The Heart Inside Blackford Art Center

Written by Krystyna Rittichier

Amy Day was the band director at Eastbrook for the last twenty years. When she was given the opportunity to become the first paid member of the Blackford Arts Center, she was thrilled. Having spent most of her career nurturing the arts in young minds in an attempt to instill a lifelong passion for music, it was a short leap to incorporate other arts into her dream.

For several months she has been Director at the Blackford County Arts Place on the square, interacting with people of all ages to bring inspiration and beauty into the lives of all who pass through the door. 

I was always the one that brought home this stray animal. I wanted to choose a profession where you would get to know the people and show some compassion.” - Amy Day

For me growing up here, if you wanted to see an art show you had to pack up and go to Fort Wayne or go to Muncie. It was a pipe dream to have something like that in town.
— Tisha Trice

Tisha Trice and Leslie Newton have been friends for the last several years, comrades in arms and spearheads for the Hartford City arts movement. They were part of the show from the very beginning when the Blackford Arts Center was no more than a hazy fantasy.

“For me growing up here, if you wanted to see an art show you had to pack up and go to Fort Wayne or go to Muncie. It was a pipe dream to have something like that in town.” - Tisha Trice

Through the six years of planning, teamwork, charitable donations and no small amount of luck, Leslie and Tisha watched as the fruit of their minds became the fruit of their hands. To this day they are awestruck to be sitting inside a successful and beautiful gallery. Now, they said, the work can really begin.

They want to touch more lives.

In a small town like Hartford City Indiana, the Blackford Center for the Arts is a bastion of frequently updated artwork, recitals, performance art, music classes, and best of all - friendship.

 Amy Day hanging the Open Sign at the Blackford Arts Center  photo   by  Krystyna Rittichier

Amy Day hanging the Open Sign at the Blackford Arts Center photo by Krystyna Rittichier

“I’ve met so many great people and have developed new friends. I think we’ll be friends for a long time.” - Amy Day

Nearly every activity offered at the Art Center is free. The dream of the Arts Place is to get as many people through their doors as they can. They have so much to offer in the way of entertainment, beauty and even education. Yet looking around at the stately beauty of the gallery - as well as the artwork, it’s feasible to feel underdressed. Thankfully, the volunteers at the Arts Place are often found in jeans and hoodies.

“We’ve had people come in for recitals in their pajamas bringing a blanket around their neck in their bare feet. Hey, if they made that effort and feel comfortable coming in here to do that for a recital, I don’t care. You have this absolutely fabulous facility here, and it’s free. You never know, maybe they look at something and it changes their life.” - Leslie Newton

With too few volunteers, they are open less often than they would like to be, but the gallery is open on most weekdays. For a view of regular business hours, go to artsland.org. You can also friend them up on Facebook at “Blackford County Arts Center” where they frequently post upcoming events.

So how did these ladies wind up running a successful Arts Center out of a beautifully renovated building right on the square? The story shines just as bright as the artwork on their freshly painted walls.

Five years ago, a small gathering of art enthusiasts began meeting at Blackford High School. Artists and graphic artists, musicians and lawyers, marketers and businessmen, even the mayor came to work toward a common goal - to bring inspiration and beauty to the citizens of Hartford City.

The small panel met often to discuss possible ways to share the beauty of art. Their passion began to catch on with those around them, and before long they had garnered enough support to dream a little bigger.

With the help of the previous mayor, Dennis Whitesell, they hosted a small gallery night at the local City Hall. It was a success - the artwork was beautiful and the turnout was promising. However, the greatest reward came at the end of the night - after everyone had gone home. They had offered a short survey at a small table in the back, asking what kind of arts events the people would like to see. Did others believe - as they did - that the arts could beautify Hartford City? The response was overwhelming.

That night, the art board knew that it was time to dream even bigger.

They contacted Eric Rogers of the Arts Place Portland to begin talks of hosting an official center for the arts in Hartford City. If they could gain the support of the already successful art center, they might really have a shot at this thing. To their surprise, Eric was more than happy to help. They had their shot. But what now? They had no building.

Ben Oswalt had been on the small art board for some time, so when he decided to retire from his business on the square, he gave his building to the City with one stipulation - the budding art center must be allowed to use the building for a reasonable fee. The City happily agreed, hopeful at the prospect of having a center for the arts in the community. They rented the building out for peanuts.

That first day, when the volunteers arrived at their new building to begin cleanup, they had no idea what they were in for. There’s no way they could have. But they didn’t expect this.

