<span class='image-credits'>By Ray Steup</span>

Want to be a full-time artist? Decatur wants you

Shelby Nower is an artist in her junior year of college, studying Drawing and Illustration at the Herron School of Art & Design at IUPUI in Indianapolis. But when she graduates next year, she’s not planning to jet off to the coast or even stay in Indiana’s largest city.

Instead, she’s moving to Decatur, Ind., a town of about 9,500 residents just southeast of Fort Wayne because that’s where she’s found the most attractive creative opportunities.

“Indianapolis is awesome, but it feels like there’s a ton going on in Decatur for artists,” Nower says. “And the opportunities are on the same level.”

Nower is a member artist at ACE 40.8.

A St. Louis native, Nower discovered that Decatur was a hidden gem for artists a few years ago when her family moved there, and she got plugged into the community. She landed an internship at Decatur’s ACE 40.8 gallery and art collective, where she now studies under professional artists and learns some tricks of the trade to make her craft into a full-time career.

While she’s home for summer break, her arms are covered with splotches of blue from her latest project for ACE: helping the Chicago-based sculptor Charles Yost paint a 14-foot piece of metal that will be soon installed as part of the popular Decatur Sculpture Tour.

It's opportunities like these that make the town unique for young artists, Nower explains.

Since the City launched its annual Sculpture Tour in 2012, it has been attracting some of the top metal and woodwork sculpture artists in the nation to display their creations in its downtown each summer.

Along with adding tourism and vibrancy to the area, the Tour has inspired local leaders and community members alike to start thinking about their city in a different way, says Melissa Norby, Director of Community Development for the City of Decatur.

“Now, the City is willing to embrace art and assist artists to help art entrepreneurship happen,” Norby explains.

The Unveiling Festival allows artists to reveal their sculptures to the public.

Project-by-project, Decatur is transforming itself into a statewide hub for creators, and rising artists like Nower are taking note. While doers and makers have long flocked to the nation’s creative meccas for opportunity and collaboration, Nower sees the benefits that an affordable, family-oriented community can have, too.

“Before now, I didn’t realize that there could be this big of an art scene in a small town,” Nower says. “When you think of art, you usually think of bigger cities. But Decatur has a lot of people who care about the arts and want to be involved with them. It brings everyone together, and it’s really cool.”

Cheri Scherry, a retired businesswoman-turned-community-advocate in Decatur, is one of such people championing the city’s growing art scene.

Cheri Scherry is a community advocate for art in Decatur.

Scherry has lived in Decatur her whole life, and today she uses her local knowledge and business acumen to run the town's Artisan Craft Market, which gives creators a way to earn a living off their crafts year-round. When she meets artists who are looking for opportunities, she helps them get plugged into the larger network of support in the city.

“That is the neat thing about being in a small town,” Scherry says. “We all know who’s here and who their grandparents are.”

A grandmother of young adults herself, she is personally invested in Decatur’s future and wants to see the momentum continue to attract and retain talent. Along with running the Market, she volunteers for the Decatur Sculpture Tour and raises funds to add permeant displays to the City’s growing collection of public art.

She also manages the City’s annual Plein Air Paint Out, which brings artists to the streets to do live public paintings.

A Plein Air artist paints live on Decatur's streets.

The Paint Out is how Scherry met Nower in 2016 and introduced her to other artists at ACE 40.8.

But this story is just one grassroots example of Decatur’s ability to connect artists with opportunities. You don’t have to look far for other ways the City itself is working to meet artists’ needs.

***

One of the ways the City of Decatur is supporting artists is through its 2nd Street Artist Lofts project at 116 N. 2nd St. downtown.  

The Lofts are expected to be complete this fall inside a three-story former Music House. The first floor will be a spacious co-working space for artists that is open to public membership. The remaining two floors will be divided into 16 apartments and loft living spaces for creatives, including two ADA-friendly units on the ground level.

The first floor of the Artist Lofts will be a Creative Engagement Center.

Norby says four of these living spaces will be specially reserved for sculpture artists. This year, the Sculpture Tour begins with a festival on June 14th where a new round of sculptures will be unveiled. The City is hoping to attract some of these national artists to make Decatur their full-time residence.

“The artists with the Sculpture Tour are coming in and getting to know all of us in the community,” Norby says. “They’re a family that comes to town once a year, but now they’re starting to think: Is Decatur somewhere I want to locate and create my art?”

The City of Decatur is giving them more reasons to answer: Yes.

The 2nd Street Artist Lofts offer views of downtown Decatur.

The first floor of the Lofts, known as the Creative Engagement Center, is leased by the City, who recently hired University of Saint Francis student artist, Brielle Adams, to manage it. The Engagement Center will be a large, open co-working space with room for drawing, painting, collaborating, hosting presentations, and selling local art. The walls will be outfitted for gallery displays, and the main floor will be available to rent for events like weddings, too.

Even so, Norby says the City is paying special attention to when and how artists work and taking cues from them about how to operate the space.

“What we’ve learned about artists is that sometimes they like to work at 2 a.m., so if they want to come in here and make a mess at 2 a.m., we want to make this available to them,” she says. “We want to see how people use the space, and we’re going to figure it out as we go.”

