Where is your happy place? A new Fort Wayne mural shares local stories—one photo at a time

Olivia Ulch beams with a contagious energy when she talks about her grassroots, community-driven art project. It’s only appropriate as the fruits of her efforts have resulted in what’s now known as My Happy Place Fort Wayne. 

The newest addition to Fort Wayne's mural landscape features 200 photo submissions from local residents. Following the theme “My Happy Place,” participants were encouraged to submit photos that capture what brings them happiness in their community and what makes them proud to call Fort Wayne home.

In this way, My Happy Place presents a unique opportunity to use art as a way to join disparate voices and celebrate the Fort Wayne community and its residents.

Olivia Ulch is the brainchild behind My Happy Place Fort Wayne.

The visual art piece, which is currently installed on the side of Hop River Brewing Company, came out of a project funded by the Indiana Arts Commission. Ulch was selected to participate in the On-Ramp program this spring, which proved to be the catalyst for her artistic endeavor.

“You complete a three-day weekend intensive course on mentorship in the arts,” Ulch explains. “It covers everything from marketing from accounting. After completing the program, I then became eligible for a grant that really only had two parameters. You had to use what you had just learned, and it had to be community-based, which is a very wide umbrella.”

Ulch says she ruminated on the possibilities before coming to a final decision because she took the charge very seriously. A mural seemed to be the most fitting presentation, with the city’s embrace of public art in the past few years. However, the concept evolved the more thought she put into it.

The mural itself went through many different evolutions. For example, at first, she thought she wanted people to physically help paint it. But after further consideration, she thought a photography collage piece was a better fit. Ulch studied photography and design, so she wanted to pull those elements into the project. 

It took an "aha" moment for her to come to the conclusion that a photo project was the best expression of her intention to connect people. 

“At my day job, we were doing a giant mural inside of a trailer. And the printer, Cullen Bryant of Premier Signs, there did one on large vinyl, the same grade of vinyl we used for the mural," she says. "I asked him if this could be applied on a building, and he confirmed that was the case. It was then I told myself, 'This is the medium. This is how I’m going to create the mural.'”

Smiling faces at the Oct. 12 mural reveal at Hop River Brewing Company

So she started working with Bryant and having conversations about what type of building could accommodate the mural. She also explored logistics such as the best ways to encourage photo submissions before ultimately deciding on the website portal. 

After those details were hammered out, Ulch was focused on the human element of the project—what the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) considers critical in its evaluation of the execution of public art projects.

"While public art, by its nature, encourages dialogue with the public," the NEA says, "the dialogue is at its fullest when the community is engaged in a project’s design and creation from the very start."

Keeping that in mind, it wasn’t enough for Ulch to simply put calls to action on social media. It called for going out of her comfort zone and approaching people directly.

“I would say, ‘Hey, I'm working on an art project,'” she explains. "'Show me your favorite photo on your phone. I want to hear your voice. I want to hear your perspective. I want you to feel seen as a part of this.' And the dots would connect for them and the excitement started to build. I started carrying that into the social world, by using the hashtag “Fort Wayne." Or when people would tag a location on social media, I would seek them out and encourage them to submit their photo.”

Speaking of encouragement, Ulch says the project’s name harkens back to its mission. She wanted it to be accessible. For example, camera photos were just as welcome as professionally shot submissions. And she knew from her studies that yellow is a color typically associated with happiness. 

Her approach worked. She received about 200 submissions, and the demographics of the participants ran the gamut, she says. The final  125" x 125" composition, which she curated, is made up of a montage of 4"x6" photos that capture people, places, and things—Happy Places. 

Ulch describes the project as a labor of love. Now, she's inviting the community to take it all in.

"Even before I knew what the composition piece was going to look like, I knew I wanted to create something that would challenge the traditional norms, and that we as a whole could appreciate for a while,” she says.

Read more articles by Lauren Caggiano.

Lauren Caggiano is a Fort Wayne-based writer. A 2007 graduate of the University of Dayton, she returned to Northeast Indiana to pursue a career. In the past 12 years she has worked in journalism, public relations, marketing, and digital media. She currently writes for several local, regional, and national publications.
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