Embers of Inspiration
Ryan Musch is changing the face of Rensselaer one mural at a time.
Originally from DeMotte, Ryan graduated from Purdue University. Nine years ago, he started downtown’s special events venue, Embers. But it was Ryan’s work on behalf of Ren Art Wlk that was our topic of conversation on Roots + Graffiti.
Ryan credits Bob Lewis, an originating member of the Jasper Newton Foundation, for his involvement with community art in Jasper County. Bob dreamed Rensselaer could have a public mural. When he discovered Ryan was buying the old Beaver News building – later, Embers – to preserve one of the brick walls, Bob recognized a potential ally.
The two men went on to have countless conversations over coffee to discuss the first mural. Unfortunately, Bob passed away before the work would be realized, but he was the impetus behind the start of community art talks.
While Ren Art Wlk wasn’t introduced immediately after the first mural was completed, Ryan says the initial project served to dip the community’s collective toe into the waters of public art. A few years later, another mural was added, then another. More than 20 murals by local, national, and international artists now color the walls in downtown Rensselaer.
With the first mural done, Ryan created a business plan – an outline as to how more art could be brought to downtown, fostering community creativity. Ryan’s plan worked. Last summer, 14 artists came to Rensselaer to contribute to the growing art movement.
The art walk is a community initiative: No single person owns it, and everyone has a hand in its creation. The murals are an invitation to collaborate – either by putting paint on a wall or enjoying the finished work with friends. This is art by the community, for the community, and involvement isn’t limited to donating money. Real people had a part in creating this. In 20 years, someone can look back and say, “Oh, that little spot, that’s me. I’m a part of this.”
Fire & Graffiti
A fire destroyed the town mall last year and all of the interactive murals along with it. With the support of the City of Rensselaer, however, the floor of the alley was made available as additional space for the art walk. Community members – especially children – jumped at the opportunity to stencil their own unique heart design on the alley, knowing it would remain there for years to come.
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This “Heartwork” is constantly being added to by enthusiastic community members.
Not everyone welcomed the murals downtown, referring to them instead as “graffiti.” That’s okay; the spray paint look isn’t for everyone. But the murals are more than just graffiti. They demonstrate openness in our community to new people.
It’s natural to react to change. Being uncomfortable and even a little scared is understandable. The beauty of stepping out of your comfort zone, though, is that you allow yourself an opportunity to evolve. Over time, initial reactions can change. And while appreciation may not manifest overnight one day, you might drive by and think, “Huh, that’s kind of cool.”
These murals have reminded us that change is hard. If it weren’t, communities would quickly adapt, and rural communities might not be dying at the same rate.
As challenging as change can be, it is equally necessary for growth. Rural population trends show that what we have done in the past isn’t working anymore.
“We are, as a community, overwhelmingly bought into the idea of artwork, and that not only do we want to see it, we want to engage in it.” Steven Eastridge, Jasper County Economic Development Organization
This doesn’t mean ours is a bad community that runs people out of town, but rather that a new way of thinking is needed if we want to grow. The participation of Cameron Moberg and the other muralists who helped make Ren Art Wlk a reality is proof of the great things possible here. And there are aspects to life in rural America that can’t be found in big cities, a feeling of community that can’t be replicated in New York or San Francisco, a quality unique to small towns.
But we must continue to grow.
Don’t Judge a Mural by its Cover
The art walk may create uncomfortable feelings, but it doesn’t necessarily force us to have awkward conversations about our community values and direction. That may be its primary gift to us. A common criticism of the murals is that they fail to reflect our community. Our response to that is, ‘Don’t take them literally.’ Look for any deeper meanings s they may offer and think about who was involved with their creation.
Reversing a downward growth spiral is crucial for the survival of a small community like ours. When St. Joseph’s College closed, efforts were made to try and fill the gaps left behind. Introducing new things – like the art walk – was an integral part of a transition to creating new traditions. The art walk is now well-known beyond our community borders, and Rensselaer is considered a creative community by onlookers.
Before his art walk plans, Ryan once noted on a napkin, “A creative environment enriches creative minds.” This became the foundation for Rensselaer’s shared understanding of the importance of community art. The art walk became a great way to nurture people in thinking differently – in thinking creatively.
The art walk no longer allows Rensselaer to hide its creativity; it is on full display. For the past 30 years, the Prairie Arts Council has engaged Jasper and Newton county artists, supporting them in the exhibition of their art through shows and events. These murals give us a chance not only to engage with art but also to feel ourselves a part of the creative energy.
Our community has done some great things, but we can’t stop and say it’s enough. What if scientists said we had enough medicine, or if publishers said we had enough books? They wouldn’t because they are committed to continuing to evolve and create.
That’s what we need to do as a community as well.
Keep Growing Together, Rensselaer
But before we can evolve as a community, we must discover our identity. Identities can change with growth, but the deep roots from which they emerge remain the same.
So what is Rensselaer’s identity? A great community with great people? A safe place to work, live, and raise a family? These are true, but every other small town could say the same. Maybe the better question, then, is what makes our identity unique?
Rensselaer manages to be both in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of everything. Being along I-65 allows us the opportunity to bring guests into our community to experience our downtown, which displays our values to the passersby. Our tourists from Indianapolis, Chicago, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, you name it, allow our community to flourish. Rensselaer is not just a meal with a bathroom break, but rather an experience of small-town America. When you come here, you get to be a part of ‘here’ – and not just a spectator – for as long as you stay.
Here at Roots + Graffiti, we’re pressuring our agriculture and art communities to create a blend of offerings distinct to Rensselaer and all of Jasper County. The balance between the two is where we should place our emphasis. Agriculture and the arts are similar, carrying a pride of place but conveying that in different ways.
Ren Art Wlk
Ren Art Wlk helped demonstrate everyone’s pride in place in Rensselaer. Anyone could pick up a can of spray paint and work with the artists to create our murals. Those muralists repeatedly said how amazed they were with the involvement of our community. People stopped artists throughout the day to chat about their art.
This project should be a point of pride for Rensselaer. We welcomed the artists and their art, and we were actively involved. People wanted to understand what these artists felt about our community when creating their art. And these weren’t the usual suspects, either, the neighborhood creative thinkers; instead, they were people genuinely curious about the art and not afraid to ask. The draw of people to our downtown lasted beyond just the painting of the murals. People who you’ve never seen before are out walking around downtown with an ice cream cone or a coffee cup just enjoying the art.
Being part of a community is more than just living and working here. We should care about where we live, and Ryan offered some insight into why. We Rensselaerians live, breathe, and see this community, and we’re not here to say it’s 100 percent perfect, but we have ideas as to how to make it better.
Not everyone may feel they have the resources to pull off a significant community initiative, but Ryan felt that you have to try if you can. Taking opportunities to make a difference shows others that change is possible. Maybe some are scared their plan won’t go perfectly or scared of losing a few friends along the way, but that’s part of growth.
Sometimes you have to dive right in and make things happen instead of waiting around and hoping for change that will never come otherwise.
I love this. I love that our town has the wisdom to attract outsiders in. This is important so our little town can stay alive.