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How an Indiana city's investment in public art mirrors its overall turnaround


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Like cities across the Rust Belt, Fort Wayne, Indiana, endured some tough decades, as manufacturing plants closed, jobs dried up, and the city's population shrank.

But, in recent years, Fort Wayne has made a turnaround and a big investment in public art.

Special correspondent Cat Wise recently spent time with a local artist who is a driving force behind that effort. Her report is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Cat Wise: Above a busy street in downtown Fort Wayne in a quiet studio apartment, artist Alexandra Hall brings colorful, playful creatures to life with paint and brush.

Hall, who is 37, grew up in Fort Wayne and has been a full-time artist since 2015. Over the years, she's drawn and painted a variety of subjects, including portraits, still-life, and delightful tipsy frogs. More recently, she's become known for her large-scale paintings of animals in bright, pattern-filled costumes.

Alexandra Hall, Artist: I am inspired by a lot of different things, travel. Sometimes, it is a person I see on the sidewalk.

I have for a very long time recreated the things I see into whimsical animals that often have human traits or an anthropomorphized animal.

Cat Wise: Tell me about the dripping of the paint. Why is that important?


Alexandra Hall: I think that there is a little bit of chaos in every piece. There needs to be that release of control, that idea that nothing in our life is unchanging and nothing in our life is fully in our control.

I tuck that into because that's been part of my life story and I think its part of most people's life story.

Cat Wise: Her life took an unexpected turn in high school, when she was diagnosed with bone cancer.

Alexandra Hall: Back when I was ill, I was spending a lot of time in bed. It was really up to me to create the worlds around me and make it interesting.

And so art became that outlet for me, and it's still an outlet for me today.

Cat Wise: After recovering and going to college, Hall began traveling and discovered a love of public art.

Alexandra Hall: When I traveled, I noticed that there were communities that organically have a really strong public art presence. And I found myself more drawn to those places and those spaces because they have some sort of story to tell.

At the time, I would say, I thought, wow, I can't wait to live in a place like this. This is -- I want to leave Indiana.

Cat Wise: Hall eventually decided not to leave. Instead, she's brought public art to her hometown.

Alexandra Hall: So, in the summer, this can be a really cool place to hang out, read a book, and it is a little quieter than the street side.

Cat Wise: In 2016, Hall started a donation-funded organization called Art This Way. Now a nonprofit that's part of Fort Wayne's Downtown Improvement District, the organization facilitates public art projects on private property and the development of pedestrian-friendly spaces.

Alexandra Hall: We work really hard to make spaces walkable, in the sense that there is art every so often and often enough that you are intrigued and inspired.

Cat Wise: You want to keep going.

Alexandra Hall: And want to keep going, yes.

Cat Wise: She took me on a tour to see some of the 30 large-scale pieces her organization has helped install by local, national, and international artists.

Tell me about this mural.

Alexandra Hall: Right.

So this is Walt Whitman by Tim Parsley. This is meant to depict the creative brain and the hope that comes from the creative brain. What we wanted to do with the Art This Way program was create a place where public art could be about anything, and it didn't need to necessarily be about Fort Wayne.

So, give it room to breathe and allow art for art's sake to happen.

Cat Wise: That art, she says, has helped breathe new life into the city, which, during the downturn years, had seen an increase in vacant parking lots and abandoned buildings.

Today, once-stark alleyways are now a destination.

Oh, my goodness. Tell me about this piece.

Alexandra Hall: So, this is called 77 Steps. We have seen engagement photos. People get engaged in this space.

It can be programmed to do a lot of different things. We will program it for special events and holidays, you name it.

Cat Wise: The community loves it.


Alexandra Hall: Yes, the community loves it.

Cat Wise: Art This Way's projects, including two of Hall's own works, are part of a growing collection of public art throughout the city, nearly 150 pieces, including a new sculpture in honor of Ukraine.

Alexandra Hall: You are supposed to engage with this, like a lot of the works that we install. You're supposed to be able to touch them.

And, here, you're supposed to stand and be pictured with your crown and your set of wings.

Cat Wise: Events like the annual Art Crawl in September draw locals and visitors and perhaps convince some of those visitors to stay.

Bill Brown, Former President, Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District: There's more people moving in than are moving out. It's there. It's a big deal. And that something to be proud of.

Cat Wise: Bill Brown is a retired Fort Wayne business owner and former head of the Downtown Improvement District.

Bill Brown: Well, we have some outstanding local artists.

Cat Wise: I met him at The Bradley, a new boutique hotel in downtown.

Bill Brown: What is cool is that The Bradley's been able to embrace them and hang their art.

Cat Wise: He says public art has played a significant role in Fort Wayne's revitalization efforts, which have also included riverfront development and a baseball stadium.

Nationally, a 2018 survey by the nonprofit Americans For the Arts found that 70 percent of Americans believe that the arts improve the image and identity of their community. In Indiana, arts and culture is a $7.6 billion industry which supports more than 78,000 jobs.

Brown says, in Fort Wayne, nearly everyone is on board now with public art, but it took some time to get there.

Bill Brown: I think the change was the realization that the arts can drive economic development.

I think that -- kind of that show me kind of thing, a conservative community, once they trust, they are all in. And that's where I think, with people like Alex, it is about performance, trust, and talent.

Cat Wise: Hall and other Fort Wayne artists have been building on that trust and expanding their impact, like Theoplis Smith, who goes by the artistic name Phresh Laundry.

I met him at his new mural in the entrance tunnel to Electric Works, the recently renovated former campus of General Electric that was vacant for years. Smith, an internationally recognized artist whose work can be seen throughout Fort Wayne, including at The Bradley Hotel, has high hopes for his city.

Theoplis Smith, Artist: I want this to be like a mecca in the North region to see the arts flourished. Being the second largest city in Indiana, the economy is growing. You have people in all walks of life coming into Fort Wayne to see what we have to offer.

We want to make sure we are screaming and echoing arts.

Cat Wise: But, as his city grows, he wants to make sure everyone is included and able to access the arts.

Theoplis Smith: You have your fine line between gentrification vs. revitalization. It makes sure that you have the right people at the table to make it cohesive. You want people to feel invited, feel welcome, feel, I belong here.

Cat Wise: Hall also wants to make public art more accessible.

Alexandra Hall: What we have created is the huge melting pot of street art. We are seeing lots of diversity in the cultures and ethnicities and where someone is from, Brazil, Germany, you name it.

Cat Wise: She's now consulting with communities outside of Fort Wayne. And, over the past three years, she's led more than three dozen projects in rural towns in Indiana, New York, and Pennsylvania.

And while she still loves to travel, she has no plans to leave her hometown.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Cat Wise in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

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