Fort Wayne is fortunate to have several beautiful and historic homes and buildings in all corners of the city. Preserving them has been an ongoing endeavor, and many have become cornerstones to the improvements and growth the community has seen in the last decade or two. Of all of the city's notable structures, perhaps none are more magical and majestic than the building once occupied by the Mossman family at 1202 West Wayne Street. Built in 1905, the home was donated by the family almost half a century later to be used as the home for Fort Wayne's Museum of Art. When the museum moved to the center of downtown, it was converted to condominiums, its days as a gallery for art seemingly over.
One of the building's biggest fans was neighbor Jody Hemphill-Smith, an artist and native of Fort Wayne who studied art at Ball State and Indiana University before moving with her husband Mark to New Orleans and later to Valparaiso where Smith taught while her husband was earning his law degree. Eventually the couple decided to return to Fort Wayne, and Smith continued to focus on her art. Then one day she saw something happening at the old Mossman home, and it caught her attention.
"I saw them putting a 'For Sale' sign in the yard when I was working on the front porch, and I said something to my husband, and he said 'Don't get any ideas about buying that place. We'll buy that place when pigs fly.'"
That building - the one that was once a family home, then a municipal museum, then a collection of condos - is now better known as the Castle Gallery, and Smith has turned it into one of the most successful galleries in the area, one which has drawn attention around the country and has been a vital part of Fort Wayne's growing reputation as a thriving arts community. That Smith overcame resistance is not surprising, given how deeply her passion for art runs. It was actually planned for her before she was even born.
"I was born into it," says Smith. "My grandparents were art professors, and my grandfather was the first artist at Hallmark. I was my parents' fourth and last child, the last chance to have an artist in the family, so my room was set up with easels and paints. I was very lucky because I was always supported and encouraged to be an artist because my mother wanted those genes to roll."
Smith's siblings were all considerably older, and her father died when she was young, leaving her the full attention of her mother who enjoyed sharing the arts with her daughter. The pair frequented galleries, and Smith was exposed to all of the art forms, which she now credits with her openness to all artistic mediums.
That background has served her well, as she has grown the Castle Gallery into a place where people from Fort Wayne and from all over the country come to see exhibitions and special events. Her original motivation - and proudest accomplishment - is the opportunity she's given the artists she's been spotlighting in the last 22 years since the Castle Gallery opened.
"In this town it was hard for an artist to make a living as an artist. You can't rely on one show a year at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art or Artlink. But when these artists are featured here, you can see what it looks like in a home, and you can get the idea of how important art work is. You can see what art does for this magnificent building. And you don't have an obligation to buy, but maybe you will. And by golly, these artists are making a living as artists. This town has become very, very artistically significant in the country, and I think we've had a lot to do with that. People come to Fort Wayne to see the Castle Gallery."
The Smiths have found several ways to raise the profile of both their gallery and Fort Wayne as a cultural hot spot including last fall's visit by the Oil Painters of America show, an exhibit which brought artists from all over the country and Canada. This coming fall, they're excited to host the National Oil and Acrylic Society exhibit, having been chosen from hundreds of applicants all over the United States.
"It's a big honor," says Smith. "People are discovering that this city is artistically rich and that we have a great basis here for the arts. We'll be bringing eyes from all over the country to Fort Wayne."
In fact, Smith has seen many who come for these special exhibits and workshops fall in love with this area after seeing how much it has to offer.
"People don't know what we have here until they visit. One woman asked once if there were any covered bridges around here, so I gave her directions to the Spencerville Bridge. When she came back she said it had taken her two hours to get there, and I said 'Oh dear, were my directions that bad?' She said no, she had just stopped because there were so many things to look at and enjoy here. And you look around at what all we have now, with Sweetwater and all of the downtown development, it's exciting. And that excitement becomes contagious."
In addition to the upcoming events at the Castle Gallery, the Smiths will also celebrate their 40th anniversary this year and will continue to spotlight local and national artists in the gallery they established in 1995. There is much to look forward to, and Smith is proud of the contributions their efforts have made in the growing Fort Wayne arts community. She looks forward to continuing to fulfill the dreams her parents had when they finally brought an artist into the family.
"If I were to retire, I'd just do what I'm already doing," she says. "I'm a painter, and I don't want to retire. My husband's an author, and he's releasing his third book. We enjoy sharing our creative side with this town. We love to travel, and we always enjoy going someplace else, but we always keep coming back to Fort Wayne."