The Fountain Square Artists Turning Political Trash Into Treasure

The drop box for found or unwanted campaign signs at 1336's Shelby Street warehouse.

Courtesy of 1336 via Instagram

The drop box for found or unwanted campaign signs at 1336’s Shelby Street warehouse.

Tad Aschliman was driving down the street in downtown Indianapolis on Nov. 2 when he came to an abrupt stop. In front of him at an intersection were 50 signs planted in the ground, emblazoned with political slogans and candidates’ names. This made him worried.

“That intersection probably has $1,000 worth of signs sitting there,” he described. “And that stuff is all plastic and super non-biodegradable.”

The 40-year-old artist and realtor then called Ben Sutphin, his partner at 1336, the for-profit business they co-founded to grow Fountain Square’s arts community. It’s one of many ideas, including the popular Fountain Square Music Fest, that Aschliman has brought to fruition with the goal of giving back to his community.

“Hey Ben, you mind if I start stacking signs in the garage?” Aschliman asked. He was referring to the de-facto warehouse they bought on 1336 Shelby Street as an all-purpose arts space, one month before COVID-19 forced Indiana into a statewide lockdown.

Sutphin, 31, didn’t mind. Later that day, Aschliman started spreading the message by posting a picture on Facebook, asking the people of Indianapolis to drop off their unwanted signs at the Shelby Street warehouse. In the picture, he circled in red marker the number of political signs in front of the Indiana State County building: 51 in total.

To his surprise, the post swiftly gained traction. When Paige Wind, 1336’s social media guru, told Aschliman how many likes his post had received on Facebook in under an hour, Aschliman was shocked.

“50 shares?” Aschliman asked. (It’s now up to 459, and counting.)

Excited, Aschliman arrived back at the garage an hour or so later to flesh out the idea with Sutphin. First, they would pick up the signs. Then local artists would come and collect them, and from there the artists could do whatever they want—so long as they kept politics out of it. Aschliman said he’s open to keeping the back of political signs with the political candidates’ names on them because he likes the “time capsule aspect,” but he specified to Indy’s would-be artists that the front must be painted over completely.

“The only rule that we have is that 100 percent of the image must be covered,” Aschliman said.

Aschliman and Sutphin dubbed it the “Good Signs Art Show,” hosted at the 1336 Shelby Street building. The first showing was on Black Friday, and the second the next day (small business Saturday). As a precaution against COVID-19, the doors were open, but capacity was limited to 10 viewers at a time. For the time being, all future shows—the group was planning on hosting two more—have been postponed due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Nonetheless, Sutphin touted the show as a “way for us to engage with the community.”

“[The Good Signs Art Show was] a way to get people to check out what we’re doing, and leverage the space that we have to have the best, most positive impact we can have on the city, particularly the art scenes,” Sutphin said.

1336 co-founders Tad Aschliman (left) and Ben Sutphin (right).

He added that 1336 is aiming to “break even and be sustainable.” Still, all proceeds earned by the artists in the Good Signs Art Show will go directly to those artists.

Sutphin, a bassist, played in local bands throughout his life and saw first-hand how difficult it was to showcase local talent. To that end, in 2013 he purchased a disused shopping center-turned-warehouse at the southwest corner of Raymond and Sherman. It took off quickly, convincing him of the amount of untapped potential Indianapolis had for similar events.

“In my opinion, the unending creativity of people that can be unleashed when they get their hands on a few resources,” Sutphin said. “So that’s sort of my passion: connecting people with community.”

The pair met online, quickly hit it off, and before long discovered their skills were complimentary: Sutphin, the artist, and Aschliman the engineer.

Growing up in a small town in Ohio called Archibald, Aschliman was naturally handy. He said living in Fountain Square for the past 14 years has inspired him to help local artists who have struggled to make a living. Between that and real estate, his full-time job, the past few weeks have consisted of 80 to 90 work hours.

“Engineering is the height of my creativity,” Aschliman said. “A lot of times, it’ll either be my idea or like, somebody else’s idea, and I know how to do it. I create problem-solving, especially as it relates to layouts and logistics.”

When COVID-19 hit, with its attendant statewide lockdown, diminishing business prospects, and general anxiety, they kept at it anyway—and their persistence paid off. Since then, Aschliman and Sutphin have installed at the Shelby Street garage a t-shirt press, a bonsai shop, a lounge area, and soon, two art galleries. So far they’ve collected more than 2,000 signs for the Good Signs Art Show. The two business partners say it’s only the beginning.

“I just want to say that [1336] started with Tad and I’s vision,” Sutphin said. “But it pretty quickly has taken on its own life as each new tenant moves in [and] they add their own perspective to the space.

“We hope that it kind of forms its own creature that it grows and evolves as it needs to, responding to each different person and their connections with each other. What we see right now is just a snapshot of what it is, and hopefully, it’s something different next year and ongoing.”