Big Car’s Fun Fleet: Mission Possible
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on July 14, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
If you bring the art, food and fun, the kids will come. That’s the plan with a Big Car program that brings creativity and support to kids in areas where cultural enrichment isn’t always the top priority.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday throughout June and July, members of Big Car travel by van into neighborhoods and apartment complexes to bring healthy snacks and cultural programming to Indy doorsteps. The initiative, called Fun Fleet, is a partnership with Indianapolis Public Library. Each week volunteers and staff plan short, one-hour activities and make them available to anyone interested.
“Some of these complexes are pretty isolated,” Big Car Program Director, Anne Laker says, explaining that there’ not a lot of walkability at some of the areas. “Not everyone has a car, and there’s not a ton of cultural amenities already there. Big Car’s mission is to bring art to people and bring people to art. In this case, we’re definitely completing our mission.”
The Fun Fleet serves as an extension of the library’s bookmobile. At each location, kids line up with tote bags full of books to exchange for points, prizes and more books. While the kids meander through the library’s converted RV, the Fun Fleet unloads its tables, markers, crayons, colored pencils, bags of apples, a canopy and folding chairs with the silent precision of a veteran ambulance team. Before long, kids of all ages begin to trickle toward the group, grinning with hands full of new reading material, temporary tattoos, mustache erasers and packets of Jelly Belly candies.
The Fun Fleet program kicked off last summer at a handful of apartment complexes on Indy’s far Eastside. This summer, the program expanded, adding two new stops on the Eastside and a handful of additional neighborhoods surrounding International Marketplace, formerly Lafayette Square Mall. Each Fun Fleet crew is comprised of a leader, Tom Streit on the Westside and Jarrod Dortch on the Eastside, and a handful of additional volunteers.
“They call me the Eastside Ambassador,” says Dortch, who also donates a significant amount of time to after-school programs through Community Alliance of the Far Eastside when he’s not busy with his day job as an instructor at Ivy Tech in Muncie. Dortch lives near the neighborhoods along the Fun Fleet’s route. “Sometimes I’ll be at the grocery and I’ll run into one of the kids from Fun Fleet,” he says. “They usually remember me and say hi, which feels great.”
Esteban Ortiz is the lone member of the Fun Fleet that works on both the East and Westside routes during the week that I visited. He came to Big Car as part of the Immigrant & Refugee Service Corps. IRSC works with organizations, local universities, faith-based charities and others to bridge gaps and collaborate more effectively with Indianapolis’ immigrant population. Ortiz’s skills as a bilingual interpreter come in handy. While most of the kids are capable of communicating in English, some prefer Spanish. The language barrier is more significant among the parents at the various stops, and more than once Esteban’s skills have proven useful. He’s also working on a graduate degree with a focus on conflict resolution.
Along with art supplies and snacks, the Fun Fleet also uses a Big Car mailbox that allows the participants to send drawings and notes to their counterparts across town.
At the end of August, there’s going to be an art gallery at Big Car’s new space in a largely empty strip mall off of 38th Street and Lafayette Road.
Creative Renewal & Relationships
I met the Fun Fleet crew there prior to embarking on its Westside route. That morning, Streit led a team of volunteers clearing overgrowth along a nearby creek, which they will convert into outdoor furniture. The new space is still a work-in-progress, with construction materials scattered around tables covered in pipe cleaner sculptures from another Big Car meeting. “We’re just trying to plant a flag in communities where the arts are usually an afterthought,” Streit says. With proper funding and access, Big Car could conceivably convert under-utilized commercial spaces into hubs of creative activity all over the city.
Minutes after arriving at Stratford Apartments, a boy named Barry rides in on a bike. It’s his first time drawing with the Fun Fleet, but he’s a regular at the bookmobile. He’s saving library points to earn tickets to the State Fair next month. He recently moved to Indy from Walkerton, Indiana, to live with his mom. He sports a Walkerton soccer T-shirt, though he prefers baseball. Barry says he plays catcher, because he gets to wear his cap backward and a mask. But of more importance on this day is his gripe with apples (jokingly). “The reason I hate apples is there are fleas inside. See!” Barry says while sampling a snack.
