Expression and espresso: The Lateef Brothers mix art and java at the Ground LevelWritten by Michael Brooks | | email@example.com
Just as we sat down to talk about his Ground Level Coffeehouse, Imani Lateef excused himself to help with a line of customers that just formed.
“Sorry — business comes first,” he apologized, jumping behind the counter to assist with a few beverage and food orders.
This allowed Imani’s brother Yusuf the opportunity to restart an earlier conversation about his artwork, and the episode symbolized the sort of yin-yang nature of the Lateef Brothers, a pair of young men who blend their love of aesthetic expression with the practical realities of a commerce-driven world.
The Ground Level Coffeehouse has emerged in its year in business as a hub of activity in the burgeoning Toledo arts scene, said Yusuf.
“Our name has become synonymous with poetry, music, and the performing arts,” he said. “And it is a fascinating time to be so involved in art in Toledo: this is like living in a history book, watching the actualization of important art right while it is happening.”
A conversation with the Lateef Brothers highlights the dualistic and complementary natures of their personalities. Yusuf and Imani often finish each other’s sentences or pick up on intellectual threads the other has left unfinished. After returning from the service counter at the Ground Level, Imani discussed their different approaches.
“We both enjoy art, and yet our approaches are like night and day,” he said. “Yusuf creates from the heart, while I create from the head. Yusuf is much more creative with a traditional medium such as painting, while my talents find a better form of expression in digital graphics.”
The Lateef brothers moved with their parents to Toledo from Columbus in the mid-1980s as children. They have been fixtures on the local arts scene ever since, with the exception of the four years that Yusuf studied at the Columbus College of Art and Design. Both brothers credit local influences for their successes, including the art curriculum at their alma mater, Whitmer High School.
“The Young Artists at Work program completely opened up my mind,” said Yusuf, whose work has been exhibited in many local and regional galleries. “This exposed me to ideas and concepts I never knew existed, and my life would have taken a much different path had it not been for this experience.”
Quite a few of Yusuf’s paintings, which reflect both postmodern and traditional influences, adorn the walls of the Ground Level Coffeehouse, but Yusuf seemed more proud of the numerous murals he has created around Toledo.
“The first one I created was in response to the uprising in the North End after the Nazis came to Toledo in 2005,” he said of the mural, at the Stickney Banquet Hall. “We talked to students in the schools about what happened, and the results of those conversations took shape in the form of the mural.”
Imani credited another local initiative for his early interest in artistic expression.
“For me it started with Artomatic 419,” he recalled. “This program brought together a wide variety of artists and performers from all across the city, and I was blown away by aspects of art that I had never even imagined.”
Imani said Ground Level Coffeehouse is a “natural extension” of his interest in the arts.
“Unlike the big coffee chains, the Ground Level is truly a community coffeehouse,” he said. “This is a place where the arts communities come together, and where the community at large meets: this is a center of social interaction.”
In its first year in business, the Ground Level Coffeehouse has indeed stood out as a center of artistic expression. The coffeehouse regularly features local and regional poets, musicians, and performance artists, with an open microphone night on Mondays for musicians. Imani said this is yet another factor that differentiates the Ground Level from national coffee chains.
“I don’t shy away from the fact that we compete with the big players for the product of coffee, but what we are doing is light years from what the chains do,” he said. “A place like the Ground Level becomes something much larger than just another coffee shop: it becomes the heart of communities.”
Imani added he might duplicate the model for the Ground Level Coffeehouse elsewhere in the city in the future.
“This type of establishment serves an important purpose for a community, and there are lots of places in Toledo that would benefit from having this kind of venue,” he said, adding that a number of local groups have used the Ground Level for fundraising activities.
Yusuf added that the Ground Level Coffeehouse might help aspiring artists and performers the way that others guided him while growing up.
“One of the most important roles of the Ground Level Coffeehouse is that it serves to connect people,” he said. “You come here to meet people and have a cup of coffee, and inevitably you end up meeting other people who might be in a position to help further your work, or who might pass along word about you to others.”
Imani additionally attributes the success of the Ground Level Coffeehouse — which also features sandwiches, salads, and appetizers — to the high quality coffee the restaurant serves.
“Without a doubt our decision to serve Flying Rhino coffee has been an important asset,” he said. “Ralph and Gini Behrendt roast the beans right here in Toledo, and we are proud to be serving the finest coffee while reinvesting back into the community we love.”
The Ground Level Coffeehouse is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and is located at 2636 W. Central Avenue, just west of Douglas Road (419) 671-6272). Artists and performers interested in the coffeehouse are encouraged to stop by on an open mic night or to contact the Lateef brothers via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.