Laura Hilker is a Fort Wayne native who is now a producer in Los Angeles.
Hilker says she moved to the West Coast for access to sustainable creative opportunities that she struggled to find in the Fort Wayne area while she was here. In doing so, she realized the struggle that many creatives in the Midwest face: Having big, creative ideas, but not having access to the capital and mentors to help them bring their ideas to fruition.
“When I met Matt at Artlink, we connected on this very issue right away,” Hilker says.
212 offers creatives the opportunity to collaborate at an Artlink residency space in Fort Wayne.
For four decades, Artlink
has been a major player in Fort Wayne’s local art scene, connecting grassroots artists and creating opportunities for them to show and sell their work. Now, thanks to a new program called 212 by Artlink
, designed by Hilker and Artlink’s Executive Director Matt McClure, the local nonprofit is making waves in the global creative marketplace, as well.
Launched in February 2018, 212
is an innovative, project-based program designed to increase access and equity in the national art scene by decentralizing creative talent from the coasts—and connecting budding talent to top-tier professionals for mentorship in their craft regardless of where they live.
“We hatched 212 as a way to build a bridge to accessibility and to cultivate a prosperous creative economy in Fort Wayne," Hilker says. “Our network of creatives are advocates of inclusivity and helping creative voices that might not otherwise be heard get the resources and mentorship they need to enhance their creative opportunities."
212 is an innovative, project-based program.
She explains that the overall goal of 212 is to cultivate the same opportunities in Fort Wayne as creatives can find in places like Los Angeles and New York, so that talent in smaller cities doesn't lose opportunities to the nation's creative meccas. As such, Hilker serves as the program's boots on the ground in the West Coast to help facilitate these connections.
McClure says that a big part of what makes Artlink's 212 special is that it has roots in northeast Indiana. While the program is not place-based (meaning that artists anywhere can apply to be involved), it does offer artists in northeast Indiana the advantage of having a shared studio space at the Arts Campus in downtown Fort Wayne. This residency is known as the 212 incubator program.
“212 came out of a region that—for the most part—has been geographically isolated from much of the global creative community,” McClure explains. “Its very existence is a direct response to that sense of ‘flyover country’—the place where nobody looks for artists.”
Now, Artlink is bringing 212 to the Midwest to help shift that narrative.
While calling the Midwest “flyover country” might sound harsh to local creatives, the term has roots in McClure’s personal experience.
While attending college in Indiana, he developed an interest in screenwriting. But when he asked a screenwriting group if there were any Indiana writers he could connect with, they laughed at him.
“That was the moment I really knew I was on my own,” McClure says. “That has really informed why I do what I do. I don’t want to see any other young creatives have to experience that type of ‘unknown,’ lack of a path—lack of access.”
With this experience of “isolation” in mind, accessibility has become a key component of 212, telling artists in cities of all sizes that they can have access to world-class talent and ideas right where they live.
Even so, that doesn’t mean talent on the coasts isn’t important to 212’s mission. To provide rising artists with a strong, national network of creative minds and opportunities, McClure is constantly looking for ways to expand 212’s influence and connections in the nation’s creative meccas.
“Part of what we’re looking at is how we can work with the existing communities of creatives, artists, and students,” McClure explains. “We are very intentional in building relationships with other networks of creative professionals, educational institutions, community groups, so that those groups have access to the creative network.”
212 is largely run online so anyone nationwide can apply.
What he finds truly exceptional is 212’s vast selection of mentors it has garnered so far. From Los Angeles to New York, 212 mentors are working creative professionals, ranging from authors to animators, illustrators, and more. Each mentor is equipped with a special skill set and assigned to a 212 participant based on that participant’s specific interests and needs, McClure says.
While the benefits of this relationship to the up-and-coming artists are obvious, the mentors in the program also benefit from the connection, McClure notes. Many of them truly want to see creative talent flourish nationwide.
