey Highben painted one of the tiles sometime between 1997 and 1999 – “Those were very hazy years,” he said, and laughed – after initially being turned down multiple times in his quest. “I remember being astonished by them upon my arrival in Columbus and always asking if I could paint one,” he said. “But it was like the milkshakes there: Nobody ever wanted to make a milkshake, and nobody ever wanted to climb up and get the tiles down.”
Eventually, Highben said, the restaurant ordered a box of new tiles, which could then be purchased to decorate for $5 (later raised to $20). For his painting, Highben recreated a space scene from an earlier work of his, which depicted a giant orange octopus climbing through a country kitchen window surrounded by planets and galactic swirls of stars. Through this window, viewers could see fields of green grass and an expanse of blue sky dotted with pillowy clouds.
Even at the time, Highben appreciated the democratic nature of the assembled tiles, some of which were painted by admitted amateurs such as Sukosd, while others were crafted by working artists.
“That was an amazing thing about the Dube – you had these freaky tiles done by everyone from CCAD kids to somebody just struggling through their drug problem and psychosis,” he said. “It was such a time capsule, and it’s something that’ll never, ever exist in that way again.”