Best Of Indy 2020: Arts And Culture

Board Games

Even without a live Gen Con this year, the tabletop-game business is on a roll. For those quarantined inside, here’s a quartet of great games by Indiana-based designers. Lotus,  Jordan and Mandy Goddard’s card game ($30 from Renegade Game Studios), isn’t just beautiful. Sure, as players compete to have the most petals on a flower, your tabletop becomes lovely to look at. But Lotus is also a smart strategy battle that’s likely to appeal across generations and lead to “one more time” requests for replays. Evan Davis and Nick Little’s Crossed Words ($25 from Indie Boards & Cards) is a newbie party game where nine categories fill a grid, and players quickly attempt to think of unique responses that would satisfy the two categories at each intersection. Gloomhaven: Jaws of the Lion is a sequel whose predecessor was heavy in just about every way—the level of immersion required, the weight of the component-packed box, and the $140-if-you-can-find-it price tag. Which made the dungeon-crawl extravaganza great for hardcore gamers, but intimidating for more casual players. This year, local designer Isaac Childres spawned a prequel that’s a lot cheaper ($50 at Target) and easier to learn, but still thrilling for creature-battling cooperative gaming. In Tammany Hall, corrupt politicians battle for power through manipulation, bribery, and slander. If that’s not too close to reality for you, Doug Eckhart’s board game ($50 from Pandasaurus Games) provides plenty of backstabbing pleasure. Area control and negotiations are key as you vie for dominance in mid-1800s New York. Trust no one.

Film Streaming Service

Although they haven’t yet opened their doors due to the pandemic, the Kan-Kan Cinema & Brasserie ( in Windsor Park has been providing local movie lovers with their independent-film fix, thanks to an on-demand web streaming service. Through relationships with the global art-house community, the Kan-Kan offers a curated selection of flicks (most about $10), with recent picks including indie hits (Miss Juneteenth), foreign films (We Are Little Zombies), and documentaries (John Lewis: Good Trouble). One section of the site is devoted entirely to Hoosier filmmakers. Customers simply pay to rent whichever movie they’d like to watch, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to the Kan-Kan and its nonprofit arm (the Indianapolis Film Project).

Jiffy Lube Mural

Since 2016, 16 Indiana Jiffy Lubes have received tune-ups from local artists in the form of colorful murals on the exterior walls. Until now, though, none have had the stop-you-in-your-tracks quality of Carl Leck’s work in Fishers (13855 Olivia Way). The mural depicts columns in the shape of a lion, tiger, and bear, which seem to be holding up a 3-D space that turns out to be an illusion painted on two flat walls. “I haven’t heard about any people running off the road while looking at it,” he says. “But I wouldn’t doubt that it has happened a few times.”

Hyatt records outside of his Indianapolis home.
Hyatt records the ultrasonic sounds of bats with highly specialized equipment and then produces music to accompany them in his home studio, occasionally alongside his cat Remy.

Local Albums

Hoosier National by Otis Gibbs: Hailing from Wanamaker, Gibbs is a veteran of the alt-country scene in Indiana. But Hoosier National, released this past September, marks the first time he has recorded an all-electric album. On songs like “Fountain Square Stare” and “Panhead,” the Thanks for Giving a Damn podcast host showcases his folky storytelling style, painting honest pictures of Indiana living in a way only he can.

Too Prickly for This World by Wife Patrol:Consisting of Nicole O’Neal, Greg O’Neill, and Natasha Richardson O’Neill, this Indy-based trio plays an energetic, ’90s-leaning brand of alternative rock. After rising through the ranks of the local bar circuit, Wife Patrol finally released its full-length debut a few months ago. Too Prickly for This World shows off their simple, harmony-rich sound on songs like “Let’s Hang Out,” “Spyro,” and “In a Race.”

