How the first Make It Your Own Mural Fest is making its mark on cities across the region

The theme of Key Detail’s mural is the confluence of the city's three rivers: the St. Joseph, the St. Marys, and the Maumee.

How do you attract and retain talent in a region? If you ask the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership and Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, one way is by altering the physical environment.

As cities across Northeast Indiana see renewed investment in their downtowns, the first mural festival in the state of Indiana is taking that investment to the next level, transforming civic spaces into dynamic canvases for creative expression.

From Sept. 8-18, 2020, the Make It Your Own Mural Fest is inviting artists from the local area and around the nation to install 11 new, permanent murals in the cities of Fort Wayne, Columbia City, Warsaw, Garrett, Albion, Angola, LaGrange, Geneva, Bluffton, Huntington, and North Manchester.

Tim Parsley works on a mural in downtown Warsaw.

The festival, which came out of a brainstorm session at the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, is part of the group’s 11-county Make It Your Own branding initiative to attract attention from creatives and innovators looking for their next place to launch a venture or build a life. It’s all about advancing the quality of place efforts started by the Regional Cities Initiative to garner pride and exposure for Northeast Indiana, and so far, the plan appears to be working. Earlier this month, the Make It Your Own Mural Festival was featured in Forbes Magazine as an out-of-the-box regional promotion strategy.

Jaclyn Goldsborough, Digital Marketing and Public Relations Manager for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership says one goal of the festival is to share the spirit of hope residents feel growing in Northeast Indiana with creative thinkers everywhere.

“Those who live here know that Northeast Indiana is a community of makers, doers, creators, and innovators,” Goldsborough says. “We want the world to know this is a region where creators are wanted.”

Muralists like Key Detail use spray paint for their designs.

This goal calls attention to another benefit of Make It Your Own Mural Fest, says Kate Virag, Vice President of Marketing and Strategic Communications with the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership. Along with putting Northeast Indiana on the map as a creative hub, the festival is intended to benefit residents currently living in cities across the region with permanent placemaking enhancements.

Even after the 11-day mural festival is complete, its impact will continue to be felt across the region in new public art attractions. The Regional Partnership even plans to use the murals to create an 11-county mural trail, which will encourage residents to explore each other’s cities and take advantage of the local beauty here, Virag explains.

“This is all about creators and quality of life in Northeast Indiana,” she says.

Shawn Dunwoody works on a mural in downtown Columbia City.

Extending the impact of public art to regional cities

For the past several years, street art has taken over downtown Fort Wayne, largely in the form of alleyway murals propagated by Art This Way.

Fort Wayne-based artist Alex Hall is the Founder and Organizer behind the program, which operates under the Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District and has commissioned more than 20 murals in the downtown area since 2017.

Alex Hall

Even so, Art This Way didn’t necessarily bring mural art to Fort Wayne, Hall explains, noting that creators like Julia Meek, Dan Swartz, Tobias Studios, Josef Zimmerman, and others were infusing the area with grand-scale public paintings long before her program began. Instead, Hall sees Art This Way’s work as fanning many sparks of creativity in Fort Wayne and getting the city to think outside of the box when it comes to which buildings can and should have murals as well as the role that murals can play in placemaking efforts.

“Before Art This Way, murals were often done on one building that was a privately-owned creative space,” Hall says. “Art This Way asks: What would it look like to put a mural on the side of a bank?”

Artists assist Shawn Dunwoody with a mural in downtown Columbia City.

Along with infusing traditionally corporate or drab settings, like alleys, with creativity, Art This Way also strategically utilizes mural art to draw people into targeted areas of cities by creating a cohesive, saturated outdoor gallery experience. The program’s success drawing residents into downtown alleys has proven the power of public art as a placemaking asset, Hall says. She feels that it helped set the stage for the Make it Your Own Mural Fest in smaller cities across the region, too—particularly places like Garrett, which did not have any murals prior to Mural Fest.

“What we’re seeing now is this acceptance of the impact and power of public art in cities,” Hall says. “We’ve reached a point in Fort Wayne where we have a regional economic development organization recognizing the quality of life component that mural art brings to a place.”

Tim Parsley's buffalo mural in downtown Fort Wayne on The Landing.

As Hall began to see Art This Way’s visual and economic impact in downtown Fort Wayne, she founded her business, AH Public Spaces Consulting, LLC, in 2019 to help more cities tap into the transformative power of public art. As Art This Way continues to grow, it’s expanding murals into more public settings downtown and going “Off the Wall” with one of its latest projects, which will install a sculpture encouraging residents to explore an underutilized alley.