“Those are seeds, dude.” Streit replies to resounding laughter.
And such is the rapport Streit and the other volunteers have with the kids.
The apple is an example of the snacks Fun Fleet volunteers pass out, thanks to a partnership with Georgetown Market. It donates fruit and healthy granola bars.
“Maybe we can inspire kids to expand their palates and provide nutrition at the same time we’re drawing and being creative,” Laker says. “It’s not the reason we’re there, but it’s a great enhancement … and many of the kids ask if they can take one home to grandma or a little brother.”
As I draw and eavesdrop on the Fun Fleet activities, my mind wanders toward the recent rise in violence that has dominated local headlines since the issue came to a boiling point over 4th of July weekend. I can’t help but think that the Fun Fleet and like-minded initiatives are positioned on the frontlines of this fight to deter crime in our youth. That isn’t to say the neighborhoods were hostile environments, not in the least. I mostly saw kids and families scrapping to get by with the limited resources at their disposal. The complexes were clean, often had new(ish) playground equipment and better manicured landscapes than many of the lawns in Fountain Square where I live.
“We’ll see groups of kids where the older kid is the boss,” Dortch says. “They’re just running free. Sometimes you’ll see a grandparent, but rarely. It’s the Wild West. Every child for themselves out here.”
Spanish Oaks is the lone exception to Dortch’s description on the far Eastside. There, Big Car accommodates around 25 kids who stop by to draw and eat strawberries. Nearby, a group of five or six mothers converse in Spanish. 12-year-old Antonio clutches a copy of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as he takes a seat at the picnic table. His family read the Spanish version together, but Antonio wants to read the English version before watching the movie. He’s one of the kids that has returned to hang with Fun Fleet after getting acquainted last summer. “I come every week,” he says. “It’s nice. I like to draw and I can get books. The other libraries we have to drive to and we don’t usually have time.”
Among the many benefits of the program, one of the most promising for its future and that of its kid is that its organizers and volunteers are seeing some of the same faces from last year. “We’re actually developing relationships, and kids are finding the opportunity to be creative, and they’re starting to count on that,” Laker says.
Written by Rob Peoni
Curating songs from the outside in: Kyle Long on TedxIndianapolis
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on October 16, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
Like most people attempting to earn a living within Indy’s music scene, Kyle Long wears a lot of hats. He is the cofounder of Cultural Cannibals with his partner Artur Silva. He pens a weekly column and hosts a radio show entitled “A Cultural Manifesto” at NUVO and WFYI, respectively. He’s the music consultant at Eskenazi Health’s Marianne Tobias Music Program. After next week, Long will add Music Curator of TEDxIndianapolis to his lengthy list of job titles.
To all of these positions, Long brings a perspective faced outward. “Whatever I do, whether it’s writing my column for NUVO or my deejay sets, it’s all about bringing what’s perceived as an outside musical tradition into the world of mainstream entertainment in this city,” Long says. This focus made him a perfect fit for TEDxIndianapolis’ 2014 theme of “Get Outside In.” Below, discover the eclectic lineup of musical guests, who will perform at Hilbert Circle Theatre on Oct. 21 and learn why Long chooses to hang his many hats in Indy.
Sky Blue Window: So, how did you get involved in TEDxIndianapolis this year?
Kyle Long: That goes back to last year, where they asked me to deejay throughout the day during the intermissions. I did some collaborations last year as well, the most interesting of which was a collaboration with Oreo Jones and Time For Three, where we blended all of our unique abilities together for a cool little performance. I think they wanted to incorporate me last year, because what I do here in the community is pretty unique, and it didn’t necessarily make sense for me to do a talk. I’m not very fond of public speaking, and I’m probably terrible at it. So, they threw in the idea of having me deejay throughout the day and have some input on the musical performances. That led to a more substantial role this year. It’s a title that gets thrown on me a lot, which is “music curator.” It sounds really pretentious [he laughs], but I like it and it’s a cool, fun title to have.