Vonnegut by Charlie Ballantine: In a city known for its rich jazz history, guitarist Charlie Ballantine carries on the torch left by Hoosier greats such as Freddie Hubbard and Wes Montgomery. On Vonnegut, however, Ballantine decided to honor a local literary hero instead, channeling characters and themes to write a collection of nine jazz songs inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s books.

Godspeed! by Sirius Blvck: A pillar of Indianapolis’s hip-hop community, Blvck released his seventh full-length album in 2020, showcasing his versatile rapping style across nine tracks. Much like previous releases, Godspeed! features raw rhymes from Blvck on songs like “Clockwork” and “Crxss My Heart,” as well as breezier, melodic tunes such as “Twin Peaks.”

Ultrasonic by Stuart Hyatt: Stuart Hyatt is equal parts musician, composer, and explorer. Ultrasonic was funded by the National Geographic Society and the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute, and features reworked sounds collected from Indiana bats in the wild. The 14-track album is a mind-bending listen from top to bottom.

Kitchen Art

Officially, they’re charcuterie boards. But we can’t imagine putting salami and goat cheese on these gorgeous platters, created by Brian Presnell of Indy Urban Hardwood and painted by local artists such as Kyle Ragsdale and Johnny McKee. The Harrison Center ( hosted a gallery show of the handcrafted planks of maple, walnut, and more in August and has been selling the remaining ones since. Presnell spends most of his time making commercial furniture and running an urban lumberyard dedicated to saving ash wood that would otherwise be mulched as the emerald ash borer makes its way through Indy’s trees. This line of kitchenware, however, is a cut above.

Archival Performances

When the pandemic hit, many of Indy’s performing-arts groups struggled to adapt to a virtual world. At least as far as programming was concerned, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra fared better than most. The ISO had its share of financial challenges in 2020, but its From The Vault series (indianapolissymphony .org) was a quickly implemented solution for classical music lovers in desperate need of a soothing distraction. On WIBC and YouTube, the orchestra’s homebound audience can enjoy great concerts from the past, such as Augustin Hadelich’s performance of Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2 and a Raymond Leppard–led Irish Reel by Britten. Interviews with the musicians have also been added. This month, as the ISO skips its Yuletide Celebration for the first time in decades, listen for holiday favorites.

DIY Classes

If fresh-baked bread via a sourdough starter has inspired you to tackle other DIY projects, maybe it’s time to hand-forge a knife or transform an old cigar box into a musical instrument. Both have been part of CONNER Prairie’s Prairie Pursuits series (13400 Allisonville Rd., Fishers, 317-776-6000,, hands-on workshops for cultivating trade, culinary, and agricultural skills. Some options—like training a team of English Longhorn oxen—transport you back to the time of settler William Conner, Conner Prairie’s namesake. Other sessions are plenty relevant to today, including one that covers the basics of cheese-making—a fine complement to your newly acquired homemade bread how-to.

African-American Art

Christopher West and his colleagues were ahead of the curve this spring when they founded BLACK ART AUCTION (blackart
), a site dedicated to African-American artists. In a year that saw renewed interest in Black culture, BAA has hosted three major auctions, with works by Alma Thomas and Sam Gilliam selling in the six figures. West, a former curator at iMOCA, joined forces with gallerist Thom Pegg to establish the business, which recently hired former Newfields curator Kelli Morgan as a consultant. The group plans to hold their next auction in January.

YA author Leah Johnson
YA author Leah Johnson.

New Books

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson: Building on Indy’s reputation for great Y.A. fiction (thank you, John Green), Johnson’s first novel recently earned a spot on Reese Witherspoon’s book-club list. The story chronicles a queer Black girl’s quest to become prom queen at her small-town Indiana high school.

Author in Chief by Craig Fehrman: In addition to being a regular contributor to IM and several national publications, Fehrman is also a talented historian. The Bloomingtonian’s first book searches for insights in the U.S. presidents’ autobiographies. Along the way, readers are treated to a lot of fun trivia. (Harry Truman signed 4,000 copies of his book in a single day!)

