Voices of South East: Open Walls elevate artists to promote social mobility and inclusive growth

Francisco “Paco” Reyes lives and creates by a process he compares to ether.

“It burns really quickly, but the sparks that come off of it catch more fires,” he says.

For the past decade, Reyes and his late-partner, Lea Anne Fleming, who died of cancer earlier this year, have dedicated themselves to building community and hip-hop culture on the South East side of Fort Wayne, where Reyes lives. Working with friends and collaborators, they’ve hosted popular Park Jams that have attracted thousands to experience the South side’s House Music scene, street art talent, and free potluck meals.

It was at one of these Park Jams that Reyes and Fleming reconnected with Rena Bradley, a fellow South East resident and member of the city’s Public Art Commission. You might say: A spark ignited.

The couple’s desire to uplift the South side and its artists aligned with Art Commission’s vision to promote more authentic, grassroots forms of expression in Fort Wayne. From this connection, a collaboration developed between Reyes and the Art Commission’s Chair Nancy Stewart, which has resulted in an ongoing project called Fort Wayne Open Walls (@fortwayneopenwalls on Instagram).

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” Reyes will tell you.

Francisco Reyes runs Open Walls Fort Wayne, which hosted "Elevation. A Summit City Mural Showcase" at the 2400 block of Central Dr. in Fort Wayne.

Working with the Public Art Commission, he’s identifying walls in the city that are ideal for street artists, getting permission from the owners to paint them, and then publicizing the walls on social media for local and national street artists to take part.

Reyes says he hopes to make Fort Wayne Open Walls a nonprofit someday. In the meantime, he’s partnering with Faith Lutheran Church at 1700 E. Pettit Ave. to bring projects to life.

“So far, I’ve had people come out to paint these walls from Columbus, Indy, and Chicago,” Reyes says. “I want to keep getting more local artists involved.”

Debbie Kuntz works on her mural during "Elevation. A Summit City Mural Showcase" on the 2400 block of Central Dr. in Fort Wayne.

While he has secured walls in multiple neighborhoods near Downtown, his flagship project, called “Elevation,” is happening in his own neighborhood at 2418 Central Dr.

Since Reyes moved to Fort Wayne from Los Angeles with his mother about 20 years ago, he’s noticed a more than 3,700-foot long retention wall for OmniSource Corporation across the street from his house. This large, blank wall has 15 sections of concrete, roughly 250-square-feet each, with a taller, corrugated steel barrier above these sections.

“After 20 years, you get tired of seeing a gray wall,” Reyes says.

Artists work on the murals during "Elevation. A Summit City Mural Showcase" on the 2400 block of Central Dr. in Fort Wayne.

In addition to turning part of the barrier into an Open Wall, he is hosting events and curating a rotating gallery of murals by local artists in each of the wall’s 15 concrete sections. Along with infusing art and vibrancy into his community, Reyes says Elevation is also about creating opportunities for social mobility in South East, too.

“I love that Fort Wayne is embracing public art,” he says. “I think it’s really cool, but I want it to be more democratized.”

To qualify to paint a largescale mural in downtown Fort Wayne, most artists need to have prior experience painting at least 250-square-feet of space. Reyes’s question is: Where are young artists on the South East side going to get that experience in a way that’s affordable and accessible to them?

Art This Way, a public art program that coordinates murals Downtown, offers to connect interested newbie muralists with professional artists for mentorships. Still, Reyes feels that creators on the South East side need more opportunities closer to home.

Along with providing artists with a canvas to grow their skills, Elevation also prevents would-be graffiti artists from marking private property without permission.

“The whole idea is to get more walls legally accessible for artists to paint,” Reyes says. “I look at it like, ‘If we can start more art programs—if we can create more opportunities for people in South East to make art—then they get to participate and to feel included in the growth that’s happening here.”

Francisco Reyes runs Open Walls Fort Wayne, which hosted "Elevation. A Summit City Mural Showcase" at the 2400 block of Central Dr. in Fort Wayne.

