Take a stroll through downtown Fort Wayne and you might see a panda with an ice cream cone on its head, a gigantic bison, or a wild boar. They’re larger than life and a sight to behold.
All three are part of a recent movement that’s shining a spotlight on public art.
Art This Way is just one group that’s responsible for many of the murals scattered on the sides of buildings and other highly visible places. The projects have become a conversation starter all around the city.
“It’s so exciting because it adds so much color and light to just a standard street stroll,” said Kristen Guthrie of Visit Fort Wayne. “We’re really finding that visitors are so intrigued. It’s a surprise and delight. You don’t expect it. You come across it and it just brings a smile to your face and brings some joy to your day.”
Local artist Alexandra Hall leads Art This Way, a volunteer-run organization that operates under the umbrella of the Downtown Improvement District. Last year, the group installed four murals in alleys in a two-block area bordered by Washington Boulevard and Berry Street and Harrison and Calhoun Streets.
“My job is getting to know the property owners, getting permission to paint on the side of their building, putting together the prospectus with all the right signatures and all the right agreements, and then putting out the call for artists to apply,” Hall said.
Hall was inspired to launch the mural projects by artwork she’s seen in other places.
“I travel a lot, and in a lot of places they have these really well-known murals like in Brazil, Berlin, London,” she said. “We’re starting to see more of these fine art mural scenes. They’ve been evolving since the late ’80s and ’90s to now. I wanted to bring that to my hometown. So I thought, ‘Let’s do something that big cities are doing and give Fort Wayne its own little spin.’”
For the murals done through Art This Way, applications have come in from all across the country. The artist is selected by a jury.
“We have interest from everywhere, really,” Hall explained. “We had an applicant from Atlanta, one from Kentucky, someone from Pittsburgh, but it just so happened that in our blind jury process they were all local or people who were originally from somewhere else but now live and work in Fort Wayne.”
Jerrod Tobias is one of the local artists whose work can be found all over the city. He’s partnered with Arts United and the North Anthony Corridor as well as the Free Art Collective and Artlink to create his masterpieces. His largest piece, the 300-foot-long mural on the elevated railroad tracks across from Three Rivers Apartments, was commissioned by the City of Fort Wayne. He said a lot of thought goes into each project.
“I’m trying to be mindful of reflecting our own culture and not just painting whatever comes to mind,” Tobias said. “I want to connect it to all the things that are going on in our town, where we’re having this sort of renaissance in the arts culture. It’s a great time to be an artist in this community. I don’t want the artwork to be an imposition on a building but to be accenting the property or the neighborhood. So you’re enhancing an experience.”
After he’s been chosen for a specific project, Tobias gets to work in his art studio, coming up with the design and making a scale painting of it. He said that can often take longer than the actual mural itself.
“A 100-foot-long wall will take a month for two or three people,” Tobias said. “My wife Kara and I were the only two who worked on the 300-foot piece on Columbia Street. That one took us two months to paint and a really long time to prepare.”
Adding to the beauty
There are now 18 murals located around town, and they’ve become a tourist attraction not just for those visiting Fort Wayne for the first time, but for those who live here and simply enjoy the beauty the murals have brought to the community.
“People do their senior pictures in front of them, their wedding pictures, lots of selfies. They make gorgeous backdrops. They’re great photo spots,” said Guthrie from the Visitors Center.
“We have a print out of the public art map and it’s one of the top things people pick up because it’s such a great addition to their time downtown. You can also find it at visitfortwayne.com.”
The murals are definitely a labor of love for Tobias, who’s incredibly passionate about the role he’s playing in the public art scene.
“It really is surreal,” Tobias said. “When you sit at home and you design and paint things by yourself in your studio, you don’t really take into consideration the lasting impact pieces like these can have on people in their day-to-day lives. It’s really special and I feel really lucky to have work that is engrained in people’s daily lives.
“People tell me all the time, ‘I see this piece every day and it makes me feel so good.’ People thank us for doing these projects. It’s priceless, really. For me, it makes being an artist even more special.”
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