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Sparking (living) history with the ghosts of Monument Circle’s past

Sparking (living) history with the ghosts of Monument Circle’s past

By Rob Peoni, Spark writer in residence

If you lunch on Monument Circle on Thursdays or linger for a bit after the day’s final whistle blows, you may notice a couple of people who appear out of place. It’s not the people in green construction vests employing arts activities rather than repairing stoplights. It’s not even the Sasquatch circling a Wagon of Wonders. Well, they may be out of place too, but I’m talking about the woman and man perspiring in the early fall sun, outfitted in conservative, 19th century formal attire.

On the afternoon of my visit, the two sore thumbs were former Indiana First Lady Esther Ray Brown and former governor Oliver P. Morton (above). Or, rather, the ghosts of Eshther Ray Brown and former governor Oliver P. Morton. “They call us ghosts,” Brown says of the organizers behind the Spark Monument Circle programming. “Yes, we’re aware of our time, but we’re also aware of the time that you’re in. So, we don’t have to be so strictly in 1827 or so strictly in the 1860s. We can sort of go back and forth. We’re sort of omniscient in that way.”

Morton and Brown are two historical interpreters on loan from Indiana Historical Society. When he’s not wearing Morton’s signature three-piece suit, the man with the lush, white facial hair is Dan Shockley, I.H.S.’s director of museum theater. His partner-in-crime is Erin Cohenour, an interpreter at I.H.S. and local actress. “At the Historical Society, the actors you meet are in character the entire time that you’re with them,” Shockley says. “Here, we’re really ambassadors for Monument Circle and we’re in and out of character the whole time.”

This flexibility allows Governor Morton to employ his iPhone when the occasional out-of-towner stops to ask for directions. In fact, it’s more often non-natives who take the time to stop and interact with the historical figures. “If you’re from here, you’re probably not going to have a lot of time to stop and talk to us,” Cohenour says of the bustling lunch crowd. “But if you’re traveling and this is leisure for you, you’re going to have all the time in the world to talk with us.”

Even ghosts are susceptible to the temptation of Rocket 88 Doughnuts.

Even ghosts are susceptible to the temptation of Rocket 88 Doughnuts.

In addition to Brown and Morton, visitors to Monument Circle may also encounter the ghosts architect Alexander Ralston – responsible for the design of downtown Indy, or John Freeman – an African-American business man who owned a successful restaurant near Monument Circle in the mid-19th century. “We were passing by the Columbia Club and a woman stopped us to ask what we were doing and she was so impressed that we had a John Freeman character,” Cohenour says. “She did a lot of history with Underground Railroad and Indiana Landmarks, and she was so impressed that they had chosen that character. She just felt that he had a really great story to tell.”

Overall the reactions to the ghosts have proved more positive than petrified. While we conducted our interview beneath the shade of one of Big Car’s parklets, a random passer-by called out enthusiastically, “Hello, governor!” Shockley returned the acknowledgment with a wave and a smile.

“Certainly, Governor Morton would’ve been pleased with the monument,” Shockley says. “He is known as the soldier’s friend. Other than Deleware, Indiana sent the most number of soldiers to fight in the civil war. He was known for that, but also known for taking care of them once they came home. So, the fact that there are two statues dedicated to him within a two-block radius of the circle really speaks to the reverence people felt for him while he lived and very much after he passed away.”

For their part, Cohenour and Shockley have embraced the opportunity to get outside the confines of Indiana History Center to interject some history into the community at large.

“People may think this is a permanent fixture,” Shockley says of the Spark programming. “In six more weeks or so, this will be gone. I think once all of this is gone, people are going to realize what the Circle can be. It can be so much more than it is (without Spark). It’s beautiful as it is, but this helps bring people down to the Circle to see the monument, to stop, to read, and to learn something or just marvel at the beauty.”


