Yorktown, Indiana, is in many ways the kind of place it sounds like it would be.
The high school’s mascot — a fang-baring tiger — sneers down from where he’s painted on the side of the small town’s water tower, overlooking a soybean field that plays host to pop-up signs announcing registration deadlines for the next youth sports season.
It’s a place where kids on bikes rule their neighborhoods, and where residents host backyard movie nights, with everybody on the street crowding in, bringing snacks to share, and throwing blankets across the lawn.
But at the corner of Tiger Drive and River Road, the unexpected.
There, straddling a paved mixed-use trail, stands a cedar-plank canopy that loosely resembles a whale’s ribcage. Runners passing underneath this as-yet untitled art installation slow down and crane their necks, drivers stop their cars in the middle of the road to ask questions, and those same bike-riding kids make not one but two or three trips under its sharp angles and leading lines.
“We wanted to make a gesture toward the movement,” explained Sean Burns, a Ball State College of Architecture and Planning faculty member heading up the project. “This is something that you have to go through. In time, I guess we hope that this would become a place where people will meet up and that it will become iconic. That everyone who uses the path, or who passes by the path, will have seen it as they are moving through their days.”
And it’s people’s reactions that feed the passion of Burns and his students, who have made the piece their summer’s work.
Guided by the Yorktown Council for the Arts, the piece serves as a trailhead for a series of community pathways that are built or under construction. Jennifer Groves, council president, said that in the search for a partner, the group was looking for someone who could create a piece that would inspire interest and enthusiasm.
“I immediately thought of Ball State. It’s one of the greatest resources in this community,” she said.
Burns said the instructions from Groves and her team afforded great latitude to the team, save the requirement that whatever was created could become a signature piece in a larger, long-term outdoor art experience.
“We wanted something that opens conversation,” Groves said. “Something that people can continue to experience, regardless if they’ve been there once or many, many times.”
Groves said one inspiration for the council is Indianapolis’ Massachusetts Avenue neighborhood, which today is home to retail shops and restaurants, as well as single-family homes and multifamily buildings. And much of the area sits along the lauded Indianapolis Cultural Trail. But the vibrant experience that now exists there took years to nurture and build.
“My husband and I lived on Mass Ave. before it was big,” she said. “We were there when they started adding the public art pieces, and little by little, that changed everything.”
Influencing a community’s development is a unique perk that CAP students say they don’t always get to completely consider, let alone experience. And that responsibility has not only informed their work on the Yorktown piece but has framed their futures, too.
“Everything is a living work,” said Justin Martin, a graduate student from Greensburg, Indiana, after stepping down off a ladder at the installation site. “What you plan to build, how a plan is executed, how a piece or structure is maintained — those are all different parts in the life cycle of a piece. In the case of this (installation), people are already asking about it, asking what it is. That says a lot about it already.
“I’ll be excited to see this in a few years, to see what the community has done with it.”
The 10- or 20-year foreshadowing intrigues Akila Anantharaman, a graduate student from India who counts this as one of her first opportunities to do the hands-on build work of a piece.
“This is so different from what we normally do, designing or considering enclosed buildings,” she said. “This structure is totally exposed. That changes everything, from how you approach design to the actual construction.”
Anantharaman says the piece has confirmed her choice to pursue community designs.
“I love that this is part of a community interaction,” she said. “The perception of every person will be totally different. It will depend on how they use the space or what the weather is. And whether you like the piece or not, it draws your attention. You still have a response to it, and it’s still going to make you think.”
Burns said the takeaway for the students mirrors in many ways what community members can enjoy.
“This is art and science together — it’s a total experience,” he said. “There’s a larger piece to this than just being artwork. It’s something that many people can come together for, and walk away with, having not only had the collective experience but their own unique engagement.
“For us, as architects, if you do something memorable, you’ve done something more than just build something. It’s more than simply what’s needed. It’s a memorable experience.”