Sharing her passion: Meet the voice of Fort Wayne's arts scene

Julia Meek loves a good folktale.

For nearly 40 years, she's devoted her life to finding authentic, human stories at heart of arts and culture in northeast Indiana and beyond, sharing them on-air as the host of 89.1 WBOI's “Folktales” and “Meet the Music."

Her distinctive frank, friendly voice invites listeners to tune in to legends-in-the-making in their community, discover and rediscover artists, and explore timeless themes that touch the human spirit in music around the world.

That's why she loves music. While she is a broadcaster and a graphic artist herself, Meek is enchanted by music's ability to express the narratives of people and cultures in a way that transcends divides and reminds us of two crucial common denominators: We are all human, and we all have a story to tell.

Over the years, her powerful presence in the Fort Wayne arts scene has made her a local legend, too.

Growing up in the city, she dubs herself a "Forthead," cheering on progress in the arts and culture scene—and beating everyone else to what's next by the sheer strength of her connections and her palpable passion for the work.

With all of this in mind, it's no surprise that's Meek is taking the stage at CreativeMornings Fort Wayne in February to talk about the global theme of "invest."

So what has inspired this local legend to invest in her city for decades, and what does she think is next for Fort Wayne's arts scene? Input Fort Wayne sat down with Meek to find out. 

IFW: You've been a lifelong participant in and advocate for Fort Wayne's arts scene. How did your upbringing inform your life and career trajectory?

WBOI Host Julia Meek enjoys bringing different genres of live music to venues in Northeast Indiana.JM: A lot of my loves and passions really started when I was a little kid. All of the arts were pretty much embraced in my household, and we were encouraged to enjoy them—a wide variety of things.

I started drawing when I was a little kid. My mom was a really good educator and an artist. And my grandmother—who took care of us when our folks worked—instilled an interest in the arts in us, too.

I think everybody has art and an artistic sense inside of them. It doesn't matter how well you rank yourself or anything; you can express yourself artistically. That's one of my basic tenants, and I still advocate for that approach today when I teach.

Over the years, I have taught with Fort Wayne Community Schools and organizations like FAME and Easterseals Arc. I never wanted to be a teacher or a commercial artist 24/7 or five days a week, but I'm always happy to insert that into my schedule whenever I can, on a freelance basis.

I hope I never quit.

IFW: You're well-known in Fort Wayne as a host for 89.1 WBOI. How and when did you make your first foray into broadcasting?

JM: Let me go back to the beginning. It was in the mid-1970s that we got our first public radio station in Fort Wayne. It was a campus station, affiliated with then-Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

To have it right in our community was very exciting at the time. I was always a big fan and supporter, and then came the day when they figured out that the university needed those funds for other things. So they put a save-the-station campaign together.

At that time, our community was already making records with that station because it had such a high rate of community involvement, and it had so many really heavy hitters, if you will, and financial backing. So that helped, but they needed people who could help get them ready for that campaign. 

At the time, my now ex-husband and I had a little screen printing and design business. We offered to design and print posters for the campaign. So that's how we first got involved.

IFW: How did your trademark, nationally syndicated show “Folktales” come about?

JM: Our music director Michael Roth—one of the two people in charge of the station when it was still on campus—was recruiting enthusiastic, music-loving people to host shows. He asked me to do a live afternoon music show, which is how I got started on-air.

Back then, it was almost all classical music, and here's where it starts getting very very pertinent because they also had a package of weekend folk shows then. I always loved substituting for the host anytime I had the chance. So when a time slot opened up, I agreed to do the show and decided to call it “Folktales.”

Now, everybody assumed that I would pick one country, per week or per time, to talk about their music, but that was very boring to me. I mean, if you didn't like that country's music, you're kind of stuck. And all along, I had access to music from some countries and not much from other countries. So that's how I got the format, which I still use today. I pick a theme or topic thread, which is the whole point of the show. You go all around our world and get a taste of musical traditions that apply to that theme.

It’s a wonderful and communal celebration of life.

IFW: In addition to your storytelling on music both in Fort Wayne and around the world, you also meet a lot of movers and shakers in the local arts and culture scene on the job. What's one common theme that permeates those experiences?