This week at Spark: Sept. 21-27

Here’s your spark cheat sheet this week:

Monday, September 21:

Big Car’s experimental sound-art project, Listen Hear has been bringing ambient noise sets to Monument Circle on Monday evenings. Dive into an interview with Listen Hear’s John Flannelly, and a recap of Rob Funkhouser’s performance for some background on the concert series. Most of the sets have leaned toward the mellower side of the sonic spectrum. This week, Bloomington’s Drekka may push listeners into more challenging territory. Listen to a recent live set from The Artifex Guild as a primer.

Tuesday, September 22:

Wednesday, September 23:

The theme walks during Walking Wednesdays have proven to be some of Spark’s most popular programming. Thus far, we toured Indy oddities with artist Kipp Normand, scoured Mass Ave. with Eric Strickland & David Andrichik, and explored Indy’s German history with Bill Selm. This week, interested participants can meet at the Spark welcome trailer at 6:30 pm for a detailed tour of Indy’s public artwork with Arts Council of Indianapolis‘ Julia Moore.

Thursday, September 24:

Have you ever dreamed of holding a world record? This is your chance! Help get Monument Circle in the Guinness Book of World Records as the site of the biggest collage party in history. Paper, magazines and glue provided — bring your own scissors!

Friday, September 25:

Saturday, September 26:

Sunday, September 27:

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This week at Spark: Sept. 15-20

This week at Spark: Sept. 15-20

Here’s your Spark cheat sheet this week:

Tuesday, September 15:

Have you spotted a strange person on a motorbike, repeatedly circling the monument during your lunch break? …

Wednesday, September 16:

Pogue’s Run has been in the headlines a lot lately, mostly due to Streamlines Project…

Thursday, September 17:

Friday, September 18:

Saturday, September 19:

Sunday, September 20:

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Ask an Expert sparks Monument Circle with new thought

Ask an Expert sparks Monument Circle with new thought

By Chris Schumerth, Spark writer in residence

During the next several weeks, if you walk or drive by the sidewalk space in front of Emmis Communications on Monument Circle at about noon on Tuesday, you are likely to see a green “Ask an Expert” booth. If you stop, you will enjoy a lunch hour of lively conversation, probably learn a few things about an interesting topic, and maybe even find that you have your own expertise to offer the city of Indianapolis.

That’s what the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute hopes for, anyway. Led by IUPUI history professor Jason Kelly, the Institute is currently collaborating with Big Car’s Spark Monument Circle art and placemaking project. “Ask an Expert” both brings experts of various topics and fields to Monument Circle, while also inviting submissions of expertise (or “trade secrets”) from Indianapolis residents, the results of which will be published collectively online.

For example, Kelly is working on his own project called “Rivers of the Anthropocene.” He said the question most people ask him is: what does Anthropocene even mean?

Sounds like a fair question. The term was coined by Russian scientists in the 1960s, and, as Kelly explained, refers to a measurable geological layer of the earth that was significantly influenced by human behavior. Kelly’s project proposes an exploration of international rivers as systems and calls specifically for collaboration between scientists and the humanities.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money to create some of the changes we need to make,” Kelly said. “But Indianapolis can do better.”

But all “Ask an Expert” conversations are not about the Anthropocene. Upcoming topics include “Art Therapy” with Juliet King (September 15), “Christianity and Globalization” with Joseph Tucker Edmonds (September 22), “Art and Anthropology” with Fiona McDonald (September 29), “Women in Politics with Kristy Sheeler” (October 6), and “Science Fiction and Philosophy” with Jason Eberl (October 13).

I sat down this past Tuesday with Dr. Ray Haberski, another IUPUI professor. Like Kelly, Haberski is an intellectual historian, which means he is interested in the history of ideas. The author of a number of books – including Evangelization to the Heart: A Brief History of American Franciscans and MediaGod, and War: American Civil Religion since 1945 – Haberski was at the booth to talk about “God and Country.”

As an example of the kind of issues he’s interested in, he brought up Kim Davis, the Kentucky Clerk who was recently jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, he also mentioned the 1954 decision to insert “under God” into the pledge of allegiance.

What is one to do when he or she finds that his or her religious conviction lands opposite a law? Haberski drew a distinction between religious groups and individuals who happen to be religious. “We can’t outlaw ideas,” he said.