SBW: How did you incorporate TEDxIndianapolis’ theme “Get Outside In” into the musical lineup this year?
KL: I think the organizers, particularly Anne Laker, who is a great member of the Big Car team, felt like the theme of “Get Outside In” really aligned with my work. Whatever I do, whether it’s writing my column for NUVO or my deejay sets, it’s all about bringing what’s perceived as an outside musical tradition into the world of mainstream entertainment in this city. So, she made that connection and reached out to me, and I immediately recognized there was some substantial connection between [TEDx and] what I do in the scene.
Beyond that, I’m always looking for any opportunity to use whatever voice that somebody was generous enough to give me to spotlight artists who I think are doing really important things, but … aren’t getting the attention they deserve. We have a lot of amazing artists on this lineup who have achieved a lot outside of Indiana. Even though they might have a substantial base here, they might not have been given, in my opinion, the exposure they deserve.
SBW: Did TEDx give you carte blanche in terms of your musical curation this year, or did they offer input?
KL: It was definitely equal input, but they certainly gave me freedom to put my own spin on it. That’s what is great about working with Big Car; they focus on creativity. There’s nothing that’s going to turn them off in terms of being too experimental or this is going to freak people out — that’s what they want. They want to see those types of performers come in. So, yeah, I think we had an equal back-and-forth. They made some recommendations, and I made some.
SBW: How does Stuart Hyatt fit in with the musical lineup?
KL: Stuart Hyatt is a Hoosier multi-disciplinary artist. He recently did a project, which you may have heard about, where he made a sound map of Washington Street. He traveled the entire distance of Washington Street, east and west, making field recordings of people he encountered. Then he took those recordings and created a musical composition out of them, which he called The National Road under the name Field Works. This is another interpretation of approaching music with this Outside-In concept. He traveled this road and traveled the Marion County region from the outskirts into downtown and back to the outskirts. And he developed this composition based on his experience. He’s going to present some sort of experimental version. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to shape up, but he’s going to collaborate with Time for Three and present some sort of interpretation of that work at TEDx. So, that’s going to be really exciting to see how he puts it together.
SBW: Can you tell us about the balance of musicians from outside of Indiana and local acts who you have booked for this event?
KL: The Sweet Poison Victim performance probably speaks best to that. They’re probably my favorite local rock band. I go to all of their shows, and am just a huge fan of theirs. You have this group who’s made up of musicians from all sorts of backgrounds, from hardcore bands to guys who play Latin music. The central figure in the band is Kwesi Brown, who grew up in Ghana and came to the United States to get a PhD in Ethnomusicology from IUPUI. So that band sort of personifies this balance between people from outside traditions here and people who grew up Hoosiers and are doing traditional sorts of Indiana music.
For their performance, they’re going to be collaborating with an amazing woman here in the community named Pam Blevins Hinkle … She’s very involved in music improvisation. She goes into women’s prison and teaches music improvisation to the women. She plays so many instruments and is one of the most creative people here in the music scene. At the introduction of Sweet Poison’s performance, she’s going to be doing a collaborative improvisational piece. Again, that’s another situation like Stuart Hyatt with Time For Three. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We don’t know if they’ve really worked it out. It’s just very free-flowing and loose, and they’re going to come out and do something in front of 1,500 people that may be spectacular or everybody may be scratching their heads. That’s part of the fun of this event is the open-mindedness of everyone involved.
SBW: Sweet Poison Victim, Salaam, and Jefferson St. Parade Band are home-grown reflections of your world music interests. Can you talk a bit about Indiana’s ability to foster local projects with such a panoramic world view?
