By Lindsay Eckert
Tribune lifestyle editor
“I’m a manufacturer at heart; I love the feel of walking onto a factory floor,” Nancy Braun said with earnest sincerity for the job that brought her to Kokomo 21 years ago.
“For both of us, there’s a certain buzz you get when you work on a plant floor,” David Braun added. “I grew up around steel mills and manufacturing always has been around, sort of in blood.”
For many, Kokomo is a city that operates on nuts and bolts. It’s a city that built its name on Delphi, Chrysler and Haynes International. Although a working factory line gives the City of Firsts its heartbeat, it’s how the city is filling its soul that gives Nancy and David Braun something to relate to on an even deeper level.
The Brauns are artists who found each other, and a passion for art developed from the products they worked with every day inside the factory walls of Delphi. The couple share impressive degrees – a master’s degree in developmental biology for Nancy and a master’s degree in engineering for David – but the endless need to create has earned them a spot in front of City Hall by creating a visual metaphor for how Kokomo is merging the arts with its history in manufacturing.
The couple build elaborate art pieces with gears, steel parts and recycled fabrication products in their basement. The same parts they used to pour over as they studied how to make them work more efficiently; the same products they used to help build cars. Their art-meets-industry style, which was honed during their tenure at Delphi, has found its way to venues in Canada, children’s museums and all over the country. However, David said, earning the bid to be the artists creating the city’s newest sculpture, titled “When the Earth Moves,” in front of City Hall is their proudest opportunity to encourage people to realize art doesn’t always require a brush.
“We were trying to think how we could get a piece together that expresses we’re all grounded to the Earth, we’re a grounded community, but we want people to see that they have the opportunity to create as well, and take that creative force to lift up the creativity in what our city is doing,” David said about the piece’s direction.
David said the sculpture is made with the parts he worked with daily at Delphi. It also represents the parts Kokomo’s manufacturers work with and see every day. It’s meant to inspire people to understand skilled trades are an artform.
“It’s a steel piece with gears and glass inserts from Kokomo Opalescent. It shows how we’re connected to the great power of Earth — as it moves, we’re moving with it — and how to tap into that resource of understanding that not everything has to be for me, not everything has to be the way you expect,” David said.
And through the unexpected, David and Nancy are making men and women who work with their hands, welding and creating automotive parts by day, artists too.
“Skilled trades are always using their hands. When we show what they can do with those skills, it creates lots of room for opportunity to make Kokomo a really unique place,” David said. “It’s also getting people to think about art differently. Art is a very creative thing, sometimes the fear of judgment stops people from going, but art is in [unexpected places].”
David said he hopes the welding and skilled trades techniques used to design and create the sculpture will not just merge Kokomo’s history in manufacturing with the arts, but also renew the history of welding, which David and Nancy say is a lost art.
“Someone who welds for a living may not even realize welding is out of folk art. We’ve lost that and welding as an art is becoming less and less,” David said. “We have immense skill trades who really know how to work with their hands and we want to help them to see that they can say, ‘I’m not going to just make a car, I’m also going to make this really cool piece of art.’”
However, like many artists, the Brauns’ vision for Kokomo welds together more than metals, the Brauns are passionate about seeing a community welded together through unexpected art.
“I wish we could have something where we have art that’s movable in different places in downtown. We could build it in a couple days and match welders with people who never welded before,” David said.
“Art can be so interactive here; it’s the experiences we see that makes art and to combine local unions with local artists would be a huge collaboration of the arts,” Nancy added. “Bringing those worlds together would spawn something great for [Kokomo’s future].”
Merging manufacturing and culture
Susan Alexander, business growth facilitator for the Greater Kokomo Economic Development Alliance, said Kokomo’s manufacturing roots have inspired artisans who are taking Kokomo into an age of culture and arts awareness.
Alexander said the community’s economic backbone in manufacturing may be its residents’ bread and butter, but it’s also becoming the dinner conversation people learn from and improve upon. Alexander points to Kokomo Downtown Farmers' Market’s newest addition as a highlight to the direction her city is moving: the Makers Market.