JM: I am very proud to be a Forthead. I love to tell a good folktale. Everybody has a story. Everybody has their sense of the place. Everybody wants to be proud of themselves, their family, the world, and where they're from, and to keep that whole momentum going, to keep the whole human race going.

Since ancient times, there have had to be ways for sharing stories. The written word is great, but it was not the first way of storytelling.

I really believe that music is the best way to understand the people of the world. Through music, we can understand people respective of all the other arts and cultural affairs.

Music is the thing. It's our walking pace; that is what it's based on. It goes all the way back to one instrument: The human voice. That's all you ever needed for a story. That's what you needed for a community.

This is what makes the world go 'round.

Julia Meek poses with Ryan Lentine and Jane DeBusk during a "Meet the Music" recording session.

IFW: What makes Fort Wayne a great place to put down roots and create art?

JM: Fort Wayne's founding fathers worked hard to establish our city back then, to make sure we’d be sitting here having this conversation right now. They did a good job of it. And that legacy continues through our arts, our parks, our educational system—all of the things that place us on those top-10 lists.

It’s also a very hospitable, inviting, welcoming place for people to come and make all of that happen. When you live somewhere for 69 years, you see peaks and valleys and coming-and-going and high points and golden ages. And oh my goodness, we are on one giant trajectory of getting bigger and better.

There's just a lot of like-minded people that embrace all of the art-centricities that grow here. And I say, hallelujah!

IFW:  What challenges and advancements have you observed in the arts scene over the years?

JM:  There's always a lot of good projects that have come to be realized, but don't always have the necessary infrastructure backing for them to succeed in the long run. For example, there were murals put up in the late 70s and early 80s, but there was never a thought as to how to maintain them. They were great, but the plans didn't go far enough, and that was a shame because they weren’t kept up. 

Presently, I would say an advancement is that public art doesn't go out of style, and it's getting bigger and better than ever before here. It’s striking a harmonic cord even more, even better and even larger than life in the 21st century. And I think that's just glorious. 

And the riverfront and the surrounding area and neighborhoods are advancing to the very best of their potential. It isn't just that it's bigger and better. It's like we’re coming into our own in the 21st century. And I think that's just so grand.

IFW: What do you think is next for Fort Wayne's arts scene?

JM: As far as what's next, we know the sky's the limit, and so, I look forward to whatever can be brought on. In a conversation with City of Fort Wayne Urban Planner Daniel Baisden, I asked him the same question, so I'm going to credit him with this answer.

One thing we’re looking at here is a movement rooted in “art for all.” How can we make sure people of all ages, shapes, sizes, abilities, etc. have access to the arts and no one’s left out?

IFW: You have a new gig at the Clyde Theatre's Club Room on Friday nights. Tell us about that.

JM: The Clyde’s Executive Director Gregg Coyle asked if I’d consider doing a Friday night program once a month. I loved that room and space. It’s been going well, so I agreed to do to it every week.

I am a big advocate of bringing live and local music to the Club Room.

We call it "Friday Night Vibes" because it gives us some artistic freedom; it doesn't lock us into a genre. That's how we're different from the Monday and Wednesday because they do open mic sessions with revolving artists. But we always have one act, and the criteria is that they are supporters of the station and the local music scene.

This weekly, free event is from 8:30-10 p.m. and will likely go through the end of March. The Club Room will close temporarily in the spring in preparation for the expansion.

IFW: You're speaking at CreativeMornings Fort Wayne in February, too, and we've heard that you’re taking a non-traditional approach to your talk. What can attendees expect?

JM: One of my favorite things to do is tell stories. I'd rather do that than talk about myself. When I do gigs, I take a musician friend, and we just sit down, and I'll tell whatever story. They're playing music behind me. Everybody loves the songs, and then I take off and keep going.

That is a highly satisfying way for me to share my passion and a highly palatable way for an audience to learn something at the same time.  

Hear Julia speak about 'invest' at CreativeMornings Fort Wayne Julia Meek is CreativeMornings Fort Wayne's February speaker.
8:30-10 a.m. Friday, February 14
The Clyde Theatre Club Room

CreativeMornings Fort Wayne is a free, monthly breakfast lecture series for anyone who calls themselves "creative." Topics and locations and vary each month. Tickets are free, but must be reserved online.
The link to RSVP will go live on CreativeMornings Fort Wayne's Facebook page at 9 a.m. ET on Monday, February 10.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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