Murals tell the story of who we are
By Linda Lipp | Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly
If you ask people about their childhood homes, chances are they are going to remember more than just the things they did there. They’ll remember parts of the decor: the yellow Formica kitchen table, the print on the living room wallpaper, the worn but comfy old brown couch.
“It’s locked into your psyche when you think about that place,” said Timothy Parsley, an associate professor in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Saint Francis and an accomplished muralist.
Public art plays the same kind of role in making a community feel like a home.
“Art has that same potential,” he said. “It helps people connect and associate with places, and feel like this is theirs.”
Parsley is currently painting a massive mural on a building at Columbia and Harrison streets.
“It’s interesting how many people who obviously have no part in actually creating a mural somehow still own it,” he said. “It’s their mural and they celebrate that and cheer you on. They love to see it evolve,” he said.
“One of the buzz words in economic development is quality of place, and we have to create a high quality of place for people to want to live here and move here,” said Mary Tyndall, public information officer for Fort Wayne’s community development department. “I think that’s where art really comes into play is that it creates a special place that is unlike any other ... so it makes Fort Wayne special and makes people want to live here and locate their business here.”
“I think that there’s a fair amount of research out there that’s being done in terms of the economic value of emphasizing the arts, and bringing in more of your creative sector into that,” Parsley added. “From my standpoint as an artist, as someone who is doing this work, to me it does help strengthen a sense of place.”
Pam Holocher, director of policy and planning for the city of Fort Wayne, remembers consulting with residents of city neighborhoods in preparation for a proposed public art program — and a provision to help fund it — that was approved by the City Council and Mayor Tom Henry last March.
“I actually was a little hesitant,” Holocher recalled. “This is a very conservative community and I thought maybe any money spent on anything but bricks and mortar wouldn’t be appreciated.”
The reaction was totally the opposite.
“People were 100 percent behind the idea, and had lots of ideas based on public art they’d seen in places like Chicago and Albuquerque,” Holocher said. “I’ve never had residents recommend things we should do that they have seen other places. It seemed like they had that zest, that feeling, that they wanted to bring some of that coolness to Fort Wayne and that they identified with it.”
Make my day
Fort Wayne’s city-supported mural program got started a few years ago with “Front Door Fort Wayne,” an effort to beautify the gateways into the downtown area.
“We wanted our gateways to look attractive, kind of say something about the community and who we were,” Holocher said.
The city used money from its Legacy Fund, derived from the sale of its electric utility, to finance murals on railroad bridges and overpasses. One of the earlier, more striking works was done by an Allen County artist, Jerrod Tobias, who also painted murals at the Firefly coffee housing building on North Anthony Boulevard.
The reaction on social media was strongly positive, especially with the Tobias mural.
“We’d get emails saying, ‘It makes my day in the morning when I come over the bridge and see it,” Holocher said. “I think it is making people feel more connected to who we are, or at least to some of the cool factors.”
People also seemed to connect with the fact that artists like Tobias don’t just come here to work; they live here, she added.
In the spring, the Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District selected its first three mural projects to be part of its new Art This Way, Alley Activation Project funded with help from the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
Parley and USF students were responsible for creating one of the murals, located at 128. W. Wayne St. Weather delayed the project, and while students did an entire indoor rendition of the piece, Parsley ended up finishing the mural mostly on his own after the spring semester ended.
Matthew Plett created a mural for the Midtowne Crossing Owners Association at 112 W. Wayne St. and Bryan Ballinger did a mural sponsored by Ambassador Enterprises at 927 Harrison St.
“Downtown Fort Wayne’s public realm experience is essential to sustaining its momentum and growth as a destination of choice,” said Bill Brown, DID’s president. “Through the collaborative efforts of great partners like Art This Way, the Fort Wayne Chamber of Commerce Foundation, Lincoln Financial Group as well as fantastic downtown advocates, businesses and property owners, we have been able to develop a positive placemaking concept from idea to implementation in an actionable timeframe that respects the process as much as the outcome.”
Shaking things up
The Chamber Foundation’s president, Maclyn Parker, was the driving factor behind Parsley’s current mural project. Parker put Parsley in touch with Mark Millett, the CEO of Steel Dynamics Inc. and the owner of the building at Columbia and Harrison.
It turns out, both Millett and Parsley have a fondness for art that depicts the American West.
“My own work as an artist deals with notions of the American West and the history of America and the forces that shaped it, and the complications and even the destruction of that,” Parsley said. “I try to convey both sides of that in my work.”
He showed some different concepts to Millett, and both chose the same one — a portrayal of the American buffalo, or bison, which also appears on Indiana’s seal.
Parsley, who came to Fort Wayne from Cincinnati in 2013, has been involved in about a dozen projects there.
“I think that there’s a fair amount of research out there that’s being done in terms of the economic value of emphasizing the arts and bringing more of your creative sector into that,” he said.
Beyond helping secure a sense of place, there is a potential for murals, for art in general, to break us out of our monotony.
“It causes people to stop and look up and pause,” Parsley said. “It’s disruptive, but not necessarily in an aggressive or confrontational way. It doesn’t have to be. It raises questions, maybe it’s awe inspiring.
“Public art does its job when it sort of pushes us to step out of our routine and think differently,” Parsley said. “That to me is a contribution to the city where often times our actions and our thoughts are ordered by the tasks of the day, the business we’re involved in, which is important, but is that all our cities can do for us?”
There are no metrics available yet to support the notion that murals and public art increase property values, Holocher said, although there is some evidence from Indianapolis, for example, that trails are having an impact.
“But let’s face it. If you are looking out at art or a landscape, versus a parking lot, who’s going to pay the higher rent? It’s almost intuitive,” she said.
One of the most important tasks of Fort Wayne’s new arts commission will be to develop a master plan, Holocher said. Some communities have ordinances that set parameters for what murals can or can’t be and where they can be located. “Right now they’re kind of just happening, which hasn’t been a bad thing at all so far, but at some point we may want to regulate it,” Holocher said.
Another big part of the master plan is to engage with members of the community to find out what they want, she added. “I think that’s key. It’s not just what certain stakeholders want. It’s not what Pam Holocher wants or what the art community wants. It’s what our community as a whole wants, and that’s a diverse community, too.”