“Public art changes the way people perceive their communities,” Hall says. “It’s not just pride of place, but also tourism, quality of life, and outside perception.”

Art This Way brings art to the alleyways of downtown Fort Wayne.

Along with advocating for art and artists, her business walks communities through the cumbersome, strategic process of determining which art and artists should enhance their public spaces.

For the Make It Your Own Mural Fest, Hall says each of the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana formed a steering committee to represent its community. These steering committees chose the location for their murals and built reference guides for artists based on their local culture. They also chose the winning art for their mural in a blind, bias-reducing selection process, reviewing the artist based solely on their work.

Key Detail works on a mural in downtown Fort Wayne.

“At the end of the day, every place is different, so every place needs to be approached in a way that fits them and their community,” Hall says. “Our process was designed to allow for the best proposals to rise to the top.”

As the Make It Your Own Mural Fest takes shape across the region, its impact is already being felt in cities by artists and local leaders.

Paying homage to a Columbia City entrepreneur

Conveying quality of life through the creative process and the telling of history is what muralist Shawn Dunwoody is doing in downtown Columbia City. Dunwoody, from Rochester, New York, already has a mural in Northeast Indiana under his belt—the “Hello Fort Wayne” mural in the alley off Wayne Street between Harrison and Calhoun.

Shawn Dunwoody works on a mural in downtown Columbia City.

His new mural in Columbia City for the Make It Your Own Mural Fest pays tribute to Shinzo Ohki, a Japanese immigrant who, after moving to Columbia City in the early 1900s, founded a local soy sauce business called the Shoyu Factory. It was one of the first fermented soy sauces produced in the United States.

Dunwoody’s mural, located across the street from the Whitley County Courthouse and near Ohki Alley (named for Shinzo Ohki) features Ohki, soy sauce, and cherry blossoms.

“It’s going to be large, big, and Instagrammable,” Dunwoody says. “It’s going to go to the top of the building.”

Shawn Dunwoody's new mural in Columbia City for the Make It Your Own Mural Fest pays tribute to Shinzo Ohki a Japanese entrepreneur from the area.

Prior to Dunwoody’s work, Columbia City had eight murals and, according to Chip Hill, Community Development Director for Columbia City, the excitement surrounding the Mural Fest mural is palpable. Citing the recent opening of Pickles Café, a downtown eatery, as well as the prospect of future downtown restaurants, Hill envisions people saying, “Go to the mural,” when arranging to meet up with friends in Columbia City.

“I think this will bring in folks from Fort Wayne, Goshen, and Warsaw,” Hill says. “It even spurred another artist in town to do another mural.”

Artists assist Shawn Dunwoody with a mural in downtown Columbia City.

As Dunwoody works in the Columbia City community during Mural Fest, he enjoys engaging with the locals who walk by. He takes interactions with community members so seriously that he will often change his design midstream if someone offers him a good suggestion. This is all part of his effort to forge connections with people who live in the communities where he makes art, he says.

Ultimately, he sees his murals as tools for uniting and peacemaking in cities.

“You have to have beauty during turmoil—beauty in times of unrest and distress,” he says.

Artists assist Shawn Dunwoody with a mural in downtown Columbia City.

That beauty can even come, in Dunwoody’s words, by seeing a “young child’s smile when they stroll by.”

Celebrating lake life in Warsaw

In Warsaw, Tim Parsley, a muralist and professor of art at the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, is adorning the Dennie Building downtown with a mural that celebrates the city’s lake culture.

Located at 212 S. Buffalo St. (home of the Glam Boutique), the new mural draws attention to Warsaw’s nature, recreation, landscape, and wildlife that make it a regional attraction. As the county seat of Kosciusko County, Warsaw is known for being situated around three lakes: Center Lake, Pine Lake, and Hidden Lake. These water features, along with their adjacent beaches and parks, set the tone for the area’s culture, built on lakeside dining, paddle boarding, fishing, ski shows, swimming, and kayaking.

Parsley's mural features lake life and wildlife native to the Warsaw area.

Like the benefit of having lakes in a community, murals offer cities the opportunity to create points of interest for themselves that will ultimately make them even more attractive to residents, says Warsaw Mayor Joseph Thallemer.

He believes the Make It Your Own Mural Fest is doing just that in Warsaw.

