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Graffiti Walls and Gateways:
By Dan Swartz
Fort Wayne Reader
Every city in America uses its arts and culture in one way or another. The most successful cities incorporate these natural human functions into their planning and design, making them inherent aspects of the cities identity and propel a brand of a globally competitive space where ideas and knowledge are accepted and celebrated. Others use their arts and culture in a base form. They celebrate how "we have such a great arts community for the size of our city!", and do very little to support it.
Sadly, on a scale weighted on both ends by these two modalities, Fort Wayne falls much closer to the latter. Particularly in relation to public art, we have attempted to both control and promote it as a city, dictating "acceptable" and "unacceptable" forms of expression.
While the efficiency and role of public art and public funding is a long and drawn out ordeal, one can look at the current reality that we exist in as a community to define the terms of this work. There are currently very few ordinances controlling public art in Fort Wayne, however this lack of control ends up most often preventing projects from happening organically as there are no objective methods for establishing a project, and no clear contacts for who in the City approves a structure. While there is a perceived lack of funding for public art projects, this is technically not true. It would surprise many within the art world to learn that the City has already approved Legacy Funding for public art through its support of "Front Door Fort Wayne," and this funding is currently open for proposals. Due to the occlusion of information surrounding the logistics and funding of public art in our city, it is no wonder that many artists steer from it. This could be an indication of our relatively small number of sculptors too, as there is a lack of opportunity and culture surrounding three-dimensional work here.
All of this being said, there are artists who have, seemingly against all odds, focused on producing work meant for the public. These artists draw from the history of public works, from the muralists so active in the early half of the 20th century through the Mexican Muralist movement and the WPA program, to the graffiti artists of the later 20th century speaking out and defining the new community of hip hop culture. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the few artists working publicly at the local level is that there are very few opportunities open to them, and absolutely no support from the local schools putting an external competitive pressure on this group.
Projects like IPFW's recent celebration of their 50th Anniversary, focusing on a large number of small scale sculptures placed throughout downtown was a great way of engaging the small group of sculptors in town like Gregory Mendez, Cary Schafer, Jim Merz, George Morrison, and many others.
These works range from the tectonic to wildly atectonic, and large steal slab pieces and intricate detail work. And while this allowed the public to see what some of these artists were capable of, the addition of small scale permanent work can sometimes be problematic from a curatorial and cultural tourism standpoint, being that once you have seen some of the pieces, they lose some of the repeat appeal of iconic works like the Fort Wayne Museum of Art's recently re-established "Helmholtz" sculpture, or the fresh and vibrant appeal of a temporary sculpture project like the Decatur Sculpture Walk, of which artist Gregory Mendez has been very active in establishing as a popular and successful endeavor.
From a two-dimensional standpoint, until recently, Fort Wayne offered little more than the illegal works produced by graffiti artists. Thankfully, this has been changing steadily through interventions from artists like Jerrod Tobias and graffiti artist Cost, who have both spent considerable time and talent to establish private support for their work, which has lead not only to a few safe places for artists to work, but also allowed for examples to exist within the community, showing how non-confrontational this work can be.
Another great addition to dialogue is the Fort Wayne chapter of Universal Zulu Nation, a national network of individuals promoting the positive aspects of hip hop culture, which gave Cost the entire interior to design. Currently, four public spaces embracing graffiti and street art include 816 Pint 'n' Slice, which bears the exquisite NoseGo piece on its alley wall, Wunderkammer Company whose "Res Publica" project attempts to cover its entire facade with murals, and the public graffiti wall off of Lafayette and Clinton in the La Rez neighborhood just south of downtown Fort Wayne, and thankfully, the River Greenway. This latter project happened very recently, in the Summer of 2014, and is one of the largest collaborative murals that the city has ever had, bringing a number of graffiti and street artists together to produce a large swath of murals on the near North side of downtown. With this small but strong beginning of both public and private support for murals and two-dimensional work, the public is beginning to demand more.
Interestingly, as public art icons like 5 Pointz in Long Island City, New York disappear in 2014, marking the end of an era, Fort Wayne seems to only now be opening its eyes to the potential that public art can play within the identity of the city, its neighborhoods, and its institutions. As we begin to build a community of artists working within this realm, hopefully, the public and private landowners will step up to the needs and challenges put forth.
For More Information:
*A number of murals can be found on the River Greenway near 4th Street, in downtown Fort Wayne.
*A number of murals can be found at Wunderkammer Company, 3402 Fairfield Ave, 46807
*NoseGo's mural can be found at 816 S. Calhoun St, 46802.
*Zulu Nation can be found at 3710 S. Calhoun St, 46807, or online at www.tomahawkzulus.tk