Can public art make us better neighbors?
Have you seen the beautiful murals around town with blue backgrounds and colorful pictures made out of geometric shapes? Their vibrance and scale are striking. The imagery draws me in and immediately has me wondering what its supposed to represent, what was the artist's goal, and what kind of process an artist goes through to build the layers required to make it come together. I don’t know about you, but when I see those, there’s this piece of me that fills with some kind of hope and excitement at how beautiful it looks.
Leaving his career as a delivery man, Jarrod Tobias set out with his wife to begin full-time public art murals just a couple of years ago. Like a lot of artists, art consumes the margins of life because it's hard to either make a living as artist, or at least make the art you feel called to make and get paid for it. For Jarrod, it was no different. A few years ago, Jarrod began creating and installing small wheat paste posters around town that would last a few weeks and then dissolve off a building. From there, it moves to smaller template driven pieces on building around town. That eventually morphed into what's given Tobias Studios the most attention, the giant murals. Jarrod and his wife, Kara, just finished a major mural that wraps 3 of the 4 sides of the building the Firefly Coffee House is in, and have a few more commissioned for 2018.
Though public and street art is gaining momentum in Fort Wayne, Jarrod says public and street art is as old as any other form of art. For hundreds of years, artists have been using walls, streets, sign posts, and any place they can broadcast their message to the world through paintings, posters, graffiti, murals, etc. Like a lot of artists, Tobias Studios is working out a lot of questions about society through their art. They approach their murals as catalysts for social change, to spur conversations about social issues and how we reconcile our differences as humans.
Jarrod and Kara have taken on a unique role in creating space for community conversations about issues that divide us as people. They have taken on this task of creating conversation and unity among people and fostering a culture of jarring people from the monotony and routine of life that can keep us blind and distracted from the “tangled web” of social issues happening around us. Art for them isn’t just a fun thing to do, but it is the vehicle with which they work to achieve this idea where people are questioning and addressing with each other big questions like, what does it mean to be a good neighbor? What does it mean to be a community? Jarrod pointedly shows us that we don’t become community just by being next-door-neighbors, but it has to develop through sharing physical space with one another asking questions about what it means to be in relationship with one another.
Now, Jarrod and Kara have public influence and are able to stir these conversations through their large murals. Not all of us have that leverage. But we all have something, we all have a unique tool or skill or way to create a culture of conversation and community that tackles social issues together and digs deeper into what it means to be a good neighbor, what it looks like to be a community. Though most of us aren’t able to bring that unification through public art, we all have something to contribute. Next time you encounter one of the Tobias’ stunning murals, stop, reflect on it, ask yourself or a friend these hard questions that these pieces are provoking in people across the city.
One of the most encouraging things I took away from my conversation with Jarrod, is his commitment to asking more questions than he's got answers for. Jarrod doesn't allow a question to answered with a simple question or an I don't know. He allows these questions to drive his conversations as he pursues truth finding about the world, his community, his own relationships, and most of all, his own place in those relationships and this community. I sensed that Jarrod is on a journey to become the best version of himself to be a positive contributor to the world around him. From talking to Kara as well, I think it's a shared and core value of Tobias Studios. Next time you're out and you see them working on a mural, stop, say hello, and get to know them. They're incredible to talk to you and do phenominal work.