“Art improves the walkability of a community and is interesting, beautiful, and pleasurable to look at,” Thallemer says. “The appeal that a community has is what brings people to that community.”

As a muralist, Parsley started his career in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he has done about 12 murals. He also has a broad repertoire of work, spanning six murals in Fort Wayne, one in New York City, and one in Nairobi, Kenya.

Tim Parsley works on a mural in downtown Warsaw.

He, too, sees art as being part of the kaleidoscope of ideas that form a community and define a place. Ultimately, he gauges the success of art by the impact it has on people to shake up their routine ways of thinking, living, and operating.

“The best public art is art that interrupts our routine,” Parsley says. “It makes you stop in your tracks…. When we associate public art with a place we’ve been, it can be a powerful anchor to where we’re from and the communities that we live in.”

Tim Parsley works on a mural in downtown Warsaw.

Energizing and engaging the community in Fort Wayne

Key Detail, a New York City-based and Belarusian-native husband-and-wife team consisting of Andrei Krautsau and Julia Yu-Baba, are making a mural at 201 W. Wayne St. in downtown Fort Wayne, across from the Grand Wayne Center.

The duo has already created art in Indiana, but never in the Northeast region of the state. The theme of Key Detail’s mural is the confluence of the city's three rivers: the St. Joseph, the St. Marys, and the Maumee. The mural shows three women who symbolize the three rivers, and elements of water are used as a background.

The theme of Key Detail’s mural is the confluence of the city's three rivers: the St. Joseph, the St. Marys, and the Maumee.

Like other Mural Fest artists, Andrei and Julia appreciate the power and influence art can exercise in a community.

“We think it’s important that the city get a unique and beautiful mural at such a challenging time,” says Andrei. “This project creates an opportunity to educate, energize, and engage the community.”

Key Detail is a New York City-based and Belarusian-native husband-and-wife team consisting of Andrei Krautsau (pictured) and Julia Yu-Baba.

The “canvas” that Key Detail is using is the largest of the 11 other buildings in Mural Fest, which excites Andrei, too.

“The wall is large and has a lot of windows,” he says. “It will add character and dynamics to our mural. We can’t wait to see the finished mural.”

Key Detail works on a mural in downtown Fort Wayne.

Dan Baisden, an Urban Planner with the City of Fort Wayne, sees Mural Fest as an important part of Fort Wayne’s growing public art culture.

He says more murals will be coming to the city soon as part of the Faces of the Fort project, modeled after Off the Wall in Atlanta, Georgia. Faces of the Fort will extend the power of murals beyond downtown into the city’s neighborhoods, expressing their diverse culture with art that features the faces and stories of actual residents who live there.

“We want people to experience community and culture, and we want to invest in the community and in local businesses,” Baisden says. “This will only add to that.”

Urban Planner Dan Baisden is helping bring more public art to the city.

Jaclyn Goldsborough
Jaclyn Goldsborough
Digital Marketing and Public Relations Manager
Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership

It's been said, "If you build it, they will come."

But the philosophy behind the first Mural Fest in Indiana has a slight caveat to that adage: "If you let them build it, they will come."

That's the spirit driving 11 new, permanent murals in 11 regional communities across Northeast Indiana this fall. The idea behind the Make It Your Own Mural Fest Sept. 8-18, 2020, is to infuse downtowns with public art created by muralists across the region and the U.S. as a means of attracting and retaining talent—particularly among the creative class.

The added benefit is enhancing the quality of life in cities and creating a fun, regionwide outdoor art display for locals to explore in months and years to come.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Jaclyn Goldsborough, Digital Marketing and Public Relations Manager for the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, to ask five questions about the Make It Your Own Mural Fest.

IFW: We’ve been hearing a lot about Mural Fest in September. Give us a quick overview of what it is.

JG: Make It Your Own Mural Fest is all about talent. It’s an innovative, creative activation of the Make It Your Own brand intended to enhance Northeast Indiana and Fort Wayne's efforts to drive talent attraction and talent retention. Our region encompasses 16 cities throughout 11 counties, with each offering its own distinct vibe. Make It Your Own Mural Fest is an opportunity to invest in quality of life through public art and celebrate Northeast Indiana’s unique communities.

