More than a mural: Discover the catalytic peace project that is Wunderkammer's Pax Fortlandia

If you drive past Wunderkammer Company, just south of downtown Fort Wayne on Fairfield Avenue, you’ll likely notice two grand-scale murals on the building’s façade.

On the north side, there’s the bright blue and orange “Don’t Give Up” mural by Matt Plett, and on the east side, there’s the rising fist of female empowerment by Lissa Brown.

Now, on the west side of the building, facing the parking lot, a new mural is coming to life—quite literally.

Community members were invited to stop by and help paint the Peace Mural using stencils.

On a dark gray background, white spray-painted words emerge in different languages—more than 100 languages all spoken in Fort Wayne homes, to be exact—and together, these words form the shape of a peace sign in the mural’s negative space.

Each word on the mural means “peace” in its language, so it’s fitting that Wunderkammer is calling this the “Peace Mural,” says Founder Dan Swartz. But what you might not realize is that it’s more than a mural. It’s part of an interactive art installation known as the Pax Fortlandia Activation—a project designed to foster cultural understanding and draw greater awareness to the fact that 102 languages are spoken in the city of Fort Wayne.

On top of that, Pax Fortlandia is the first of what hopes to be many such projects in Fort Wayne and beyond, Swartz explains.

Swartz hops to make stencils for the Peace Mural available for the public to use other places around town.

Walk around to the front side of Wunderkammer, facing Fairfield, and you’ll see the project's interactive component. There, encased within the glass doorway, is a red landline phone (borrowed from the Allen County Public Library, no less).

This phone is collecting voice messages from people across the city who are simply asked to dial its number (1-833-FWPEACE), listen to a brief message by WBOI radio personality Julia Meek, and then speak about “peace” in their native tongue.

Wunderkammer is collecting these voice messages to be used in a sound experience that will accompany the mural via sound-mapping designed by musician and developer Kurt Roembke. He and photographer Zack Kittaka are capturing the project on film and in photos to give it a digital existence, as well. 

Using stencils allows anyone to participate in making the Peace Mural.

Roembke is the creator of SoundWalk, which has done similar sound-mapping projects in other parts of Fort Wayne, turning physical spaces into sonic environments for exploration. Along with the sheer creativity of pairing the Peace Mural with the voices of Fort Wayne residents, the sound element of the project also has a functional purpose.

As Wunderkammer volunteers were developing the concept for Pax Fortlandia, they quickly discovered that not all of the languages spoken in Fort Wayne have a written form. In fact, only about 60 out of 102 do, and they didn’t want to leave anyone out. By bringing sound into the project, they were able to make it more inclusive.

“It’s important to capture everyone’s understanding of peace,” Roembke says. “People here come from so many different backgrounds, so the project will be informed by so many different, interesting things that (those of us who only speak English) might not think about.”

The Peace Mural takes shape on Wunderkammer's west side.

Swartz adds that they also chose to represent languages in the mural (as opposed to countries of origin) because some countries are home to people groups who speak multiple different languages. Even the mural’s colors of gray and white were chosen intentionally to avoid using bright colors that may have negative connotations in certain cultures.

“We wanted to make sure everyone feels represented,” he says.

On an 80-degree Saturday afternoon in September, Swartz, Roembke, and a crew of Wunderkammer volunteers are spray painting the Peace Mural with stencils. Throughout the week, community members have been invited to stop by and spray a word or two themselves.

Wunderkammer volunteers paint the mural portion of the Pax Fortlandia Activation.

The beauty of having stencils is that you don’t need to be an artist to take part in creating the mural, Swartz explains. It’s an accessible form of public art that anyone can participate in.

This concept of inclusive art projects that employ the public to create them is starting to take hold in Fort Wayne. At the Regional Neighborhood Network Conference held in downtown Fort Wayne Sept. 19-21, city leaders from across the Midwest learned about a similar concept from keynote speaker Shawn Dunwoody.

Dunwoody is a multi-disciplinary creative from Rochester, Ny., who has completed more than 75 public art projects throughout the city of Rochester. One of his most notable projects, known as the Fruit Belt Project in 2015, employed five youth in one Rochester's most distressed neighborhoods to create a series of public murals inspiring social change on their streets. Fort Wayne leaders sought to replicate this concept during the conference by putting attendees to work painting a few murals around town, using stencils and taped off sections of the wall.

Once the Peace Mural at Wunderkammer is complete, Swartz says his stencils will be available for other people and organizations in Fort Wayne to use, as well. His hope is that the Pax Fortlandia Activation at Wunderkammer will attract enough attention and support that it can be replicated on a grander scale in downtown Fort Wayne to showcase the city’s solidarity and welcoming spirit on highly traveled streets.

“We want it to have a big, visible space,” Swartz says.

Stencils for the Peace Mural.

He also sees the potential to create a walking tour experience using the peace stencils in local parks and neighborhoods.

To fund the project, Wunderkammer launched a Facebook fundraiser earlier this year, seeking $10,000. They raised about $2,750 of that goal and used it to move forward with the pilot mural project on-site. They plan to channel future investments toward more Pax Fortlandia projects around town.

So why “peace”—of all words—for the theme of this activation? Cornelia Schulz

For that, you’ll have to ask Cornelia Schulz, the Wunderkammer volunteer and neighborhood advocate who first dreamed up the concept.

Schulz moved to the U.S. from her native town just outside of Frankfert, Germany, in 1992. Since then, she and her husband have lived in St. Louis and Botswana, Africa, before moving to Fort Wayne in 1998 for her husband’s job at Concordia Theological Seminary.

Being a foreigner herself, Schulz explains, has helped her realize how many other foreign and diverse residents live in the Fort Wayne area—many of whom are not here by choice.

Instead, many immigrants come to the U.S. and Fort Wayne, specifically, as refugees, fleeing crisis in their homelands.

People often think foreigners want to come to America for economic opportunity, but many people want to come because they are fleeing war,” she says. “They are seeking peace.”

A peace sign emerges in the mural's negative space.

The Pax Fortlandia Activation is an attempt to express that peace and unite all of Fort Wayne’s people on the common ground of respite, Swartz says.

“Peace is a word everybody says, but it’s rarely tangible because it rarely exists,” he explains. “This is making a static form of peace. People don’t have an outlet for peace; they don’t have an understanding of peace. Hopefully, this, in one little way, will just help peace click for people.”


To donate to the Pax Fortlandia Activation, visit Wunderkammer Company's donation page or send checks to 3402 Fairfield Ave, Fort Wayne, IN 46807, made out to Wunderkammer Company. 

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.
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