The Artist Lofts have large windows and industrial features.

The 2nd Street Artist Lofts are one of the first living spaces specifically designed for artists in Indiana, says Gus Gutierrez Rojas, director of Communications and Marketing for Biggs Property Management, which is overseeing the redevelopment.

He notes that the building is being renovated with “artistically inspired innovation,” which entails a mindset of putting art and creativity first in the planning, preservation, and reuse of the building. This is evident in the Lofts’s design—from its authentic ceiling tiles to its exposed brick walls and its walnut-stained hardwood floors.

A loft living space at the Artist Lofts.

Even so, the living spaces will be priced for artist incomes, too, Norby explains. The project is not considered subsidized housing; however, rents will be affordable based on income, ranging from about $200-540 a month.

“My example is that if you are a first year out of college art teacher, you make enough money to live here,” she adds.

Exposed brick and open layouts are key features of the Artist Lofts's living spaces.

Norby says the City hopes that artists who live at the Lofts will eventually grow their influence and utilize other parts of downtown Decatur, as well, like the nearby Madison Street Plaza.

“Maybe the Plaza will be a place where they display their art or do their work,” Norby says. “We hope that artists feel like they can really use all of downtown.”

Madison Street Plaza is a new public space in downtown Decatur that hosts farmers markets and live music.

This mentality is already taking hold among artists at places like ACE 40.8 gallery and art collective down the street.

***

Growing up in Decatur, Greg Mendez, Shaun Schirack, and Shaun’s future wife, Nicole, used to ride their bikes past the old F. McConnell and Sons, Inc. tobacco store at 236 N. 2nd St.

The building, which was abandoned in the 1980s, stood empty for more than 30 years, as Mendez and Schirack built careers for themselves as artists.

A few years after college, Mendez began nationally touring his metalwork sculptures at events like the Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk in South Dakota, and he became the driving force to start Decatur’s Sculpture Tour in 2012.

Greg Mendez received a Key to the City of Decatur for his work starting the Sculpture Tour.

But after building up the Tour’s success for a few years, he and Schirack started noticing a gap in the City’s offerings for artists.

“When the Sculpture Tour and the arts started catching momentum, we thought a gallery would be a good thing for the community because there’s no place for local artists to display their work or congregate,” Mendez says.

Working with the Schiracks, he set out turn the old tobacco store and the warehouse behind it into what is now known as ACE 40.8. Open the front door on 2nd Street, and you’ll step into a space with exposed brick, hardwood floors and colorful pieces of art suspended from every surface. A little further in, and you’ll find sculptures made of metal, paper, or plastic peeking out of old elevator shafts or pits that were once used for conveyor belts.

Inside the Artisian Collective Enterprise 40.8 in the works in downtown Decatur.

ACE stands for Artist Collective Enterprise, Mendez explains, and the reason 40.8 is in the name is because that’s the latitude of the building, which also has significance.

“Our location has worked out really well for us,” Mendez says. “Professional sculptors all year-round are transferring their work from one place to another (in the Midwest), and being in Indiana, we’re at the crossroads of that.”

When national artists come to town for events like the Sculpture Tour, ACE 40.8 serves as a hub for them and their work. The warehouse behind it offers storage space for sculptures and large displays that are in the making.

But for locals, the gallery serves an important purpose, too. Along with art, it’s walls are lined with artist studios boxed off in plexiglass where creators like Nower come to collaborate as they dream up ideas or exhibit their work.

Shelby Nower hangs a piece of her original artwork at ACE 40.8.

Being a collaborative allows artists like Mendez and Schirack to mentor up-and-coming local creators.

“While we do have a lot of regional artists come through here, we’re really focused on helping give local artists a jumpstart in their career,” Mendez explains. “I’ve been doing my art professionally for over 10 years, and there’s all sorts of things you realize that you didn’t learn in art school, like how to market yourself, or how to sell art. I had a lot of older artists in the sculpture program help me out, and it’s taken years to figure things out. That’s what we’re doing for some of the younger artists here.”

As a result, students like Nower are reaping the benefits and refining their unique styles to add to the mix.

After all, when you get creative minds into a close-knit, community environment, there are more opportunities for ideas to sharpen one another, take careers to the next level, or beautify the area around them, Mendez explains.

Take the murals in the alley behind ACE 40.8, for example.

A mural by Greg Mendez's wife, Tiffany, in the alley at ACE 40.8 in Decatur.

When some of the national artists were in town for the Sculpture Tour last year, they got the idea to crack open some cans of spray paint and let their creativity run loose in whimsical depictions of everything from beach scenes to Nintendo characters on ACE 40.8’s side alley.

Now, the alley provides a colorful walkway from the Sculpture Tour on 2nd Street to the city’s new Sculpture Garden on the other side of the building.

It’s just another sign that Decatur is reaching that sweet spot for creatives, where the barriers to entry are low, the public support is high, and the spirit of collaboration makes the opportunities as endless as the imagination.

“The community has really embraced it and become involved,” Schirack says. “Without that, it doesn’t go anywhere.”

Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara is a Fort Wayne native, passionate about her hometown and its ongoing revival. As Managing Editor of Input Fort Wayne, she enjoys writing about interesting people and ideas in northeast Indiana. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.
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