An artist temporarily living in the District while helping with an exhibit at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design was found tied up and stabbed to death Tuesday in an apartment on Capitol Hill, according to D.C. police.
Corrina Mehiel, 34, was known for work that filled public spaces, challenged the social conscience of people who encountered it and frequently invited spectator participation. In one project in downtown Cincinnati, she turned abandoned parking meters into flowerpots — bringing color to drab streets and making a subtle push for public gardens.
In the District, the North Carolinian was helping well-known artist Mel Chin, for whom she worked, with the “The Fundred Reserve” at the Corcoran, a display of hand-drawn $100 bills that visitors create and are used to highlight the dangers of lead poisoning and “remind us that every child’s future has value.”
During the exhibit’s run, Mehiel had rented a basement apartment in a rowhouse in the 600 block of 14th Street NE. The killing, along the edge of one of the District’s most affluent neighborhoods, unnerved some residents, and police tried to ease concerns by saying that they had found no signs of forced entry, hinting that the crime might not be random.
Police said that Mehiel was last seen Sunday evening at the Corcoran, part of George Washington University, although Chin said she was among a group who had dinner Sunday night at his apartment. Her body was found late Tuesday afternoon.
Acting D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham, who is awaiting confirmation, cautioned that the investigation was in its early stages. Police are seeking help finding Mehiel’s missing blue 2004 Toyota Prius with Kentucky license plates and a diamond-shaped yellow bumper sticker.
Authorities also put out a picture captured from a surveillance video camera that shows a “person of interest.” The photo was taken at a business in the 5000 block of Garrett Avenue in Beltsville, Md., according to D.C. Police.
On Wednesday, Newsham said police were trying to determine whether anything was missing from the apartment and whether the victim had been sexually assaulted. “We don’t have anything to suggest that this was random at this point,” the chief said.
Mehiel’s stepmother, Lari Mehiel, who is 58 and lives in Seattle, said her daughter had a “tremendous life force” and “lived fully every day. She was full of passion, and she cared deeply about social practices and art. All her art in recent years was making public spaces beautiful and livable for all people.”
Chin said he last saw Mehiel on Sunday night, when he and his wife hosted a dinner for her and a mutual friend in Chin’s apartment in Foggy Bottom.
He said she was to return to Burnsville, a town of 1,700 in western North Carolina, on Monday and that she had brought scallions to the meal because she knew he liked them. “She was funny,” he said. “She was gregarious. She shared often. She was a force of nature.”
He said he had known her for about 2 1/2 years. “I don’t why anyone would do this,” he said. “If you were in pain, she would help. . . . If you were poor, she would help pay for you.”
Mehiel received a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Cincinnati and a bachelor’s degree from Penn State. She exhibited across the country and overseas and recently gave a talk on art education research in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Mehiel’s artwork was almost always interactive, in some cases bordering on performance art. In one work, the “Clothes Swap,” she created a space for people to exchange clothes they no longer wanted — practical, but with an artistic bent.
While living in Philadelphia, Mehiel “fixed” bikes that had been abandoned on racks on city streets, turning them into public sculptures by replacing their missing parts with colorful nonfunctioning pieces, some that she painted by hand. She wrote in a description of the project that she wanted the faux repairs to inspire an “alternative way of thinking about theft” and to suggest “that we as a society fix them together.”
In Ohio, Jennifer Spurlock, the director of Community Education at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, recalled seeing the young artist in a polka-dot dress filling parking meters with soil. Mehiel was an adjunct professor there. “Her dress was as bright as her smile, which was as bright as the flowers she was planting,” she said. “
Maiza Hixson, who taught a course Mehiel enrolled in at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia about five years ago, described her as “an artist who wanted to bring art in the public sphere and in the streets. She devoted her life to that goal and touched a lot of people’s lives in doing so.”
In one project for Hixson’s course, which focused on socially engaged art, students dressed up to create a tableau vivant, or living picture, re-creating Raphael’s masterpiece “The School of Athens.” Students donned Grecian garb to mimic the great thinkers and philosophers depicted in the painting to protest student loan debt.
“She had picked up the protest sign, donned the toga and lead the rebellion down Broad Street in Philadelphia,” Hixson said.
Chin described Mehiel as “a ferocious advocate for the rights of women. She believed in the value of a private voice and the immense accountability of a collective one. For me, the loss of Corrina cannot be measured.” Chin said Mehiel strove for art that “forms a soul and a heart. Corrina was becoming the central heartbeat for all of us.”
Jennifer Jenkins and Justin Wm. Moyer contributed to this report.