The Lucky One by Lori Rader-Day: A native of the small city of Lebanon, Rader-Day has built a huge career writing suspense novels. Her fifth book follows two women who were kidnapped as children and the intersection of their lives many years later.

The Way of Imagination by Scott Russell Sanders: One of Indiana’s most venerable writers, Russell Sanders tackles subjects both global (environmental devastation, war) and personal in this collection of essays. The passage on his son’s cancer is particularly moving.

An Indiana Christmas, edited by Bryan Furuness: At the center of the Venn diagram of all things Hoosier and all things Christmas, this collection of stories includes an excerpt of the novel that inspired the film A Christmas Story, along with holiday tales by Kurt Vonnegut, Barbara Shoup, and Susan Neville, among others.

You Are An Artist by Sarah Urist Green: In her popular web series The Art Assignment, Urist Green challenges viewers to get creative by following the lead of contemporary artists. Her first book does the same, with artists such as T.J. Dedeaux-Norris
encouraging readers to cultivate an alternate persona.   

New History Exhibit

Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton may have made their names in New York, but they got their starts at a recording studio in Richmond, Indiana, that was once the cradle of jazz and country music. You Are There 1927: Gennett Studio, an immersive exhibit at the Indiana Historical Society (450 W. Ohio St., 317-232-1882, indiana, recreates the room where Hoagy Carmichael recorded “Stardust” at 3 a.m. in between gigs at the Apollo Theatre in Indianapolis, and where Gene Autry crooned his way through “Blue Yodel No. 8.” The space is filled with Easter eggs like Carmichael’s first recording contract for “Stardust” and a telegram from the studio to Autry. Don’t miss the chance to hear a record played on a period phonograph.

New Theater Troupe

When founder Chris Saunders staged American Lives Theatre’s debut show—a darkly comic workplace satire that came with a trigger warning—at the IndyFringe Basile Theatre in January, he made it clear his new contemporary theater company (317-623-3066, wasn’t afraid to take risks. Several performances sold out, and the longtime Indy actor lined up two more Indiana premieres before the pandemic forced him to temporarily scrap the second show hours before opening night in March. But on the other side of the pandemic, the company hopes for postponed productions of Boy Gets Girl by Rebecca Gilman and Detroit by Lisa D’Amour—and eventually, a permanent home.

Elements of the People at the I-65 underpass, at Clifton Street and West Congress Avenue.

Socially Distant Gallery Walk

Indy’s buzzy new placemaking experiment is Pokémon Go meets public art. Download the Indy Art & Seek app on your phone (indy, visit the more than 100 site-specific installations in 25 of the city’s neighborhoods, and earn prizes like T-shirts or a pair of binoculars. Most of the work, from dead trees wrapped in caution tape to a liquid-activated butterfly sidewalk mural in Haughville (bring your water bottle), will stay put at least through the end of the year, so you can spread your strolling out over a few weekends.

One of Andrew Elliot’s unique makeup creations.

Instagram Influencers

Andrew Elliot, @andrewjelliot: Cosplay doesn’t cover the How’d he do that? homages to pop culture icons and Broadway characters Indy makeup artist Andrew Elliot has been posting to Instagram since March. His eye-popping impersonations of such celebrities as Lucille Ball and Lady Gaga, which can take up to 12 hours, got a shout in The New York Times this summer.

Tanoria Askew and Candace Boyd Wylie, @blackgirlseating: Two of Indy’s best chefs curate this account’s mash-up of delicious dishes and Black culture, with spotlights on the Black Lives Matter movement and Breonna Taylor. Bonus: Askew and Wylie’s buttermilk biscuit recipe is the perfect pandemic palliative.

Erica Ballard, @ericaballardhealth: A local health coach, Ballard has attracted a huge following with her daily dose of wellness real talk, which never feels like a lecture or a guilt trip. From how to stave off emotional eating to how to prevent hormonal migraines, her health hacks will leave you feeling more energized than envious.