IT’S THE FINAL INSTALLMENT OF A SERIES.
The mural, located on the east wall of the Steak ’n Shake building overlooking Bicentennial Unity Plaza outside Gainbridge Fieldhouse, is the last of four in the City of Indianapolis Bicentennial Legends series, which also includes paintings of Marshall “Major” Taylor on the downtown headquarters of Barnes & Thornburg, Madam C.J. Walker at Pathways to Peace Park on Senate Avenue, and Etheridge Knight on the side of the Chatterbox Jazz Club. This installment features portraits of 43 legendary Indianapolis figures, surrounded by flora native to our state.
THE ARTIST WHO PAINTED IT HAS A UNIQUE BACKSTORY
Chicago-based muralist Anna Murphy’s accent betrays English and Kentuckian notes because she spent her first 13 years in England before moving to Frankfort, Kentucky. She earned a BFA in Painting and then moved to Chicago, where she fell in love with the community aspect of murals. “It’s just art for everyone,” she says.
TECHNICALLY IT’S A MEMORIAL.
A 40-person committee spent six months debating the qualities of nearly 200 candidates who met the criteria of being active in the community between 1820 and 2020 and now-deceased. The committee then considered the strength of candidates’ connection to Indy, their contributions to the common good, and the extent of their legacy beyond Indiana. The final lineup includes Julia Carson, Eli Lilly, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Madam C.J. Walker, and James Whitcomb Riley.
MURPHY TOOK PAINS TO DEPICT THE HONOREES IN THE RIGHT WAY.
She received a roster of the folks who made the final cut, then researched their lives and gathered existing photos. “If they had any living relatives, we would check in with them to make sure we chose the image that would show their ancestor as they wanted them represented.”
DESPITE BAD WEATHER, THE PROJECT DIDN’T TEST MURPHY’S ENDURANCE AS MUCH AS OTHER PROJECTS.
Murphy spent July and August—often in the hot sun or dodging thunderstorms—executing the design with assistance from Indianapolis-based painter Phyllicia Carr. But the conditions were preferable to those she faced last December in Chicago. “I wore two pairs of gloves while I painted, and on the extra cold days, I had to go inside every 20 minutes or so to thaw out my fingers,” she says. She now tries to schedule indoor work during the winter months in northern states.
BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN IT WAS EASY.
“This might have been the most involved project I’ve ever done because of all the portraits,” says Murphy. On a good day, she could finish two. She cut her teeth painting in oils but transitioned to hardier acrylics (which stand up better to the elements) for murals. The brushes she used for the mural were big enough to handle the trim work on a house, and instead of penciling in the massive image before painting, she projected an outline onto the wall. “It saved time,” she says.
SHE HAD TO SQUASH ANY FEAR OF HEIGHTS.
The bottom of the mural starts 15 feet above the ground, and the entire piece is 48 feet high. When Murphy painted the flowers in the top right corner, she used a scissor crane that lifted her roughly 63 feet off the ground. Yes, she wore a safety harness. Unsurprisingly, the angle made it tough for her to assess her progress. “It meant either stepping back just a little bit on the crane lift or going all the way down to the ground for a look,” she recalls.
THE BICENTENNIAL UNITY PLAZA IS ON TREND.
From the Jiffy Lube murals commissioned by Jiffy Lube of Indiana president Steve Sanner; to the floral motifs painted on residential garages in Broad Ripple’s Flower Alley; to the larger-than-life likenesses of Reggie Miller, Mari Evans, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., and Fountain Square record store owner Larry Mires dotting downtown, oversize murals are having a moment. And not just in Indianapolis. Murphy, who pretty much does nothing but murals these days, agrees that the art form is hot across the country. She’s painted them everywhere from South Chicago to Mississippi. “They’ve become very popular as a way of adding beauty to a concrete wall and also to celebrate a community in a personal, individual way,” she says.