Home is where the art is: A profile on Stephen Peck
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on June 17, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon Stephen Peck greeted me at his door with a warm smile, a handshake, and an apology over the messiness of his humble abode at 1015 Olive St., in Fountain Square.
It’s not an exaggeration to describe the scene at “The Speck House,” as friends have affectionately dubbed it since he moved here in early 2011, as if somebody had recently detonated an art bomb somewhere between the kitchen and the front door. Art supplies, various musical instruments, scrolls of collaborative drawings, half-finished projects, paintings and sketchbooks litter nearly every available surface of the home’s interior.
The walls serve as a sporadic history of Peck’s career as a designer, screen-printer and student of art. It’s a bit overstimulating at first glance, but before long I realize much of the activity around The Speck House tends to be this way.
A room to the left of the front door houses Peck’s drum kit. In the corner opposite of it sits a pile of boxes, stacked nearly 3 feet high with “art night” relics. Giant sheets of folded canvas have shellacked themselves to other discarded expressions. Peck digs through this hulk, occasionally unfolding larger works to describe the circumstances and individuals who created them. He reads each expanse of canvas as if its hieroglyphs unlock the story of 100 memorable evenings, which, for him, they do. Art night is a Thursday evening tradition, where Peck invites whomever is available and interested to create at his house.
“I don’t know that I really have a start date or anything,” Peck says. “I didn’t really know that many people down here. I would go to shows and run into people, and I knew Thursday nights worked for me, so I would say, ‘Hey, come out and let’s hang out on a Thursday. Let’s make art.'” Peck’s experience as a drummer and his inclusive attitude toward visual art quickly made his house a favorite of the likeminded twentysomethings that have flooded Fountain Square in the last few years.
“There are some art nights that are just wild,” Peck says. “They’re rare and beautiful. I don’t know. It’s a unicorn that arrives. Suddenly, there’s 30 people here all hanging out, and it’s awesome. It’s just everybody from the neighborhood who wasn’t doing anything on a Thursday and came over.”
Peck is an Indy native who attended Columbus College of Art & Design (CCAD) after graduating from Heritage Christian. After college he moved to Seattle where he opened a small screen-printing shop. “It was not doing that well,” Peck says of the venture. “I had a really good summer of success the first summer I was out there, and then that kind of died down.” As a result, he returned to Indy to work at The Art Press. That experience was short-lived, the details of which Peck refrains from discussing. He quickly found work at Broad Ripple’s Teeki Hut, where he continues to work part-time along with local start-up Pack Printing.
Peck developed a taste for screen-printing while promoting bands he formed during high school, but his passion for art grew out of necessity at an early age. “I have half a heart,” he confessed casually toward the end of our interview. “Actually, I had three things wrong with my heart that individually should’ve killed me, but because I had all three, I’m okay. It balanced out … Sports were never an option, so that’s why I got into music and art. I can do that and it’s fun. Why do I need to go run around all the time?”
In December, Peck had his pacemaker replaced, a surgery he describes as minor compared to three more significant procedures at different stages throughout his life. Though he doesn’t hide from his heart problems, he tries not to wear them on his sleeve. “I used to talk about it too much,” he says. “It would bring people down and make other people’s problems insignificant, which isn’t fair … [My heart] really isn’t as big of an influence on how I live anymore. I’m as healthy as I’ve ever been right now.”
Rather than dwell on his limitations, Peck creates with reckless abandon. In the last year, his focus has shifted away from screen-printing toward more substantial optical-art pieces. He credits the shift with a revival of interest in his design work for local musicians, concert promoters, record labels and others. “I’ve done a lot of concert posters recently,” Peck says. “The thing is, no one for about a year asked me to do a poster, and I think it’s because I’ve changed how I’m doing my art. I feel like people don’t really know what I’m up to. It’s like, ‘Oh wait, we do still like the art you’re making. Now we’ll ask you.'”
