From casual painter to muralist: A Fort Wayne artist shares how she broke into the public art scene

For most of the year, the suspension footbridge in Foster Park that spans the St. Marys River is hidden by a dense canopy of trees.

Built in 1920, the riveted steel towers of the bridge are supported by massive concrete footings. Now, thanks to Fort Wayne artist Suzanne “Suzi” Rhee, these drab footings have become an immersive, shady riverside mural, featuring native plants and wildlife.

A portion of Suzanne Rhee's mural work in Foster Park.

The mural on park property was made possible by the Fort Wayne Park Foundation working with Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation and the Foster Park Neighborhood Association to raise funds from 24 families, individuals, and community partners. Rhee was chosen by a committee to execute her first publicly funded mural near her home in The 07.

Born in Fort Wayne, Rhee is currently a resident of the Historic Fairmount Neighborhood only blocks away from Foster Park. But over the years, she's had trouble breaking into the city's public art scene.

Recently, that's changed thanks to a few exciting opportunities.

Earlier this summer, Rhee participated in the event "Elevation" by Fort Wayne Open Walls(@fortwayneopenwalls), an innovative rotating outdoor mural gallery on the city's South East side, where she painted a temporary, comic-book style mural. She also assisted with regional the Make It Your Own Mural Fest in 2020.

Suzanne Rhee's mural as a part of Fort Wayne Open Walls at at 2418 Central Dr.

We sat down with Rhee to learn more about her experience breaking into Fort Wayne's public art scene and her hopes for the future.

Suzanne Rhee lives near her mural in Foster Park.

IFW: How long have you been painting? 

SR: You could say 12 years ago. You could also say last year. I loved acrylic painting in high school, but it’s like a switch flipped in college. I stopped using color, and I only wanted to work with pens and ink. A lot of my artistic expression came through comics. I slowly started integrating watercolor-style colored inks into my art practice during that time. But I would never have called myself a painter.

After I graduated with an MFA in creative writing in August 2020, I applied on a whim to assist with a mural project in Columbia City through Make It Your Own Mural Fest. Being able to pick up a brush and help a professional artist make something—and have him believe in me through that process—was life-changing.

Like a miracle, the switch flipped back on. Now I paint all the time, and I wish I hadn’t stopped.

Suzanne Rhee works on her mural in Foster Park.

IFW: What inspired your design for the Foster Park mural?

SR: I drew a lot of inspiration from Juuri’s Lion’s Dance mural downtown. She has a formula of one subject + one botanical + symbolic extras that she somehow makes very captivating. I wanted to test out that formula and put my own stylistic spin on it. 

A portion of Suzanne Rhee's mural work in Foster Park.

A lot of the design was inspired by the guidelines in the request for proposals. They asked for something that took the flora and fauna into account, as well as the rivers. The blues are symbolic for the rivers, but they also serve to draw attention from the main walking path while the greens of native wild rose blend in with the surrounding woods. Gray foxes are also native to the region, and the structure to be painted looked a little like a den, so that animal felt like a great option to use as the subject! 

A portion of Suzanne Rhee's mural work in Foster Park.

IFW: Your Foster Park project wasn't your only mural this summer. What was it like participating in the Open Walls project? 

SR: HOT. But really, it was great. Francisco, the organizer, really went all-out to get amazing paint colors, make sure artists were fed and cared for, and even hooked us up with a generator so that a few artists could project the outlines of their murals onto the wall ahead of time.

It was my first big, public wall, and to know that other creators believed in me and wanted me to have that space was so empowering. It felt like a giant step toward entering the Fort Wayne creative community, which is something I’d tried to do in the past without success.

Suzanne Rhee's mural as a part of Fort Wayne Open Walls at at 2418 Central Dr.

I was a bit silly and didn’t want to ask for help on this painting, but some friends stepped in and helped for a few hours anyway, and we got it done in three days. Painting is hard physical labor, but being tired is balanced out by the sense of accomplishment when you step back and see that boring wall transformed into something vibrant and life-giving.

Suzanne Rhee's mural as a part of Fort Wayne Open Walls at at 2418 Central Dr.

IFW: Tell us about your Open Walls piece. 

SR: I initially submitted this design for the Jefferson Pointe mural contest, but I think it belongs better here. I love nature: The innumerable leaves and petals and branches. Especially during the pandemic, nature has been an escape for me as well as a source of peace. I wanted to capture that life-giving feeling with this piece. There is so much joy and abundance in small things if we take the time.

The comics-style I developed over the last few years has integrated really nicely into how I paint now.

Suzanne Rhee's mural as a part of Fort Wayne Open Walls at at 2418 Central Dr.

IFW: What are you working on now?

SR: Everything! I just finished my mural at Foster Park. I’ve got a short comic coming out in a zine in October ( will eventually be where you can find it). Then there are several mural projects that are in various stages of commitment. The next guaranteed project is a small indoor mural with Forest Park Elementary School. I have several pet portrait commissions that I need to catch up on from earlier in the summer. And in my free time, I’m slowly writing two graphic novels.

Suzanne Rhee works on her mural in Foster Park.

IFW: What advice would you give an aspiring muralist? 

SR: Depends on the person, but in general, I’d encourage you, as an aspiring muralist, to be proactive in looking for opportunities rather than just waiting for contests. Tell everyone you meet that you do murals. Email businesses you think would be a good fit for your style. Get ready to hear “no” a lot, but don’t lose hope for the “yes” that’s coming.

In the meantime, use opportunities like Fort Wayne Open Walls to practice and build your portfolio. Even if you have only two colors of paint, it’s enough to get started.

After my mural assistant experience in Columbia City, I found out about the Open Walls. I had two colors of exterior paint (leftover navy and white that we’d used on our garage the year before). I mixed those two to get a few in-between shades. On my days off, I painted monochrome pictures of a dog and an athlete. That’s what put me on Francisco’s radar. 

IFW: What's your greatest hope for the future of public art in Fort Wayne?

SR: My greatest hope right now is actually directed towards the makers rather than the public. I want to see barriers broken down so that more local artists have the opportunity to showcase their talent.

Suzanne Rhee works on her mural in Foster Park.

That was Fransisco’s vision for Open Walls and the Elevation event. But he was just thinking about walls and qualifications for mural contests. I hope that people, like myself, who make public art can equip other interested creators with the knowledge and connections to make their own large-scale dreams a reality.

Sometimes, it feels like the public art scene can be an exclusive club, and that shouldn’t be the case. In my opinion: The more, the merrier!