LIMA — Bart Mills isn’t sure what mural is going to end up on the side of the CASA building in downtown Lima, but he’s pretty sure no matter what, the final product won’t get a 100% approval rating from Lima residents. Controversy is often attached to public art projects.
“The reality of it is, it doesn’t matter what you do. Somebody isn’t going to like it,” Mills, director of the Council of the Arts of Greater Lima, said.
While not everyone may agree on aesthetic preferences, the regional support for public art and murals has made some inroads in recent years, as many villages and cities work to reconfigure the appeal of downtown districts to encourage foot traffic and further economic development.
As for the controversy associated with any new public art piece, that’s kind of the point.
Arts and economics
“It’s called creative place-making,” Hope Wallace, executive director of Van Wert’s Wassenberg Art Center, said. “There’s a couple of different definitions, but it’s a way of using the arts to increase the vibrancy and economy of an area. If vibrancy increases then the economy increases. If people want to hang out in an area, they need a place to eat or a place to sleep.”
By setting up public spaces with art, Wallace said the idea is to give visitors a reason to stop and voice their thoughts on a piece. The type of art can vary, but it should encourage at least a comment.
Like Sculptor Stuart Fink said prior to the dedication of Lima’s three-columned downtown art project, which he set up in 1987: “Some people hate Trinity. Some people love it, and some people just don’t know what to make of it. The worst that could happen is if nobody paid any attention to it.”
Dante Centuori has seen that sort of interaction firsthand thanks to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum’s recently-installed statuary of Neil Armstrong.
“It adds something that we didn’t have before … it adds two experiences,” said Centuori, executive director of the museum. “The interactions aren’t limited to just touching it. (Visitors) are pausing to experience it. People are not just taking a picture of the statue. A lot of people take a picture with the statue, like it’s a person.”
That sort of individual experience makes memories, which add up over time throughout a larger community to create a stronger cultural identity.
“Art in any form, it gets people off their beaten path. They come walking by or driving over. It’s a real sense of community,” said Sticky Rammel, owner of a Van Wert building, which has recently been painted with a white-and-black mural of a blues musician. “(Public art) sells Van Wert.”
Rammel’s piece — an eye-catching vertical mural of a bird, Van Wert’s peony and a musician — doesn’t lean into the historical overtones chosen by many of the region’s villages as mural subject matter, but Rammel said he decided to go with something a little more “modern” and “edgy” to reflect his love of music and how he feels about Van Wert.
“I think for the size of Van Wert, I think we have a lot more art than other towns our size,” Rammel said. “We just have a lot for the size of our town. … The mural is spurring more talk and more action and helps people want to get involved.”
In the future, Rammel said he’d like to see someone else’s version of a mural. No matter what the next mural represents, the idea is to add something for the community.
“It makes someone more prideful of their community, which raises morale, which inspires growth and involvement. Or we can all just sit in our homes, on our computers or televisions. It’s a lot healthier to engage for everyone,” Wallace said.
For many villages, historical murals have contributed to public art for a few decades, thanks to the efforts of Pandora-born Oscar Velasquez, who has attached his name to many downtown murals over the past two decades.
Ottawa has at least one of Velasquez’s murals, and a second is currently being undertaken by Bruce Stowe, who helped design and paint the first one together with Velasquez. The latest mural in Ottawa is a reconstruction of the block that once stood on the green-space southwest of the intersection of Main and Oak streets.
“(The mural) is going to reflect the block that was torn down, and I’m using my artistic license to kind of jumble up history,” Stowe said.
Like the mural just across the new Rex Center amphitheater, Stowe’s newest creation incorporates highlights of history to create a unique representation that ties together different periods. For example, Stowe plans on adding scenes from the Rex Theater that once stood on the lot. Included in his mural, the cinema is advertising a movie written by a screenwriter from the small town, or it features Bob Hope just outside, who came to Ottawa to perform early in his Vaudevillian career.
In a similar vein, the mural co-created by Stowe and Velasquez nearby features historical periods from Ottawa’s early trading days alongside a scene of a visit by presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in 1984.