  Photo credit to BCAC

Photo credit to BCAC

Boxes completely filled the building - mountains of paperwork and boxes which reached four to five feet high. The only way to even walk into the building was to use the small paths which winded like a maze through the boxes and occasionally came to an abrupt dead end. The only way to begin clearing the boxes out was to climb on top of the stacks and start handing boxes down, one by one, to be taken to the trash outside - where it was snowing and sleeting. So in the heart of February wearing bulky winter coats, the small group of volunteers began the months-long process of getting the boxes out of the building.

At some point, the mayor pulled some strings to help them out. While attempting to achieve grandiose and potentially impossible dreams... apparently it helps to have the Mayor on your group board. He arranged for a garbage crew to bring a truck right to the alley - and they began loading it up. Truck after truck, week after week, they cleared out their studio.

Finally, they were finished… unpacking. Now it was time to begin renovation.

With such little funding, the board had no idea where the money would come from, but they raised as much as they could. They bought paint for the walls. They scrubbed and cleaned every square inch of the building - but it wasn’t enough. The carpet was dated, damaged, and a terrible shade of pink. The drop ceiling was badly aged and not conducive to spotlight installations.

As they stood around discussing whether paint might help the ceiling, at least a little bit, Tisha Trice asked herself what might be behind the drop ceiling. She gingerly climbed one of the tall ladders they’d been using for the paint job, and carefully peeked into one of holes of the damaged drop ceiling. She gasped. “There’s a really cool tin ceiling!”

As they removed the drop ceiling, they exposed a beautiful historic tin ceiling which was in perfect condition - although it was a horrible shade of pea green. Now their paint would actually help.

  Photo credit to BCAC

Photo credit to BCAC

Taking out the drop-ceiling and bismuth-colored carpet was nerve racking. Where would they get the money to replace it? How would they ever open their doors? Despite their better judgement, they knew they had to “go big or go home.” So they pressed on - and it was worth it.

When the County Commissioners saw their work, they were impressed. Impressed enough to donate. They contributed a new roof, soundproof rooms for music lessons, a new kitchenette, lighting, a new back door, and even signage. Their carpenter and electrician started donating some of their time to the cause. The Rotary Club chipped in and suddenly they had a gallery hanging system, a new door and a brand new stove and refrigerator. When the City representatives came to see the progress, they too were amazed. They informed the Arts Center representatives that they now owned their own gallery. Free of charge.

To this day, the volunteers at the Blackford County Arts Center are bewildered. To find themselves in a beautifully renovated building hosting successful gallery openings, recitals and plays, and to host artists from Bloomington, Fort Wayne and Carmel… it truly is a dream come true.

One time, Tisha was speaking to an artist from Carmel who was hosting his work at the gallery, and he told her, “I wish we had something like this in Carmel.” She was flabbergasted.

Everyone needs art and music. It’s so beautiful. It’s people’s expressions. It’s their inner being.
— Amy Day, Director of the Arts Center

The Blackford County Arts Center has been successful in achieving their goals on a small scale. Turnouts to events are gaining, and volunteer support has remained steady. However, their gallery is still just budding. Their dream is to benefit many, many more members of the community.

“Everyone needs art and music. It’s so beautiful. It’s people’s expressions. It’s their inner being.” - Amy Day

The Art Center has many free activities to attend, though donations are always appreciated. On the second Saturday of each month, from ten to two, they host a craft day for children ages kindergarten through sixth grade. The parents are welcome to stay and chat as the children create two or three projects which they can take home with them.

On Saturday, December 12, the Art’s Place Second Saturday will run at its usual time from ten to two, and it will be hosted in conjunction with the Downtown Revitalization Committee event, “Christmas Around the Square.” Children can attend the gallery event to make Christmas themed crafts, and when they’re finished they can join the festivities just outside on the square. Hearsay indicates that Santa Claus may be in the area that day.

 (from L to R) Tisha Trice, Leslie Newton & Amy Day  photo   by  Krystyna Rittichier

(from L to R) Tisha Trice, Leslie Newton & Amy Day photo by Krystyna Rittichier

The Arts Center also needs volunteers. Building maintenance and cleaning, like all other center functions, is a volunteer effort. More hands are needed. Event preparation, greeting - everything from hanging artwork to answering the phones is a potentially open position. To those who are interested in volunteering, know that you are sorely needed. It is the members of this community who are taking the lead in beautifying the city, and many hands make light work. To those who wish to volunteer at the Blackford County Arts Center, here’s what you do:  literally just walk in and say, “Put me to work.” The ladies there will be happy to see you.