Pete Weldy, the Director of Policy and Research at the Department of Education, and Carla Delagarza, a Legislative Assistant, were on their way to lunch at Chipotle from the Statehouse when they stopped in and brought their own expertise to the discussion.

Haberski quickly turned the conversation to the visitors’ interests, one of which was legislative strategy for Indiana’s minority party, the Democrats.

“We try to win by losing correctly,” Delagarza explained. She also said her party works hard at adding amendments to pieces of legislation that they’re opposed to but which are going to pass.

It was Delagarza’s first time stopping in for a Spark program, but she said she had noticed the programming previously, particularly the As You Wish project that invites people to make a wish that artists make true out of materials they have on hand at Spark.

“Ask an Expert” is one of several programs that make up a creative experiment that aims to treat Indianapolis’s Monument Circle as a park. Spark is funded by a $200,000 Our Town grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in addition to support from CICF and The City of Indianapolis. The programming started at the beginning of August and continues through Oct. 16. During that time, you will find activities bustling from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week.

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Spark Monument Circle continues with eclectic special programming

Spark Monument Circle continues with eclectic special programming

Visitors to Monument Circle have responded with enthusiasm to the additional seating, wider curbs and daily free pop-up programming at Spark Monument Circle, a temporary placemaking experiment led by Big Car Collaborative in partnership with The City of Indianapolis and Downtown Indy. New special events–all free–have been added to the Spark Monument Circle calendar, from fencing lessons and collage parties to moon viewings and films shown on the Monument steps (image above from 1907 film by Georges Méliès, to be shown October 8).


Tuesday, September 15 @ 3:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Express your enthusiasm or dismay in a visual way with an interactive art piece by Big Car staff artist Brent Lehker.

ALL-IN Block Party

Friday, September 18 @ 5:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Celebrate Indianapolis as a welcoming and diverse city with music, food, prizes and more! Sponsored by Indiana Humanities, the ALL-IN Block Party is presented by the Immigrant Welcome Center and many community partners, including: Big Car, Center for Interfaith Cooperation, Eli Lilly Company, IUPUI, Indianapolis Public Library, IRSC and NAMI Indiana.

INDIEana Handicraft Exchange

Saturday, September 19 @ 11:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Buy wares from thirty local vendors selling contemporary handmade goods: cards, clothing, soaps and much more. Free and family-friendly.

World’s Largest Collage Party

Thursday, September 24 @ 4:30 pm – 8:00 pm

Help get Monument Circle in the Guinness Book of World Records as the site of the biggest collage party in history. Paper, magazines and glue provided — bring your own scissors!

League of Lattes

Thursday, September 24 @ 7:00 – 8:00 pm

Art comes in all different forms, and for some it’s in the form of a little cup of frothy heaven. Join us as some of Indy’s top baristas throw battle for the title of “best.” Judges will determine the best pour based on aesthetic beauty, definition, color infusion, and degree of difficulty and creativity; points are added for speed and taken away for sloppiness. Coffee’s on…

Free Fencing Lessons with the Indianapolis Fencing Club

Saturday, September 26 @ 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

Experience the art and sport of fencing at a free demonstration by the Indianapolis Fencing Club. Get a free introductory fencing lesson from a coach! Safety gear and practice equipment provided.

Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra Community Day

Sunday, September 27 @ 2:00 pm – 6:00 pm

Celebrate a new season with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra with an afternoon of live performances inside and outside the Hilbert Circle Theatre, musical activities for all ages, meet-and-greets with ISO musicians, opportunities to tour the historic Hilbert Circle Theatre. The day culminates with an hour-long concert by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, led by ISO Music Director Krzysztof Urbanski. Admission to all Community Day events, including the ISO concert at 5 p.m., is free. Watch for musicians on the Spark parklets in the southeast quadrant of Monument Circle.

Super Moon Viewing

Sunday, September 27 @ 8 pm

Savor the Super Moon (when the moon’s orbit is closest to the earth) with a night of a lunar-themed experiences: a soundtrack by mp3 DJ Eduardo Luna, viewing of the moon (if it is not cloudy), and free moon pies. If the sky is clear, the moon should be most visible at around sunset (8:30 pm) to the east, and again at midnight to the south.