His initial fascination with op-art flourished while at CCAD. “The Columbus Museum of Art is basically on the CCAD campus,” he says. “They had this op-art exhibit with Bridget Riley’s ‘Fall.’ It’s basically a 10×10 foot painting, and she did it all by hand. So, you walk up and there is this giant wall of black-and-white lines. I walked through it every single day to and from class. There and back, just so I could see this painting. There was a whole exhibit of op-art stuff, but that’s the one I really remember.”
For his op-art paintings, Peck begins with an Illustrator file that he often creates from sketches. Once he has a perfect version that he’s satisfied with, he cuts the design in vinyl, which he uses as a stencil. “So, it ends up being paint-on-paint at the end of it, but I’m creating it as if it’s a stencil and then I peel away the vinyl,” he says. “So, I paint the board black. Then, I put down a red stencil and I paint the whole thing white. Then I peel away the stencil, and you see the black underneath.” While this process defines Peck’s more substantial op-art paintings, he is also experimenting with other media — everything from video to custom coffee tables.
Peck is obsessive when it comes to perfecting his designs, but his planning for the future remains much more open-ended. He has flirted with the idea of graduate school. In the meantime he plans to pursue more gallery opportunities for his op-art work and expanding his freelance design business where he can. More than anything, Peck appears content with his life in Fountain Square, making music and art with his friends every Thursday. “I’ve never had a terrible art night,” he says. “The worst it can be is that it’s just me, and I’m just making art by myself — which is still great.”
Stay up-to-date with Peck’s artwork work on Tumblr and Facebook. Come by The Speck House on June 19th for his first “directed Art Night,” when he will guide guests through the subject of “back drawing” — literally drawing the backs of people. Or drop by for his third annual Slip N Show on July 13, with live music from Absonites, Bonesetters, BYBYE, Cat Crap Fiasco, Chris Dance & The Holy Echo, Derek Johnsongs, Jessica Albatross, Benny & The Planes, Brian Jones & The Misadventure, Bait & Tackle Tabernacle and more.
Written by Rob Peoni
Contra Addiction Exposed
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on June 26, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.
Indy has a strange way of surprising me on a regular basis. Just when I think I have a clear notion of what our town is about, an unexplored facet of its personality surfaces. One such epiphany occurred at Fountain Square’s fairly new collaborative, creative space Grove Haus on a recent Tuesday evening, when I stumbled upon the tight-knit community that is Indy Contra.
Volunteers prepped for the arrival of dancers as I entered the renovated and repurposed church at the corner of Hosbrook and Grove avenues — one block east of Virginia Avenue. After greeted by friendly faces and extended handshakes, I steered toward the building’s main performance space. There Indy Contra President Dianna Davis was setting the stage for a performance by her three-piece band, Troika. (For details on how Grove Haus came to fruition, scope Seth Johnson’s feature for Sky Blue Window from earlier this spring.)
As I assumed my position like a fly on the wall, dancers of all ages, gender and dress trickled into Grove Haus, exchanging work shoes for something more comfortable. Boyfriends and girlfriends, older married couples and teenagers greeted each other warmly with hugs and how-are-yous. After Troika adjusted the sound according to its liking, the caller assembled those ready in a line near the front of the stage and began with the instructions for the first dance.
Face your neighbor on the side of the set. With your neighbor — gypsy. So, gypsy your neighbor and then swing your neighbor on the side of the set. Let’s swing in a circle. Circle left three places until you can swing your partner around the side of the set. Then swing facing across. Right and left through, across the set. Ladies chain back across, with a courtesy turn. Now take your hands in a ring. As you have your hands in a ring, look at the person in your right hand. Hopefully you’re looking at their ear, because they should be looking at your right hand. Now remember where their feet are. That’s where you want your feet to be in just a second …
After a few more instructions, the music begins. The dance is lively and energetic. The moves of the individual dancers appear straightforward and simple enough, though watching the entire group move together proves dizzying. Partners progress through the line together, trading constantly as if conversing in an unspoken language. By the end of the song every pair has danced with every other. The exchanges are occasionally punctuated with double high fives and resounding foot stomps.