Other villages in Putnam County have similar historical murals by Velasquez, who has added his name to a few murals that now decorate downtowns across the region. From Kalida to Bluffton, Velazquez’s take on historical murals is well-known throughout the region.
“The ones that I’ve been doing have been more related to the history and the roots of the community, to let people know and let them bring some kind of visual image or symbolic representation that you can look at and know some of the history of the area that they’re living in,” Stowe said.
But while Velasquez and Stowe may have a certain historical style, their murals still work as public art by delivering a certain kind of cultural identity to residents.
“I think it instills pride initially in residents in a community, and I think it instills some sense of identity. When all all that is added up, it is a local culture,” Wallace said. “I think people really need that in a subconscious way to boost morale and pride, a sense of rootedness.”
As for Lima, at least two more public works are in the planning stages. Mills and his crew at the Council of the Arts have been planning to install a mural by Terran Washington — a Lima native who has since lived in a number of metros — to create a mural for the Allen County Crime Victim Services’ building.
Mills said sketches of the particular art project are currently being discussed, and he is looking to bring the project to Lima’s downtown review board to consider before moving the project forward to initial stages sometime this September.
“I’ve seen a few rough sketch ideas,” Mills said. “I’m of an opinion let the artist be the artist so he can do his best work.”
Concurrently, a group known as the “Lima Mural Project” has launched within the last few weeks to form a more grassroots approach to the project. Founder Dennis Hempker said he hopes to use the project to spark and groundswell a people-centric movement towards public art.
“It brings community,” Hempker explained his reasons for undertaking the project. “It gives strangers a chance to get to know each other a different platform.”
Hempker initially launched the idea on Facebook and threw a few images together of what he envisioned as potential public art pieces onto the social media site. The idea gained momentum, and now 900 people follow the page to see what the group may do.
Both projects are in their early stages as the two groups examine what pieces, what places they are looking to install new art projects and how the projects will be funded.
Mills said he is looking to include a five-year-plan for the set of Arts Council projects, with one project seeing completion each year up until 2024.
“Within the next few months, the next six months or so, we’ll have mapped out a plan of the pieces we’re going to use, any engagement we got with the landowners, the spaces we want to involve and a general plan of the artists we use. We’re looking to use five different artists to have a diversity of aesthetics,” Mills said.
As for the Lima Mural Project group, Hempker said they are looking to raise funds and put together their first piece to be placed on S.U.N.E. Records located on North Street west of Jameson. Both are looking to get the ball moving quickly to provide some color to the community.
“There’s a lot of people seeing this as an opportunity to introduce change,” Hempker said. “It’s a catalyst for bigger things.”
Cost vs. culture
The mural on the side of the White Wizard Tattoo — a two-story-tall painting of a mage manipulating purple waves of energy — has seen a little bit of everything since it first was painted in 1992 by parlor owner Butch VanVoorhis, and for those heading south toward the Allen County courthouse on Main Street, it’s hard to miss.
“It’s a good landmark for a lot of people who travel up and down Main Street,” shop manager Kurt Davis said. “I’ve heard it many of times when trying to give directions.”
Reactions to the mural vary, Davis said. Some Lima residents — Davis said the culprits usually don’t like the parlor itself — have even egged the mural to make a point. But others have been stopped in their tracks by the artwork, prompting a decision to walk inside and start a conversation.
“Artists can relay something visually that people want to speak but don’t have a vehicle to do so,” Wallace said.
“We just feel like the more that we can gather people downtown, the happier people would be. I’m just happy about all the positive feedback,” said Mitch Price, Main Street Van Wert executive director, about the recently installed mural in Van Wert’s downtown district. The organization originally helped secure the state grant paying for the mural.
“Van Wert is on the cusp of doing some great things,” Price said.”We’re so happy to have this downtown. It’s a great atmosphere to have when walking. When we drive by it, it brings smiles to people’s faces and shows that Van Wert can be a Fort Wayne or Lima.”
“I think (public art) gets glossed over in our economic times because it’s not a giant job, and it doesn’t have smokestacks,” Wallace said. “It’s a more subtle way to increase vibrancy and attractiveness in a community.”
Reach Josh Ellerbrock at 567-242-0398.