Film Night on the Circle: Beyond Zero: 1914-1918

Thursday, October 1 @ 8:00 pm – 9:00 pm

Filmmaker Bill Morrison  sourced rotted, melted, scratched-up 35mm nitrate film footage of World War I trainings, deployments and marches and set it to a haunting soundtrack of strings performed by the Kronos Quartet. The original film material is itself a veteran of the war, never to be seen again outside of this film. In the shadow of the Monument, bring a blanket or lawn chair for an otherworldly experience of visuals and sound. Presented by Big Car and Indy Film Fest.

Nat Russell & Chris Vorhees

Sunday, October 4 @ 11:00 a.m.

Longtime friends and collaborators in art and music, Nat Russell and Chris Vorhees, play a noon-time tailgate session at Monument Circle. As the Colts rally to beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, Nat and Chris will perform an hour long set sure to rev up whoever attends. A tailgate barbeque on the trailer known as the Wagon of Wonders will take place around 11 am. BYOB and G(rill items). Nat and Chris will be playing selections from Nat’s “Birds of America” archive along with several new pieces and some covers. Presented by Musical Family Tree and Big Car.

Wi-Fi Wednesday: Work on the Circle Day

Wednesday, October 7 @ 10:00 am – 4:00 pm

Take advantage of free Wi-Fi on Monument Circle, brought to you by HotSpot Wi-Fi Pods and WGU Indiana. Bring your office outdoors: take a seat with your laptop at a Spark parklet, have a walking meeting, or do your work on a blanket on the Monument lawn! Prizes available just for logging in, including a Colts ticket drawing!  Wi-Fi Wednesday is presented by HotSpot Wi-Fi Pods, WGU Indiana, Big Car and Spark Monument Circle.

In C: A Collaborative Sound Composition

Wednesday, October 8 @ 6:30 – 7:30 pm

Experience a wave of sound as 15 musicians encircle the Monument for a layered, collaborative sound sculpture — a performance of In C (composed by Terry Riley in 1964). In C fills space with pulses, note clusters, and undulating, otherworldly walls of sound. The Monument Circle version of In C is coordinated by Indianapolis-based composer and multi-instrumentalist Derek Johnson (sample performance here: https://soundcloud.com/ivodne-galatea/terry-riley-in-c)

Fantastical Film Shorts by Georges Méliès, the First Wizard of Cinema

Thursday, October 8 @ 8:00 pm – 11:00 pm

In 1916, film was a brand new art form and the Circle Theater (now home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra) was brand new, too!  Around this time, Frenchman Georges Méliès was experimenting with cinema by using it for fantastical (not just documentary) purposes. Bring a blanket or lawn chair and take your place on the Monument steps for a three-hour marathon of two-to-four minute films crafted by Méliès between 1896 and 1913. Get ready for wizards, devils, and magicians, starring in film titles like “The Triple Conjurer and the Living Dead,” “The Four Troublesome Heads,” and Méliès’ most famous, “A Trip to the Moon.”  Presented by Big Car and the Indy Film Fest.

Monument Circle Art Fair

Saturday, October 10 @ 10:00 am – 5:00 pm

Indiana artists showcase their work on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Art includes both visual artists and musical entertainment. http://www.monumentcircleart.com.

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Spark Walk No. 3 – Indy’s German Heritage & History

Spark Walk No. 3 – Indy’s German Heritage & History

View larger version here.

Each week, Indianapolis artist Kamilah Gill accompanies our Walking Wednesdays tour guide and the other walkers who start and end their walk at Monument Circle. She illustrates what she experiences. And we share it here. Walks are at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday and are free. They begin at the Spark welcome trailer.

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Spark Walk Illustrated — No. 2

Spark Walk Illustrated — No. 2

View larger version here.

Each week, Indianapolis artist Kamilah Gill accompanies our Walking Wednesdays tour guide and the other walkers who start and end their walk at Monument Circle. She illustrates what she experiences. And we share it here. Walks are at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday and are free. They begin at the Spark welcome trailer.


