What is the value of a mural? How public art projects are driving growth in Fort Wayne

Alexandra “Alex” Hall has long understood the value of public art in cities. As a professional artist based in Fort Wayne, she sells work across the U.S. and runs a public spaces consulting business in cities small and large.

“Public art is an essential building block in economic development and making our region a place with a high quality of life—a place where people want to establish themselves,” Hall says.

Alex Hall stands in front of an Art This Way mural by Bryan Ballinger called The Blue Birds.

Yet, communicating art’s ability to catalyze growth in cities can be challenging. That’s one of Hall’s main roles as the Manager and Consultant of Art This Way in Fort Wayne, a program of the Downtown Improvement District (DID).

Since launching in 2016 under Hall’s leadership, Art This Way has commissioned and conducted 21 grand-scale, public art projects on private property downtown. Rather than relying on taxpayer dollars to fund these projects, the program is a volunteer-based organization whose funding comes from grants, corporate sponsorships, and its annual Art Crawl, as well as community donors.

But beyond the surface-level benefits of the murals you might see popping up downtown, Art This Way is advancing Fort Wayne’s community in more ways than you might realize.

Here’s how the program is taking the city’s art scene and its public spaces to the next level.

Art This Way is collaborating with a project called Make Music Fort Wayne to bring painted pianos to mural spaces.

Creating growth opportunities for artists

While street art and mural projects have long been happening in communities around the world, Art This Way’s work is unique in that it is curating local, national, and international artists to create a free, outdoor gallery experience in Fort Wayne’s streets and alleyways.

“A lot of communities are picking up on this idea of embracing street art,” Hall says. “But very few are doing it the way we are, in that we’re recruiting artists to do work here with a strategy, a roadmap, and a vision for the next 5-10 years.”

An image from the 2019 Public Realm Action Plan for downtown Fort Wayne created by Gehl.

While street art traditionally happens organically, without pay for artists in big cities, Art This Way is actively seeking out street artists and paying them to create work in strategic locations downtown.

The caliber of artists Art This Way is commissioning to do work in Fort Wayne also makes the program unique. Hall has been the driving force in connecting Fort Wayne with world-class artists, like the German street artist 1010 and the Tokyo-born artist JUURI, who have both painted murals downtown. Local innovators, like Lyndy Bazile of AfroPlump and Raul Perez of Change Your Fate Clothing, are among Art This Way’s muralists, too.

A large part of Art This Way’s job is curating an effective mix of local, national, and international artists with diverse backgrounds and creative styles to produce public art in Fort Wayne. Approximately 30 percent of Art This Way’s projects have been done by People of Color. About 60 percent of the artwork is created by local and regional artists, and about 40 percent is done by well-known national or international talent.

Jeremy Stroup painted an Art This Way mural of his own called “Blue Diver” in 2020 on a railroad underpass at Grand and Calhoun Streets.

While some believe only local residents should be hired to create local public art, Hall says commissioning world-renowned artists for projects actually grows Fort Wayne’s art scene more effectively. For one, it allows the city to get on the map of global places synonymous with art culture, such as Berlin, Paris, New York, or Los Angeles. It also turns Fort Wayne into a creative destination where global art fans can visit to experience a famous artist’s work. But perhaps most importantly, it helps Fort Wayne’s local artists take their own work to the next level with mentorship opportunities, chances to display their art alongside renowned talent, and potential connections to do work abroad themselves someday.

If an emerging artist in Fort Wayne is looking to grow their skills in the public art realm, they can ask Art This Way to participate in a mentorship with one of its muralists. This allows the aspiring artist to gain valuable, hands-on experience producing a largescale mural in the city and take on bigger projects of their own in the future.

A good example of this type of mentorship happened with artist Shawn Dunwoody’s “Hello” mural installation in the alley at 120 W. Wayne St. in 2019. Dunwoody is nationally renowned muralist from Rochester, New York, who travels the country. He was also an artist in Northeast Indiana’s regional Mural Fest. When he came to Fort Wayne in 2019, Art This Way reached out to a number of local artists wanting to gain mural experience, including sculptor and illustrator Jeremy Stroup, who became a volunteer assistant for Dunwoody.

Jeremy Stroup stands in front of his section of the "Hello" mural in the alley at 120 W. Wayne St. in downtown Fort Wayne, led by artist Shawn Dunwoody.

Stroup says that after graduating from Purdue Fort Wayne in 2013 with a degree in sculpture, he knew he wanted to create a mural downtown, but he had never done anything on that scale before. Assisting Dunwoody with the “Hello” mural provided him a safe space to test his skills and concepts without the pressure of carrying an entire project or being responsible for the budget.