Over 11 days, regional and national artists will create 11 high-quality murals—one in each of the 11 counties of Northeast Indiana. The regional mural festival concept is the first of its kind in the state of Indiana and will build on the quality of place efforts accelerated by the Regional Cities Initiative, growing regional pride and garnering significant attention and exposure nationally. Those who live here know that Northeast Indiana is a community of makers, doers, creators, and innovators, and we want the world to know this is a region where creators are wanted! Murals add interest to downtown buildings across Northeast Indiana.

IFW: At the Regional Partnership, you’re working to attract and retain talent and businesses in Northeast Indiana. How does this festival play into your work?

JG: Mural Fest is about bringing a spotlight to our communities. Murals attract attention and economic benefit. According to Americans for the Arts, public art engages a community, engenders a sense of pride and community identity, and enhances a community’s quality of life. Mural implementation is a key component of the strategy to engage with the public and activate underutilized public space.

We designed Mural Fest with several specific outcomes in mind. First, Mural Fest will amplify Northeast Indiana’s quality of place, supporting our region’s talent attraction and retention goals. Additionally, this initiative highlights the unique attributes of our communities, creating opportunities for residents and visitors to engage and experience Northeast Indiana through public art, driving social media, and media exposure for the region. The initiative also offers mentorship opportunities for emerging regional artists, which should catalyze future public art creation. This important element of the regional branding strategy will make Northeast Indiana nationally known and position it in a positive, forward-thinking light.

Artists will be painting murals in cities across Northeast Indiana for the public to watch and enjoy.

IFW: Mural Fest has been in the works for a long time, but now, we’re in the middle of a global pandemic. How will COVID-19 impact the festival?

JG: As the entire world grapples with the effects of COVID-19, we knew we had to adjust our plans and expectations for Make It Your Own Mural Fest. While we believed from the beginning that we would be able to persevere in creating the murals because our festival is inherently socially distanced (11 counties is a large geographic area), we did have to pivot in several ways.

First, we understood quickly that to keep our artists and the region safe we must follow national travel policies and adjust our plans to welcome international artists. That adjustment was difficult, yet it allowed us to increase our focus on securing national and regional artists. If you look at the list of 11 artists, you’ll see we are featuring such an eclectic and balanced list of national and regional artists. From Rochester, New York to Minsk, Belarus, and Fort Wayne to Huntington, our roster of talented muralists reflects the creativity and vibrancy of our regional communities.

We also had to adjust our final unveiling event, which was planned in partnership with the Downtown Improvement District and Art This Way’s Art Crawl. While we are not welcoming thousands of people to downtown Fort Wayne for the final unveiling, we will kick off a photo contests with thousands of dollars in regional prizes on Friday, Sept. 18. Instead of having an in-person event to showcase the murals, the photo contest will allow us to connect with the community and see the murals from their viewpoint.

We will entice residents and visitors to explore the Northeast Indiana Make It Your Own Mural Trail to experience the murals and the unique quality of life assets in each county.

IFW: Who are some of the artists who will be painting these murals, and how was their art selected for each community?

JG: Mural Fest uses public art to showcase our unique communities and incredible artists at the same time. Make It Your Own Mural Fest is a result of true collaboration in Northeast Indiana thanks to the leaders and volunteers who devoted countless hours to the process. From the selection of each community’s wall to the approval of the design concepts, county-level leaders played a significant role in the curation of Mural Fest.

Alexandra Hall with AH Public Spaces coordinated the artistic jury selection process. The jury was made up of a selection of knowledgeable artists and representatives selected by the County Steering Committees. Although it was challenging for the selection committees in each county to choose just 11 designs from the talented pool of applicants, the muralists selected represent a diverse and eclectic mix of artistic aesthetics. The artists embraced each county’s story to create a mural that was authentic and genuine.

IFW: In your work with cities around the region, what has the response to this festival been like so far? Tell us what these murals mean to our regional communities.

JG: The response from the region has been outstanding! From working directly with local economic developers and mayors to tourism leaders and regional artists, collaboration is the secret sauce to Mural Fest. Everyone is looking forward to seeing the murals appear in 11 short days, including seeing different phases of the mural installation.

We are not the only ones excited about the impact of Mural Fest, either. National media is also paying attention to Mural Fest and Northeast Indiana’s unique and diverse quality of life. We’ve enjoyed coverage from publications like Midwest Living and Artsy, just to name a few.

In the end, we’ve always said the impact that Mural Fest creates in Northeast Indiana is not fully realized until the mural festival is over because, when it’s over, we now have 11 new regional quality of life assets to market nationally as we tell the region’s story broadly to attract top talent and businesses.