KL: Jefferson St. Parade Band is a really interesting group. It’s a marching band, essentially. Ben Fowler, who’s the leader of the group, has created a very diverse repertoire for them. They play some Mexican cumbia stuff. They play some Eastern European music that reflects the Roman or gypsy culture. They’re just loud and they make a lot of noise, and it’s sort of like a junkyard band that’s playing all of this really incredible music. When you see them live, they’re sort of dressed like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band making this loud noise with these great rhythms. So, they’re just an incredibly fun group. The marching band is such a part of Hoosier culture with the Big Ten conference here, but they’re opening it up to a worldly repertoire.
A lot of these bands have deep connections with Bloomington. It really speaks to the importance of the music school there. Salaam [another TEDxIndianapolis performer] is an Iraqi music ensemble based in Bloomington. They’ve gotten international recognition for their recordings, and they’re one of the few Iraqi music ensembles working in the United States. The group is led by Dena El Saffar, who is an extraordinary musician. She has toured with an icon of African music named Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. His biggest exposure in the United States or Europe was “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. He was the African voice on that tune … So she is somebody who has worked at this very high level, and has received lots of important recognition outside of Indiana, but her work doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves here because it’s such a foreign thing to people. That’s why I’m so grateful for the opportunity to present this music to a wider audience here.
SBW: How do you think music helps to further the other conversations that will be going on at TEDxIndianapolis?
KL: Music just touches people in a very different way. It certainly can stimulate you intellectually, but there’s also this emotional and visceral element to it. It reaches you in places that are beyond words and beyond concrete ideas. It also provides a break of sorts from all of the heavier presentations that people will be seeing … It just switches up the mood for a few minutes and gets everybody recharged.
SBW: Can you tell us a little about the after-party event featuring Osekre?
KL: I’m really excited about the after-party, because it’s free. Not to diminish anything that TEDx is doing, but the ticket price for TEDx can be off-putting for a lot of people. A lot of my friends are frustrated, because they don’t get to go and see all this great music, but the after party is free. So, we’re inviting everybody to come and get a sense of the music that we’re going to be presenting that day.
Osekre is much like Sweet Poison Victim — they’re a rock band led by a gentleman who grew up in Ghana. They mix ska and some elements of punk rock with the kind of traditional African sounds that people might’ve heard Sweet Poison play. I had been talking with the leader of the group, Ishmael, for a while about bringing them here. They’re based out of New York, and it just worked out that they were going to be around town at the time of TEDx, so we asked them to play the after-party.
SBW: What keeps you in Indy as opposed to working in a city that might have a larger audience for the type of music that you’re interested in?
KL: When you take on these thoughts and immerse yourself in the struggle for social advancement in the arts — or whatever field you pursue — it can get a little bit depressing. Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall here, but the reason I stay is because I think it’s important to make this progress here. I want to be a part of this immigrant community and their struggle to make their place here. I want to be a part of that. It’s very fulfilling to be a part of that.
My friend Artur [Silva], who’s my partner in this organization we created called Cultural Cannibals, he’s a visual artist. He just left to pursue an MFA at Cal Arts near Los Angeles in California. I went out there to get him settled when he made the move, and I was like, “Oh my God, I would love to be here on the ocean and do what I do in this beautiful environment.” There would be so much of an audience for [my work], but I really don’t think I would have the same fulfillment there that I would here. I think we need more people in this fight here. I’m very grateful to have been given opportunities to express myself here. I think it’s important to make the points I’m making and be a part of this community that’s trying to carve out a space for themselves … I don’t want to paint the picture that people here are close-minded. The opportunities that I’ve been given here are indisputable proof that people here agree with the essence of my argument that immigrant cultures deserve more respect and greater rights.
SBW: Is Cultural Cannibals on hold while Artur attends grad school?
KL: That’s how I see myself. I’m not even a human being. I’m a cultural cannibal. That will never end, until they bury me. So, that’s definitely still going but it’s a little quieter than it has been in the past. Artur and I are preparing for a big mural project here in the city that will be a visual representation of the musical projects that we’ve done in the past. Right now, it looks quiet from the outside, but we’re getting ready to explode across the city when this project comes to fruition.
Written by Rob Peoni