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Sherry Knighton-Schwandt
ArtsWeek coordinator

Last modified: Monday, February 18, 2008

ArtsWeek graffiti project engages community in conversation about democracy

Feb. 18, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- What is democracy? An Indiana University project called "Writing on the Wall" turns to artists and to ordinary people for answers in words, images and sound.

The project, a signature event of ArtsWeek 2008, includes an exhibition that opens Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the School of Fine Arts Gallery and a Feb. 29 celebration of democracy and the arts, also at the SoFA Gallery.

Writing on the Wall

A woman holds her baby while writing "home birth ... my choice" on a "Writing on the Wall" panel in front of Bloomington's City Hall.

Print-Quality Photo

"'Writing on the Wall' bridges the gap between campus and community at the same time it crosses disciplinary boundaries of arts and humanities, poetry and policy," said IU President Michael A. McRobbie. "This grassroots-level conversation about democracy embodies this year's ArtsWeek theme of exploring politics and the arts."

Bloomington artist Joe LaMantia led the project with assistance from Betsy Stirratt, artist and director of the SoFA Gallery, and Sherry Knighton-Schwandt from IU's Office of the Vice Provost for Research. It includes:

  • A months-long public art component that produced a wall 76-feet-long and 8-feet-high, covered with multi-colored words and drawings responding to the question, "What is democracy?"
  • Murals on the same theme by Bloomington graffiti artists David Ebbinghouse; Malcolm Mobutu Smith, Julian Hensarling, Mike Burchfield and Hannah Jane Shuler.

The project began last fall with LaMantia setting up blank, white panels under a tent in front of Bloomington's City Hall. Clients of Stone Belt Arc, a Bloomington-based agency that serves people with developmental disabilities, built the panels.

LaMantia engaged passers-by, asking them to respond to the questions "What is democracy?" and "What does democracy look like?" Later, he put panels at the north entrance of IU's Wells Library, Kelley School of Business and School of Education, and at Bloomington's Aurora High School and Harmony School. WTIU-TV's "Friday Zone" produced a segment on a "Writing on the Wall" session at Crestmont Boys & Girls Club.

LaMantia said it was inspirational to watch people express their thoughts and feelings. And while the panels were often left unattended, they were never vandalized.

"Democracy isn't defined in a sentence or two," he said. "It's ongoing. It's an ideal. We are striving for it, but we don't have it. And it's complex; you can't make it black and white."

Along with IU, the City of Bloomington provided financial support. Miah Michaelsen, the city's assistant director of economic development for the arts, said the project exemplifies collaboration between city and university. "It intrigued us because it involved democracy and had a high level of opportunity for public interaction," she said.

The public art project took on an international flavor, with participants writing in multiple languages and relating their thoughts about democracy to homelands on several continents. In addition to handing out markers, LaMantia photographed participants while they wrote or drew and recorded them talking about democracy.

Later, the writings were transcribed, and volunteer readers involved with community radio station WFHB produced a one-hour audio recording of what people wrote. The transcriptions and an MP3 file of the recorded readings can be found at

The project produced 19 panels, each 4-feet-wide and 8-feet-tall, covered with words and hand-drawn images. Together with murals by Ebbinghouse, Smith, Hensarling, Burchfield and Shuler, they will be on display until March 7 at the SoFA Gallery in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts, 1201 E. Seventh St. The gallery is open from noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

The Feb. 29 event, titled "A Focus on Democracy," will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the gallery. The graffiti artists will be introduced, and there will be a panel discussion moderated by Beau Vallance, associate professor of art in the IU School of Education. Panelists will include LaMantia, Michaelsen and IU professors Jon Simons from communication and culture, Valerie Grim from African American and African diaspora studies, and Michelle Facos from history of art. A reception will follow.

The "Writing on the Wall" panels will be displayed in April at Bloomington City Hall.

This spring, fresh panels will be set up at other IU campuses as part of Indiana University's Moveable Feast of the Arts, funded with assistance from Lilly Endowment. Students, faculty, staff and the public around the state will have an opportunity to answer, "What is democracy?"