How two Columbia City artists are advancing northeast Indiana's public art scene

Some artists' exposure is limited to a gallery space—available only to those who seek out their work. Others bring art to the people.

Columbia City artists Michael Lude and Jennifer Crampton do both, but their public art is what seems to be capturing people's attention in recent months. The duo recently completed a large-scale mural in their hometown and are gearing up for more work across northeast Indiana. 

A Lude and Crampton mural in the works at the Urban Station restaurant in Columbia City.

While the artists are humble when they talk about their work, there's no doubt they are part of a significant public art movement sweeping the nation. Offering more than visual appeal, this artwork is a boon to economic development, explains Patricia Walsh of nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

“By engaging in public art as a tool for growth and sustainability, communities can thrive economically,” Walsh writes. “Seventy percent of Americans believe that the 'arts improve the image and identity' of their community.”

While Lude and Crampton didn’t necessarily set out to be muralists advancing their city, that has been the end result of their collaboration. According to Lude, their business MJL Entwined Art & Innovative Services is rooted in innovation born out of necessity. 

“Coming from a small town, I always try to find a way to bridge the gap between what people want and where the money is,” he says. “The high-income clientele is usually where you make money with fine art galleries. So I just branch out to different areas, and whichever one sticks is what I invest in. It was when I met Jennifer that I really started to pursue other areas in the arts and start actually taking risks as an artist.”

An example of Lude's artwork on the Civil War.

While abstract, hyper-realism pieces on canvas or wood panels have been Lude's favorite form of artistic expression, the murals he's produced with Crampton are examples of him betting on himself.

A restored mural painted by Jennifer Crampton. He says he had done murals in the past, but Crampton’s success with the Owl mural on the Central Building in Columbia City really catapulted him into working with that medium more intensively.

Together, they completed a 6,300 square-foot mural in a local church and have additional commissions on the books. The sheer size of the church mural meant it was no small feat. It took collaboration and coordination to meet an aggressive deadline. The artists, who are also romantic partners, have found their stride when it comes to a creative partnership. 

“She tries to adapt to my style, and I try to adapt to hers and create a nice balance,” Lude says of Crampton. “So we're both growing as artists, while still trying to create so much work for ourselves and keeping in mind what the client is asking for.”

Lude says their recent projects have boosted his confidence as a professional. In his words, “the support is amazing and gives me perspective. The fact that I’m able to pursue art full time, without ever having to leave Columbia City is reassuring.”

With public art, there’s an element of making a lasting impact for years to come and doing it in nontraditional ways. For examples of this in Lude and Crampton's work, look no further than the interior mural project they designed at Community of Hope.

“They didn’t want a bunch of Bibles and Old Testament stuff,” Lude says. “They actually wanted stuff that kids could relate to—examples of people sharing, being kind, different races, different ways—all kinds of stuff.”

The mural at Community of Hope depicts scenes from life in Whitley County.

So what’s on tap for the near future? Lude and Crampton have been asked to create an "Alice in Wonderland" themed mural on the side of a restaurant, the Urban Station in Columbia City. The project is currently is still the works, but the feedback is already positive, Lude says.

You could say they're making waves. 

“Business owners that were otherwise hesitant or didn't get around to doing the murals have been asking, 'Hey, can we get this done?'" he says. "The more we do, the more people start to step outside their shell and do stuff."
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Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a freelance contributor for Input Fort Wayne. A graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.