“When you have an idea on paper, it doesn’t always translate well to the wall,” Stroup says. “That was something I learned, and I was surprised that Shawn Dunwoody really let me do my own thing on the ‘Hello’ mural. He had a design in mind, but he was very open to outside input. That was a big boost for me because I could take a picture of the sections I worked on and show other people: ‘This is what I can do.’”

Jeremy Stroup helped artist Shawn Dunwoody with the "Hello" mural in the alley at 120 W. Wayne St. in downtown Fort Wayne.

The experience gave Stroup a strong foundation to earn additional mural work in the city, including two subsequent commissions at the Brass Rail in 2019, as well as an Art This Way mural of his own called “Blue Diver” in 2020 on an railroad underpass at Grand and Calhoun Streets.

Stroup designed the mural from scratch as part of an Art This Way graffiti remediation project. Its design features a Northeast Indiana underwater scene of a blue heron diving for fish.

Jeremy Stroup's murals at the Brass Rail in Fort Wayne.

Jeremy Stroup painted an Art This Way mural of his own called “Blue Diver” in 2020 on a railroad underpass at Grand and Calhoun Streets.


Enhancing public art education

To help more young artists take on public art projects, Art This Way is partnering with students and professors at the University of St. Francis (USF) in Fort Wayne. The partnership was inspired, in part, by Tim Parsley, the Program Director for Studio Art and Associate Professor of Studio Art at USF, who has created numerous murals around the world, from Cincinnati, Ohio, to Nairobi, Kenya.
 
When Parsley first moved to Fort Wayne in 2013, he put his mural work on hold temporarily because there wasn’t much community infrastructure to support public art at the time.
 
“I got some inquiries from various folks in the community who knew about my work and wanted to commission a mural, but they didn’t have the necessary things in line to do that, like building contracts and funding,” Parsley says.

Artist Tim Parsley says his work seeks to "reveal and reinterpret a nostalgic anxiety about the past."
 
Soon after Art This Way began in 2017, he received a call from Hall about partnering with USF students to create mural projects, and a collaboration was born.
 
“Within two seconds of our meeting, Alex was laying out signed contracts from the Downtown Improvement District and spelling out a funding model she developed for the program,” Parsley says. “I thought: ‘Wow, this is all in place and ready to roll.’”
 
In the spring of 2018, Parsley launched USF’s first Mural Painting and Public Art Class, which surveys the various forms of public art and trains students through both in-class projects and actual community mural partnerships. That same spring and summer, Parsley led about 13 USF students in creating the Walt Whitman mural downtown as a part of Art This Way’s program. Parsley’s students have also done public art projects for Bridge of Grace Compassionate Ministries Center and Jefferson Pointe Shopping Center.

USF’s Mural Painting and Public Art Class works on a mural in downtown Fort Wayne at 1217 Broadway.
 
This spring, they partnered with Art This Way and the Downtown Improvement District again to create a gateway mural along the Broadway Corridor inspired by American ornithologist John James Audubon. It was unveiled in May at 1217 Broadway on the side of Aaron’s Fine Rug Gallery.

A mural by USF students led by artist Tim Parsley at 1217 Broadway on the side of Aaron’s Fine Rug Gallery in downtown Fort Wayne.
 
Parsley says that being a muralist is an opportunity he never expected in his own career, and something he had to learn how to do on the fly. Now, springboarding off the infrastructure and inspiration Art This Way has provided, his team at USF has developed an entire program for public artists, known as the CASE minor, or Community Art Service Engagement.
 
“It is a project-based minor where students do pop-up projects in the community to gain credit, and that goes beyond murals and walls into other into other forms of art that involve the public, including working with nonprofit organizations,” Parsley says. “If students complete that minor, they’re going to have a much more robust public art training when they graduate than I did.”

USF’s Mural Painting and Public Art Class works on a mural in downtown Fort Wayne at 1217 Broadway.

Activating alleyways and urban trails

Beyond the benefits Art This Way brings to local artists, its work is also changing the way residents interact with Fort Wayne’s infrastructure and public spaces. That’s one of the reasons Art This Way was originally named the Alleyway Activation Mural Project when it started in 2016. It was part of an effort to get residents out of their cars and exploring targeted zones within the city’s center.

Today, Art This Way has turned previously un-walked alleys and corners of downtown into inviting corridors with 10 alleyway murals.

“By putting artwork in alleyways, we’re encouraging people to enter places that are stereotypically what we would consider ‘unsafe’ places to go, especially on a dark night,” Hall says. “I pop into the alleys all the time now and find pedestrians and people enjoying themselves.”

The Porch Off Calhoun comes alive at night.

As part of its alleyway activations, Art This Way has been adding another dimension to pedestrian zones, using chairs, tables, and sculptures. In 2020, it hosted its first Off the Wall Sculpture Challenge, which resulted in a piece called 77 Steps in the alley between 113 and 127 W. Berry St.