“It’s tough to describe what Contra dancing is without showing it to people,” Davis says later in an interview. “It’s really hard to describe without having a visual.”
Jan Sims, who regularly drives down from Richmond with her husband to attend the Indy dance echoed Davis while chastising me for my position as wallflower, “You are diligently taking notes,” she said. “Are you learning to be a caller? You cannot just sit there and write it; you must dance it.”
Sims fell for Contra when she moved to Indy from Atlanta about 20 years ago, when her future husband introduced her to the dance. Over the years Sims has watched as interest in Contra has experienced waves of popularity. “Right now, it’s probably at a little bit of a low point, but this particular group is doing well,” she says. “Almost everybody you see here has been dancing for at least a couple of years. So the quality of dancing is pretty good and high. Indy has always been a really friendly, open group. So, I felt right at home when I first moved here.”
Ben Smith, a music professor at IUPUI underscored Sims’ description of Indy as a welcoming Contra group. He moved here from Cleveland less than a year ago. “I can’t say I was too excited about the scene in Cleveland,” he says. “They have three different groups that run dances on different nights of the week. I didn’t go very often. It was so big that I only knew a handful of people. Indy is more intimate.”
One unusual aspect of Contra is its use of a live band as accompaniment. Bands vary widely from group to group and region to region. “Every dance and every piece of music is exactly the same length,” Davis says. “In technical terms, it’s all 64 measures long. It’s about the same speed. You can vary it a little bit. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing an Irish tune, a gypsy Roma tune, a swing tune or an old-time tune.”
Davis is a classically trained clarinetist who received her undergrad degree at Millikin University before earning a masters degree from Indiana University. Contra dancing found her at a time when she confessed to having burnt out on classical music. She currently plays in two Contra bands, Troika and The Coffee Zombies. For her part, Davis views Contra’s tendency to adapt and transform multiple musical genres as a strength rather than a weakness. “I see folk dancing and folk music as two different things,” she says. “One has folk traditions that they’re preserving, and contra is the other side, where it’s evolving folk traditions. We don’t wear the funny costumes, and we’re not preserving the folk art. We’re creating the folk art. Contra is actually thriving because of that.”
As Indy Contra’s dance at Grove Haus rolled along, the seat next to mine became a rotating confessional booth for dancers looking to catch their breath. The news of a reporter’s presence had quickly dispersed throughout the dance. One such visitor was Dan Fisher, who spent decades as a square dancer before finding Contra later in life. “The thing I like about contra is what I like about square dancing in the rural areas, where you’ve got a wide range of ages and it’s multigenerational,” he says. “This is multigenerational. Now, square dancing in the cities is kind of like a senior citizens activity.”
The Minnichs, a family of Indy Contra regulars, serves as the living embodiment of Fisher’s observation. Parents, Tom and Rhonda Minnich, recently fell for Contra after three of their daughters began dancing a couple of years ago. Their 12-year-old daughter, Naomi, was the youngest attendee at Indy Contra on the night I visited. “This is fun,” Tom says. “It gives you the opportunity to laugh. It’s social. There’s humor. If you’re new and you make a mistake … [however] no matter who you are, you make a mistake, but there is always a hand to pull you in the right direction.”
“One of the things that has most impressed me about Contra is this amazing sense of community,” Rhonda says. “Everywhere I’ve gone, it’s like, ‘I don’t know you. Let’s dance.’ There’s no judging that goes on.”
“It’s such a joyous thing to be dancing,” Davis agrees. “No one goes to Contra to show off, to compete, to make money or to prove anything. It’s just about having fun, building a community, and to be somewhere you can be accepted and have a good time. There’s really no other point to being there.”
Written by Rob Peoni
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