Spotlight: The Monument Circle Motorbike Guy


In general, it’s rather easy to spot the Spark programming on Monument Circle. There are signs designating the various Big Car booths, a wooden sasquatch atop a Wagon of Wonders, a stage for musical performers, etc. However, some of the programming is less conspicuous.

For instance, even if you have visited Spark during Phono Fridays, you may have missed a guy in a tie and dress shirt atop a 1968 Honda CT90 motorbike with a 1980s Sanyo boom box in tow, and two cassettes taped to his motorcycle helmet. Fear not, the free cassettes he offers onlookers do not serve as bait. He’s not crazy, at least not in any dangerous or threatening way. He’s an artist named Stuart Hyatt.


“Just for fun, I kind of dress like somebody who’s on their lunch break from their insurance executive job,” Hyatt says. “The kids don’t even know what these weird things are with this magnetic tape. They love it though.”

Each Friday during Spark, Hyatt cruises around Monument Circle at an average speed of four miles per hour on his motorbike for nearly two hours. Occasionally he stops to disperse random cassette tapes supplied by local record store, LUNA Music. “They’ve just got bins of them,” Hyatt says of LUNA. “I cannot vouch for the quality of music that I’m giving away. There’s a lot of hair metal bands. It’s purely a fun thing.”

Hyatt got the idea for his Spark contribution during trips to Africa and Latin America. “These amazing, resourceful people turn these little motor bikes into stores, basically,” Hyatt says. “It’s something you don’t really see in the states. It’s everything. It could be a refrigerator repairman, but on these vintage motorbikes that have been cobbled together with thread and used vegetable oil. So, it was kind of that wacky resourcefulness of the developing world mixed with the tradition of punk, hip-hop and DIY culture of pedaling tapes out of your trunk. I mean, I love that. … It’s supposed to just put a smile on people’s faces.”

When he’s not cruising around the Circle, Hyatt can likely be found collecting field recordings for his various sound art projects. He’s in the midst of releasing a five-album series of site-specific recordings under the name of Field Works. You may have caught wind of his work on the Indy Sound Map. His most recent LP featuring sounds collected at Pogue’s Run will premiere at LUNA on Sunday, September 13.

Hyatt is very serious about his Field Works project, but his contribution to Spark is more laid back. “It’s just one of those things that puts a smile on people’s faces,” he says. “I kind of bop my head, but I also try to be a good, corporate executive who just had to bust out for a few hours.”

“People talk a lot about food deserts in our city,” Hyatt says. “I just want to make sure there aren’t any cassette deserts either.”

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Spark Walk Illustrated – No. 1

Spark Walk Illustrated – No. 1

View a larger version here.

Each week, Indianapolis artist Kamilah Gill accompanies our Walking Wednesdays tour guide and the other walkers who start and end their walk at Monument Circle. She illustrates what she experiences. And we share it here. Walks are at 6:30 p.m. each Wednesday and are free. They begin at the Spark welcome trailer. 

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How Rick Cecil McElroy showed me what Spark was about

How Rick Cecil McElroy showed me what Spark was about

by Karla D. Romero, Spark writer in residence 

“…Whatever last Thursday was, what was that?” asked Rick. We immediately asked if he referred to the date. I had just started to record and he began to tell me about his Circle Spark experience. “Yeah… Like ten days ago…” He said, referring to when he first noticed the changes on the Circle.

Rick Cecil McElroy is a multi-generational native of Indianapolis and a proud American. Rick is also homeless. “What does that say?” Rick asked me as he pointed at his ID’s address. It stated: 55 Monument Circle, Suite 1324. He laughed, as if to let us know how ironic it was.

Rick had approached the Circle Spark postcard table last Sunday (my new home on Sundays, as you may have read in my India Day story). I was busy chatting with Emma, my companion for the day, when Rick approached us. “Hey! Want to send a postcard?” We asked him enthusiastically as he walked towards us.