Along with increasing social mobility in South East, Reyes hopes Elevation makes Fort Wayne, as a whole, more conscious of the gentrifying effects public art can have on affordable neighborhoods when residents are not included in their own community’s growth. While he’s glad, to some extent, that South East Fort Wayne is getting more attention and investment, he’s also not sure whether these investments will support the people who already live there or gentrify their neighborhoods.

“To me, gentrification means taking a place and making it more suitable for the middle class,” Reyes says. “It’s all about how much money you have.”

South East Fort Wayne’s 46803 and 46806 zip codes are two of the lowest-income zip codes in the state of Indiana. Yet, Reyes has seen proposals for developments, like food truck parks, in the City of Fort Wayne’s Southeast Strategy Plan. He feels not enough is being done to engage the community in the earliest stages of the planning process—not only thinking about people of all races, but also people of all income levels.

“How many businesses on the South East side even own food trucks?” he asks. “Who can afford to eat at food trucks? We need to be asking: Who are these developments really serving?”

While he recognizes that even public art has been the “spear tip of gentrification” in other cities, he’s trying to be conscious to avoid those pratfalls here, too.

“Look at Bushwick, Brooklyn,” he says. “You had guys who started painting murals, and then more people started coming in, and all of a sudden you have advertisers putting billboards over murals because they know that eyes are looking. If you’re not careful and paying attention to what’s happening, you can be the catalyst to destroying your own neighborhood.”

Rachel Von Stroup's finished mural during "Elevation. A Summit City Mural Showcase" on the 2400 block of Central Dr. in Fort Wayne.

Rather than attempting to drive traffic to the South East side, he’s hoping Fort Wayne Open Walls and Elevation will uplift the artists and residents already there, giving them greater access to art as a means of expression and social mobility.

“Social mobility is what we want here,” he says.

When he and Fleming were laying out the plans for Open Walls in 2019, she came up with the name “Elevation” based on this concept.

“She said: It sounds like you’re trying to elevate artists on the South East side; plus, there’s a connection to Fort Wayne being the Summit City,” Reyes recalls.

Their vision for Elevation was to make the wall a rotating gallery with regular events and quarterly opportunities for new local artists to paint over the previous artists’ designs. They hosted their first Open Wall painting event in the fall of 2020.

When Fleming died of cancer in 2021, Reyes says these plans took a backseat to caring and grieving for her. After weeks of wanting to stay in bed, he managed to pull off his first solo event on July 24-25, inviting nine artists to paint murals. 

“This is the culmination of all that work Lea Anne and I have done the past 12 years, so I had to keep it going,” Reyes says. “I feel like it would be disrespectful if I didn’t.”

Like life and his creation process, the idea behind Open Walls is temporal—here today, gone tomorrow. You get up as long as you can get up, start a fire, and hopefully, the sparks ignite something else.

“That’s how street art is,” Reyes says. “Once it’s out there, it’s no longer yours. Everything is given away because what are you going to hold onto it for anyway?”

He believes “life is a lesson in letting go,” and Elevation is an opportunity to help more people realize this lesson and to make the best use of the time they have.

It’s an opportunity for people in South East to feel and express a sense of purpose.

“Sometimes, life feels like a lesson in futility because no matter what you do, you’re not going to save anybody,” Reyes says. “But I like to remind people: Dying is what’s easy; living dead is what’s whack. That’s harder. You’ve got to find your purpose.”

This story is a part of Input Fort Wayne's Voices of South East series, running from August-September 2021 and funded by the Foellinger Foundation. For more information, read the first story in the series.
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Read more articles by Kara Hackett.

Kara Hackett is a Fort Wayne native fascinated by what's next for northeast Indiana how it relates to other up-and-coming places around the world. After working briefly in New York City and Indianapolis, she moved back to her hometown where she has discovered interesting people, projects, and innovations shaping the future of this place—and has been writing about them ever since. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @karahackett.