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“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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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