Created by Fort Wayne architecture firm, Kelty Tappy Design, Inc., 77 Steps features more than 300 hanging tubes filled with programmable, colored LED lights, which constantly change colors and patterns. The sculpture’s name comes from the number of steps it takes to walk the full length of the 150-foot alleyway.

“The lights’ patterns do an intermittent dance,” Hall says. “So the experience changes every time you visit it.”

A light sculpture called 77 Steps in the alley between 113 and 127 W. Berry St.

Michael Galbraith, President of the DID, points out that that the location of the alleyway murals and 77 Steps is part of a larger strategic plan to activate what’s known as the “Double Plus” zone downtown. This zone contains two plus-shaped alleyway networks between Harrison and Calhoun streets and two blocks North and South of Wayne St. In the 2019 Public Realm Action Plan for downtown Fort Wayne created by Gehl, in collaboration with Fort Wayne City Planning and Policy, these areas were identified as key “connective tissue” downtown, ripe with opportunities to become micro-retail corridors, interactive canvases for artists, and large-scale event spaces.

Thankfully, Galbraith says the DID has been focused on these areas even prior to the Gehl report, with Clean & Green programs and Art This Way’s early alleyway projects. The next steps to catalyze the Double Plus zones, include activating them with hangout spots, like the Porch Off Calhoun next to 816 Pint & Slice, as well as weekly events, like Downtown Live! this summer.

“We want to create a nexus of people gathering here,” Galbraith says. “In Alex’s work for Art This Way, she has been a rockstar in leading the way on that.”

An image from the 2019 Public Realm Action Plan for downtown Fort Wayne created by Gehl.

Along with activating alleyways, Hall says Art This Way is also working with the City of Fort Wayne to enhance the Urban Trail developing along Harrison Street, which will link Parkview Field to Promenade Park with assets and experiences every step of the way.

The Urban Trail was identified by Gehl as a key activation zone downtown, too. This summer, Art This Way is partnering with Warrior Breed MC (Motorcycle Club) to produce a veteran-themed mural along Harrison Street, honoring past and current people who have served in the active military, naval, or air service. The project is currently seeking artist applicants who have military experience or connections. The completed mural will be located on the South-facing exterior wall at 135 W. Main St., cattycorner to the new boutique hotel, The Bradley, opening this month.

“We’re working with multiple groups to fill gaps in Fort Wayne’s downtown experience,” Hall says. “And we’re all following a larger, strategic plan to generate momentum.”

A light sculpture called 77 Steps in the alley between 113 and 127 W. Berry St.

Improving sustainability

Along with encouraging exploration downtown, Art This Way is also advancing Fort Wayne’s sustainability and natural resources. This September, the group is partnering with Friends of the Rivers and City Utilities on a project called “Be River SmART,” increasing environmental awareness about the city’s storm drains and the fact that they lead directly into the St. Joe, St. Mary, and Maumee rivers.

The City of Fort Wayne says millions of pounds of trash, debris and other pollutants flow into local streams, creeks and rivers every year. To help curb pollutants coming from storm drains, murals will be painted directly onto sidewalks, curbs, and drains themselves. The project will extend beyond downtown into nearby neighborhoods, including 13 downtown drains and 20 neighborhood drains slated for art installations.

“This project is actually reflective of something quite a few communities across the U.S. are doing,” Hall says. “Our storm drains go directly into our waterways, so the idea is to use environmental imagery of fish and water on the drains to raise awareness with quite literal messaging.”

Inspiring a creative community

While communicating the underlying value murals and public art bring to communities can be challenging, Hall says she’s seen many positive indicators that Art This Way’s work is making a difference in Fort Wayne. Perhaps the most tangible sign of success is the fact that more community members, business owners, and building owners are commissioning projects themselves.

Hall has also received feedback from several Fort Wayne business owners who have murals on their buildings and say the art has increased foot traffic. Kristen Guthrie, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for Visit Fort Wayne, says downtown’s mural and public art map is one of her team’s most-requested materials.

"Fort Wayne’s visitors are always charmed and delighted by our robust public art scene and vibrant murals,” Gutherie says.

Art This Way has been bringing street art to downtown Fort Wayne’s alleys since 2017.

While not every mural in downtown Fort Wayne today is specifically a part of Art This Way’s program, Hall is happy to see public art sprouting up in the city. She points to two recent examples on the Landing, as Tim Parsley’s buffalo mural on the side of the restaurant Nawa and new murals at the restaurant Mercado by local artists Theopolis Smith III and Ricco Diamante.

“People are understanding the direct benefit public art can bring to their businesses,” Hall says. “That’s why they're funding it.”

This story is made possible by funding from the Downtown Improvement District.
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