With the installation of a new Artists Alley exhibit and a new mural on The Foxes Trails, Kokomo’s art scene has continued to grow in the past year.
However, Gregory Steel, Indiana University Kokomo’s professor of fine arts and new media, remembers an era in the town’s history that seemed nearly devoid of art. During a June interview, he recalled going downtown on a Friday afternoon in 2005 and finding the town empty.
Initiatives to increase public art, Steel said, have played a key role in Kokomo’s growth.
Susan Alexander, manager of downtown initiatives for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, has collaborated with Steel to implement some of the art scene’s growth. The two formed an arts committee several years ago, which has since grown.
After tackling infrastructure issues and investing in various businesses, growing an arts and culture scene felt like a move in the right direction for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, Alexander explained in June.
One of the arts committee’s initiatives was the installation of the Kokomo Sculpture Walk, the two explained. The 2021-2023 Sculpture Walk borrowed nine art pieces from artists across America for public display.
With 2023 approaching, the Sculpture Walk exhibit jury is starting to consider its options for the next installment.
In a September interview, Steel said the community might need to advocate for the Sculpture Walk. Without much community buy-in, he noted, funding for the public sculptures could disappear.
“If the shop owners and the people that live in the community are willing to chip in a couple of bucks here and there to make that a reality, then it shows the leadership that this matters to people,” Steel said. From there, he added, public art could become a political issue.
Steel said that the Sculpture Walk is relatively inexpensive, but he agrees with the notion of checking in on community interest.
“If people don’t really want it, I can’t force you to want it,” Steel said. “I can’t force you to see why it’s important. I can’t force you to see why it’s going to enrich the community and make everybody’s lives better. I can make the argument, but I can’t force people to like something.”
The city got a new splash of color in mid-August when Denver-based artist Thomas “Detour” Evans painted a mural on the side of The Foxes Trails, 305 S. Main St.
The mural, which is roughly 60 feet tall, depicts Sarah Siders Bitzel, a member of the Miami Nation of Indiana, looking toward the sky and praying.
Robin Williams, a local representative from the Arts Federation, the organization that coordinated the effort to bring the new mural to Kokomo, said a committee of community members discussed the social impact of the mural before it was installed.
The committee decided to host the mural at The Foxes Trails because the site used to be home to the Miami Nation of Indiana.
“Even though we do have public art, we have Artist Alley and we have all of these things to appreciate, we’re not seeing art as a pivotal force in terms of social discourse and social justice,” Williams said in a phone interview prior to the mural’s unveiling.
The group had initially considered a depiction of Chief Kokomo, who the city is named after. Instead, the community-led committee decided to go with a surviving member of the Miami Nation to emphasize the native population’s ongoing presence in Indiana.
“I think it shows not only something that needs to be celebrated and venerated in this community, but I think we’re going to be able to, with this project, take what’s possible with public art to higher heights,” Williams said.
On the cusp
Steel said the Kokomo art culture is a community in transition.
“The difficult thing is steering the boat toward the future,” Steel said. “There are a lot of people who are, whether they know it or not, pushing it toward the past.”
The arts committee has discussed different ways to increase the amount of public art in Kokomo.
Alexander celebrated a sculpture made by Steel and one of his students, Cybil Johnson.
During the Strawberry Festival, another local artist named Sheila Haworth taught visitors how to tie macrame knots on the car-shaped sculpture meant to celebrate Kokomo’s automotive history.
She hoped the collaborative nature of the project, between three artists and festival visitors, would increase public ownership of public art.
The arts committee would also like to see more infrastructure designated for arts and culture. Alexander said ideas have included a shared studio space and an artist residency program.
For example, Steel said, Indianapolis has the Murphy Arts Center, a building that houses artists of various creative mediums under one roof. When artists are able to share a space, he explained, collaboration helps the art community grow.
In June, Steel noted that the arts committee, and the Kokomo art scene in general, is new enough that young people are still able to shape the future of the city’s art culture. He juxtaposed Kokomo’s art scene to larger cities such as Chicago and New York, where long-standing cultural institutions make change more difficult.
“We really try to engage with talented local artists on a lot of different things. From coming up with the ideas of what projects to do to actually producing the projects,” Alexander said. “I never want to limit it to what I can think of. It’s always better when we’ve got a group of open minded creative people coming up with a plan.”