He quickly chose a USS Indianapolis postcard and asked us what year Japan surrendered. “No! 1945,” he corrected us as soon as we answered.

Rick was a tall, slender guy in his early sixties. He has blondish-gray hair and a short beard. He had a smile from ear to ear, with an overall free, almost youthful presence. My introduction to him was a bit brash with a humiliating history fail, but the conversation that followed and his sweet, yet brisk personality soon made him just another friend.

He told us about his father and grandfather, and their involvement in foreign wars. as well as about the Marines. “First to fight, last to leave,” he said several times. His patriotism wasn’t overbearing, though. I have to insist on how charismatic he was and how he was continuously giving credit where credit was due. Whether it was in the way he talked about World War II or anything else, he insisted on naming and describing everyone involved in every anecdote he told as accurately as he possible could.

“This morning I was down here early because I watch Star news, let’s see, at South…” He paused, turned around and pointed at the Emmis building, “…Channel 6 is on, so I need to know what time it is, because I’m blind anyway, so I have to get real close to see it,” he continued. “…the trees ‘er lit up and I said, ‘Right on!’ Because I don’t remember that until Thanksgiving and then this was all set up,” Rick pointed to the Circle Spark parklets. This was his response to what he thought about the Circle Spark changes on Monument Circle, as a regular and as a resident. I was initially thrown off by his lack of enthusiasm, but the more we spoke, the more I understood why he had answered like that.

“Church also gives coffee every Sunday for homeless people, until 8:30…” He referred to Christ Church Cathedral. “And also, that church is the only one that recognizes the homeless, the 20th day, every December,” Rick said with a somber voice. He was talking about the Coalition for Homeless Intervention and Prevention’s (CHIP) annual Homeless Persons’ Memorial held on, “the first day of winter each year to bring attention to the plight of our homeless neighbors,” as stated on CHIP’s website.

“This you need to have recorded, because they are very beautiful people, and also The PourHouse, which is my address…” Rick had such a gracious and somewhat rough way of describing all of this. He told us about Andrea De Mink, the Founder and Executive Director of The PourHouse, whom he had known for 12 years. He said that De Mink had invited him to her wedding while he was in rehab, and he said so as if he were letting us know the kind of person De Mink was. He also seemed to beam at the mere fact that someone like her believed in him, especially during a difficult time. “She’s helped me handle this fist… and her husband, great guy, great guy…”

A visitor in his mid-twenties came to the table as I continued to interview Rick. He was there to send a couple postcards. “Here you go, young man,” Rick said to the new postcard table visitor, “Pull up a chair.” He immediately continued to tell me about De Mink and quickly interjected the young man’s postcard selection. “Here’s a good one!” He said, as he pointed to a postcard, “That’s the Indianapolis… That’s the Indianapolis, bro.” He laughed hysterically and said, “That’s a keeper!”

More people began to approach us and it became harder to continue our makeshift interview. I asked him again about how Circle Spark had affected him, and selfishly hoped that he would answer something more than what he had said before. “Well, I’m going to say this and I mean this honestly: there are panhandlers and there are people in need. People in need know how to improvise, adapt, overcome [pain] in order to obtain [the necessary resources] to survive… And that’s all you gotta do! Improvise, adapt and overcome! I got that from the Marines Corps,” Rick concluded. I was still thrown off and I felt as if he had avoided my question.

Still, he told us more stories about his life as an Indianapolis native, as a Juggalo (yes, Rick is an Insane Clown Posse fan), and other curious little bits about his life that were a unique reflection of our city and its people. Rick, a Marine vet who once lived three blocks away from Market Square Arena, a disappeared icon in Indianapolis history, and alleged that he had a fake ID that said he was 40 when he was only 15 (he proudly said he used it to go to bars and get a job), left us after over thirty minutes of nonstop conversation.

As he walked away, I understood that it didn’t really matter that Rick didn’t have something incredibly profound to say about Circle Spark. We had already fulfilled the purpose of the project as we sat there, together, and got to know each other. Under no other circumstance would I have had the unburdened opportunity to meet Rick Cecil McElroy and make a new friend.