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The Journal Gazette

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Jerrod Tobias, artist in residence at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center, works on a mural at the school.

  • Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Kindergarten students at Whitney Young draw pictures of fish to be used in the school’s mural.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Artist uses murals to help heal culture

Cody Thompson | The Journal Gazette

Local artist Jerrod Tobias' hands are caked in white chalk. On a 45-foot, low-rise wall he sketches water using the chalk and a piece of string. The background is a light blue, drying fast in the hot sun.

Tobias, with thick-rimmed glasses, large beard and tattoos, has painted murals all over the city, including a 100-foot mural for the North Anthony Corridor, on the side of The Brass Rail on Broadway and his most recent, soon-to-be started project a 300-foot mural for the Clay Street elevation downtown.

Public murals, he said, can reach people in ways a traditional gallery never can. However, painting on the sides of buildings can be a challenging way to make a living. It's something that took Tobias a long time to do. It's not the easiest way to gain experience, painting a 100-foot mural on a public space.

“I like to use murals as a way to communicate ideas about cooperation and diversity, equality and as a way to recognize and appreciate natural beauty,” he said.

He said public murals are a way to improve and add color to living spaces. Fort Wayne is a small community where everyone knows each other, he said, and the art and music scene is a microcosm of an even smaller group of people who are all supportive of one another.

He said this is why Fort Wayne is special.

“It is about nurturing one another and not just competing and trying to outshine one another, but we're all moving forward together,” Tobias said.

In many of his pieces, Tobias inputs ideas about social activism – equality, humanity and other lessons. The public nature of these murals, he said, allows those messages to come through more than in an exclusive art gallery.

Today, however, he is working on a mural at Whitney Young Early Childhood Center.

It only makes sense that he's painting at a school. He often uses his work as a teaching device.

This painting is of a school of fish by the school's entrance. It's a result of the school's artist in residence program, which allows children in Fort Wayne Community Schools' arts magnet schools to learn from artists in their community rather than just their teachers, said Krista Stockman, FWCS public information officer.

Tobias spent a week with a kindergarten class as the students drew pictures of fish. He took home about 100 of the drawings and picked his favorites that he would paint on the wall.

Often the fish have large eyes and either stretched or squished bodies, but they work well with the overall whimsical design of the mural.

“It's kinda a non-traditional design method,” he said.

Stockman said at Whitney Young, as well as the other arts magnet schools, the children are exposed to many different kinds of art.

“When they can see it up close and in person and be involved in something that will be on their school for years to come,” she said, “it really enhances the learning process.”

Tobias asked when children had ever been allowed to come up with drawings to put on their school and then answered his own question – never. He said it's a shame it doesn't happen more often because allowing them to have such a direct contribution to the production process is wonderful.

He said, unlike adults, children's minds aren't bogged down by consciousness and social conditioning.

“That's what makes art wonderful – when you can just let down your defenses and just be honest and let what's inside of you come out,” he said. “And that's what they do effortlessly.”

In this piece, he's exploring the idea of synchronicity, which interested him after he noticed the flight patterns of birds, how they seem to stay together as a unit without thinking. He said he believes this type of living is possible with human culture, too, but that we've lost it somewhere along the way.

The mural is supposed to symbolize how the children come from all different places, but, despite those differences, are equal. He said social problems, like discrimination and otherness, can be touched on through art.

It's a way, he said, to explain synchronicity to a 5-year-old.

“These metaphors can be used to teach the kids about healing the problems they'll continue to face for the rest of their lives,” he said. “When they're 5 years old and they already begin to understand that we're all equal, that we're all in this together, then maybe we can finally get over that problem once they're adults.”

Tobias inputs lessons on social activism in many of his pieces, not just those involved with children. Healing the culture is a phrase he repeats many times. He likes to use the narrative of the work to do this.

It's not about the money for him, though, he said. He still has a part-time job in addition to his art business, Tobias Studios LLC, which he owns with his wife, Kara. He never plans on retiring and intends to paint for the rest of his life without looking back to relish on old work.

He said he doesn't have a favorite mural. His favorite is the next one. For him, it's always about moving forward.

“I've never been content,” he said.

On day one of his project at Whitney Young, the whole wall is a very light blue, but, as he progresses, the bottom becomes a rich, dark blue that fades brighter toward the top. He painted the school motto using a stencil on one end of the wall – “Nothing without Joy.”

There is green coral reef in the same wave pattern as the blues, and there are colorful fish swimming through all of it. Tobias referred to it as a “whole world of color.”