“We Must Care About our Public Spaces”

As promised, here is a followup to last week’s post on the value of public art.

At Foundation East’s artist meet-and-greet I met Irvington resident Holly Combs. She’s half of the husband-and-wife duo who painted several traffic signal boxes around Irvington. While I was talking with her, a neighbor stopped to say that she honked and waved whenever she passed the couple working out in the cold on their boxes.

Holly thanked her, saying, “Do you know what it meant to us when people honked and waved? Yeah, it was cold but we didn’t feel it. When you’re joyful in what you do, you’re not even cold.” Then she handed us each a “You are beautiful” sticker.

That seems to sum up Holly, whose passion is obvious when she speaks of her various projects. For example, Street Styles. It’s a youth program she started that uses street art and graffiti as the foundation for exploring art fundamentals.

With her husband Dave, she also founded the Department of Public Words. DPW’s mission is to put uplifting messages in surprising places, all to tell people “they’re awesome, beautiful, worthy, and wonderful,” as Holly puts it.

They first tried it a few years back when the economy tanked and the Combs’ gallery and art magazine were hard hit.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

“When you lose everything, you’re fearless, thinking ‘I can do anything,’” Holly told me. She painted You Are Beautiful in block letters high on a prominent building in the Fountain Square neighborhood because it was a message she herself needed.

Since then they’ve put the same message on a building on East Tenth Street. I pass it often and it never fails to make me smile.

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

Photo courtesy of Department of Public Words

Sometimes I’ve walked my dog past the Combs’ house in summer (though I didn’t know it was theirs) to find You Are Beautiful scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk.

The You Are Beautiful campaign is part of a global initiative started by Matthew Hoffman (those stickers were the first manifestation). Right now the couple are raising money to continue inspiring people with positive words all over town.

With Street Styles, Holly works with youth in the juvenile justice system, many of whom have illegally painted graffiti. “I tell my juvenile offenders, ‘You go to jail for doing that and I get paid $100 an hour: who’s the boss?’” She brings the disenfranchised youth into the process of creating street art in hopes of channeling their desire for self-expression.

I asked Holly how she felt about the vandalized signal boxes, since one of theirs was targeted. “Yes, our box got paint poured on it. Just out of meanness. Sad. But I see public art as a conversation with the public,” she told me in a Facebook chat.

One of the Combs' traffic signal boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

One of the Combs’ traffic signal boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

The offenders in her program say that if a community doesn’t seem to care about a neighborhood, it’s seen as an invitation.

“(We) must care about our public spaces to help encourage others to care about them too. I always say, “Blank walls want me.’”

In fact, my neighborhood started the signal box project after a police officer spoke to our Crimewatch group about Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Officer Shane Foley talked about CPTED’s landscaping and lighting design principles—and how modifying the built environment can deter criminals.

The group already had a history of litter cleanups and beautification efforts, and CPTED theory made a lot of sense. The traffic signal box art seemed a natural progression.

Another of the Combs' boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Another of the Combs’ boxes. Photo by Vishant Shah.

These boxes belong to the whole community, and no setback is going to slow the public art movement now. With the help of a fundraising campaign, Vishant and cofounder Aaron Story plan to have all the boxes protected with a coat of clear coat by May.

Local artists, funders, and dreamers are invited to contact Foundation East about partnering on future eastside Indy public art projects.

Public Art Unites the Community

Public art is one of those things that’s more than the sum of its parts. Here in my neighborhood, the humble traffic signal box—a four-foot-tall aluminum cabinet that had never before registered on my radar—seems to be the start of something big.

In 2012 I was one of the volunteers painting Irvington’s first seven signal boxes as part of the Great Indy Cleanup.

These Colts cheerleaders helped us get the job done.

These Colts cheerleaders helped us get the job done. Photo by Heidi Unger.

Each design had been submitted by artists like Morgan Hauth, shown here putting finishing touches on one of her pieces.

Touching up

Morgan Hauth touching up. Photo by Heidi Unger.

By 2013, Foundation East, the brainchild of Vishant Shah and Aaron Story, had formed with a goal of transforming eastside Indy neighborhoods through public art. Building on the success of the traffic signal box project, the duo enlisted six artists to paint another round.

Oil painter Rita Spalding at work on one of her signal boxes.

Oil painter Rita Spalding at work on one of her signal boxes. Photo by Charmaine Edwards.

A total of 19 boxes now brighten the main thoroughfares of my community.

Sadly, some disrespectful souls targeted a couple of these landmarks. Two boxes were vandalized early Dec. 31, prompting outrage among neighbors. A third more recently had a bucket of paint splashed on it.

It’s infuriating, but I take my cue from Rita, who has more reason than anyone to be outraged—her luminous painting was among those defaced. She told the Indianapolis Star that morning, “I’m not angry. It just really makes me think about what’s going on in that kid’s life.”

Later that day she wiped off the graffiti. Several neighbors met her at the box to help out if needed, but it turned out to be easier than she expected, because she’d applied a layer of clear coat finish.

Foundation East founders Aaron and Vishant say the outcry shows how important these boxes have become. They invited the community to meet the artists and show their support this week.

I went to the gathering, finding it packed to the gills with neighbors eager to thank the artists and scribble their ideas on a white board. (Paint the water tower, build a vertical garden structure on the library lawn, install a sculpture on my street!)

Many also chipped in for a “clear coat fund” to give all the boxes the same treatment as Rita’s.

Homage to car culture

Homage to car culture, by Andrew Severns. Follow this artist at @severnscanon. Photo by Vishant Shah.

I talked to several residents there who mentioned Irvington’s history as a hub of creative and intellectual stimulation, with Butler University’s campus located here until 1928. In the 1920s and 30s, a group of acclaimed painters known simply as the Irvington Group drew national attention.

Apparently our neighborhood’s reputation as a quirky haven for eccentrics also dates back 100 years—Irvington is described in an October 1903 Indianapolis Star article as “the classic suburb which has an interesting way of turning up all kinds of freaks and strange things generally.”  (This was before the city grew to swallow up the suburb, but we retain our unique character.)

Signal box in Arctic Vortex aftermath

Erin Kelsch’s Signal box in Arctic Vortex aftermath. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Kathleen Angelone, owner of Bookmamas, says that’s exactly the kind of neighborhood she wants—and the art definitely adds to the vibe. “I think public art is vital to any community because it makes it beautiful. It denominates where the community is and gives it character.”

“And it is civilized. I want to live in a civilized community where people are interested in art and music and learning, not just their day to day jobs.”

Tribute to farm heritage

Dave and Holly Combs’ tribute to farm heritage. Photo by Vishant Shah.

Russian-born Svetlana, an oil painter, told me that public art played a role in her childhood desire to paint. “There are statues everywhere in Russia; you’re just surrounded by art,” she said. “That gave me a lot of creativity and imagination.”

Two years ago she moved to Irvington, where color is starting to pop in unexpected places. “I think it’s wonderful that there is art for people to view without going to a museum.”

Aaron and Vishant invite local artists, funders, and dreamers to contact them about partnering on future eastside Indy public art projects.

My next blog post will have more about the role of public art in placemaking, youth engagement, and crime prevention.