How public art sparked a friendship between strangers

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Local artists Matthew Plett (left) and Stephanie Woodson completed a mural together for Art This Way Alley Activation Project. SONYA FLORES

By Sonya Flores
For IN Fort Wayne publications

If you take a walk through downtown Fort Wayne, you might notice that public art is springing up on walls and on street corners.

Public art has the power to transform its surroundings and add value to a community. It can also bring strangers together in surprising ways. The friendship of local artists Matthew Plett and Stephanie Woodson is proof of that.

A message of perseverance

The friends met last fall while Plett was working on a mural on the side of arts nonprofit Wunderkammer Company.

According to his Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, the 30-by-20-foot mural entitled “Don’t Give Up” is about perseverance.

“I want everyone who drives by this mural, everyone who comes through my neighborhood and sees this, to catch that spark. To know that they aren’t fighting alone. That there’s hope, and a possible future for them. To change the way they think about themselves and their situations,” Plett said on his Kickstarter page.

As Woodson drove by the mural that day, she was touched by the message.

“He was working on a mural on the outside of Wunderkammer on Fairfield. The big bold words ‘Don’t Give Up!’ caused me to pull over on my way home from work and thank this stranger for the motivation he provided for me that day,” she said. “I had never met or seen him before that. I hugged him and went to my car and cried because that had been a really low day for me.”

Plett said it was a humbling moment.

“I feel like, at that moment, I had ‘made it’ kind of. Like, this was exactly what I was trying to do with this mural,” he said.

Plett and Woodson later found each other and stayed in touch on social media.

Plett, owner of Undefeatable Illustrations, is a graphic designer, illustrator and stay-at-home dad from Fort Wayne. He studied at Huntington College and Manchester University.

Woodson owns Love, Lucine. The company’s mission is to create quality art that is accessible to people from all walks of life, that reflects positive images of African American culture and evokes joy and pride in their heritage in a unique and colorful way. She holds a bachelor of arts in psychology from Fisk University, as well as a master of arts in sociological practice from Indiana University — Purdue University Fort Wayne.

A new project

Plett later answered a call for entry for artists to submit mural ideas to the Art This Way Alley Activation Project.

Art this Way is a public art program operating under the umbrella of the Fort Wayne Downtown Economic Improvement District. According to Art This Way’s website, public art engenders a distinct identity, fosters pride of place and generates economic growth.

The Alley Activation Project includes privately owned properties within a two block area of downtown Fort Wayne. Property owners have agreed to allow the installation of artwork on their building facades.

Plett asked Woodson to be a part of the project.

“I really think that Stephanie’s style and intention in her work resonates in me and many people. People are genuinely inspired by her work,” he said. “Also, I think her art would translate very well into mural work if she ever chooses to go that route.”

Collaborating with a woman of color was also important to him.

“Opportunities in public art are growing, but still there is an enormous gap in the balance between opportunities given to men and women. Especially people of color,” he said. “Knowing that just the experience of working on a mural does a lot of things for an artist. It takes away some of the fears of working on something at that scale, gives professional experience on your CV, and hopefully gets you started thinking about how you would attack a wall with your ideas and style. Also, she’s the kind of person who you just want to get to know better. I’m so happy she agreed to help.”

Woodson said she was thankful for the opportunity.

“It felt incredible to be asked by Matt to be included in his mural,” she said. “To know that someone with such amazing talent and experience took notice of my work and wanted to share an opportunity with me is pretty special to me.”

The mural, located at 112 W. Wayne St., is composed of a series of panels. Panels reading “Breathe” are spaced between panels with colorful patterns.

“My personal view of the divine has transformed over the years but one of the most resonant understandings for me is of the Hebrew YHVH (I am who I am) where the original pronunciation of those letters was breathed and could literally not have been spoken with the tongue or lips. The idea of the divine/source expressed as breath itself is so powerful for me. An invitation to include all of us. Also, it’s just kind of a cool place to take pictures.” Plett said of the mural.

To see the mural or to meet Plett and Woodson, check out the 2018 Art Crawl 5-9 p.m. Sept. 21. The event will take place at five downtown locations. Each location will feature a live band, an artist performing live, free appetizers, a cash bar, and a gallery show. For more information, visit downtownfortwayne.com/artthisway.