“They’re giving back,” he says. “They are enthusiastically wanting to lift up the next generation of creative professionals, creative artists. That, I think, is really what makes it special. The strength of the mentors’ involvement isn’t just their knowledge set in what they’re doing, but also they’re coming to this with a sense of desire to make the creative world a more equitable place.”
212 gives creators the chance to collaborate with other creatives and mentors nationwide.
To ensure the program’s success, McClure says the 212 leadership team at Artlink is very intentional about who it chooses to be part of the 212 mentorship team. Then, once the selections are made, the team lets mentors use their own, creative methods of helping 212 participants meet their goals and complete projects.
So how do up-and-coming artists get chosen for the 212 program? It starts with filling out an application online and submitting a project idea to the 212 advisory board.
McClure says there are a few factors the advisory board looks for when choosing participants.
“If it’s a strong enough project, that is thought through, and the person or team seems like they can move forward, then they are accepted into the 212 program,” he explains.
But along the path to creating a program that can successfully produce catalytic creative projects in the Midwest, there are been some hurdles Artlink has faced, too.
When 212 originally began, it only offered creative critique to artists if they were officially selected for the program. But after receiving several applications from high school students, McClure decided to revise the process.
“What we started seeing was that high school students were sending us work at a very early stage,” he explains. “Not that it was good or bad, it was just at a very early stage. So we decided to offer critique to applicants, too, so that people at early stages or student stages of these really ambitious, wonderful, creative projects could get an outside point of view.”
Now, even if applicants are not selected for 212, they will still receive a professional critique of their project to help them move forward. The 212 program has even added a special critique option for anyone just looking for feedback.
“Critique is meant to really break down that barrier, so if you have a draft of something or an idea, you can send that off, and we’ll connect that to someone with ample experience in the focus area and send it back to you in one page,” McClure says.
It’s these types of constructive criticisms that can take Fort Wayne’s creative culture to the next level, he adds. Just ask 212 participant Courtney Hahn.
Hahn is a 26-year-old author born in Wisconsin, but raised in Fort Wayne. She is a current member of the 212 program, studying to write a graphic novel under Chris Staros, the founder and editor-in-chief of Top Shelf Productions in Georgia.
A year before Hahn applied for 212, it was her critique from Staros that convinced her of the value of a 212 mentorship to transform her work.
“Staros knows good when he sees it,” Hahn says. “I got a critique from him a year before I applied for the program, and it was one of the best critiques of my life. He’s incredibly helpful and knows just what to say.”
According to Hahn, Staros has been publishing literary graphic novels for 20 plus years, and despite his extensive experience, he’s encouraged her to never hesitate to ask him questions.
Hahn is an experienced author herself, having self-published books before. Her work has also been published in anthologies like Bedside Press’s Enough Space for Everyone Else and Lion Forge’s Rolled & Told.
But while she has experience in the industry, she wanted to grow her skills on the latest project she’s working on: A graphic novel about handling weaknesses as a child.
She describes the project as a story about a young girl who is transported to an underground forest and is tasked with coming to terms with her problems in order to go home.
But her project didn’t start that way, Hahn says. She credits her mentorship from Staros for evolving her work into what it is today.
“When it began, my project was completely different, and talking about it with Staros made me realize I needed a different project,” Hahn says. “Things transitioned smoothly, and now I’m really starting to hit a stride.”
Along with finding her story, Hahn says 212 has also helped her to slow down and discover the right process for her as a writer. Since she has mild dyslexia, she has found more success in sketching her thoughts before she writes them.
She says her favorite takeaway from the program so far has been watching other people show excitement and interest in her work and encouraging her to keep pursuing her craft.
“Everyone only wants for you to succeed and to be happy,” Hahn says. “212 has provided a community that I might not have found on my own, and for that, I’m grateful. I’m just excited to finally boil over and create something special.”
Learn more and apply to 212 by Artlink
For more information on the 212 program, visit: www.artlink212.com
This story is part of a partnership between Artlink and inputfortwayne.com, focused on reporting about catalytic talent shaping "what's next" for northeast Indiana's art scene.