“It’s a natural progression for Kokomo to develop the arts here in our city, particularly the handmade arts,” Alexander said. “We have so many artisans here and while we’re manufacturing high-tech products, the people producing those products are making things with their hands. It’s a nice complement to our community to take their skills and make art with their hands. Because of that we’ve instituted a Makers Market at our downtown farmers market to incorporate the makers’ artisan-based movement that we’re seeing nationally, but here as well.”
Alexander said while many think of paintings when they think of art, Kokomo is staying true to its heritage by making art out of recycled products that stem from the factories that built the city’s economy — one piece even has a sense of humor.
“If I look at Kokomantis, I see that was made by a craftsman who knows how to weld. I love the fact it uses recycled materials and it was welded like so many of our skilled trades workers do every day,” Alexander said. “Art can really be an experience in Kokomo, and that’s what we want: We want people to come and experience and participate. We want people to learn from our community,” Alexander said.
Alexander said while the efforts to bring industry and art together to build a unique culture in Kokomo are progressing, the efforts to get people walking downtown for events, such as First Fridays where art is displayed in local businesses, have created a new appreciation for the arts.
“I think we’re at a place where we’re realizing it’s OK to appreciate the arts. We’re starting to see art as an invaluable asset to our lives here,” Alexander said. “People care about Kokomo and they want to add beauty to it; they want to take time out of their day to add beauty to Kokomo. And it certainly is beautiful.”
Alexander completes her thoughts about the arts movement in Kokomo by discussing what colors would be used to paint the true picture of Kokomo: “All of them,” she said.
And with each color that paints Kokomo a brighter future in the arts, there is a child who is getting his or her first brush stroke of something bigger than them.
Kevin Summers, Kokomo Police Department captain of code enforcement, has been teaming up with his community and Leadership Kokomo to spark something beautiful in the minds’ of Kokomo’s next generation. Summers and a handful of members from Leadership Kokomo are facilitating one of the many murals being painted all over the city (so far the city has painted seven murals total, with nine more on the books). The mural at the Carver Community Center will be completed sometime this summer, but Summers said he hopes the experience will be just the beginning of a life in the arts for the children involved.
Summers added the mural will depict the history of the Carver Community Center and include a portrait of the building’s namesake, Dr. George Washington Carver, and when the center was the Douglas School where a principal named Henry Perry helped the kids make a garden on the school’s grounds.
“We want to spark an interest in our youth and show that art can encompass all things and art can tell history [like the mural will tell the history of Carver Community Center]. Art can tell the story of how things started,” Summers said. “In addition, for children who painted this mural to say, down the road, ‘I was part of this here, I left a mark here that represents our past, present and future.’”
Summers said as a police captain, seeing kids be part of their community and have a something to point at with pride is key to building a positive culture in Kokomo for generations to come.
“We’re all going to have to pass the torch some day; we’re going to have to hand it over to our kids at some point. And putting a brush in kids’ hands and getting kids thinking with a sense of ownership of their community, you have no idea where that may take them,” Summers said. “You don’t know who will become an artist, or who will want to stay part of this community because they grew up being such a big part of it.”
Gary Rhum, owner of Rhum Academy of Music, has taught the notes of music to generations on his way to incorporating culture into the city he said he believes in so much — even when others saw it as only a manufacturing town, Rhum said he always saw it as so much more. He saw a city colored with culture, music and arts. Rhum said today he stands in his building and watches his long-lived belief of what Kokomo could be, born into a reality as Foster Park fills with people there to take part in a concert.
“It’s amazing to me, it’s almost overwhelming; I look out [at Foster Park] and I just see the whole [park] just filled with people. They’re there in great moods, great spirits and sharing together in community. When I see this community in action, I feel even more pride: there are manufacturers, artists, businesspeople, everybody is out there and they’re enjoying these times together. A few years ago people told me this would never happen. They told me I was silly for building a place so strongly connected with the arts in Kokomo. I want to say, ‘I told you so. I told you so. I told you so,’” Rhum said. “I have faith in this community, I have faith in humanity. The difference is we’re in Kokomo. There’s a community of people here unlike any other.”
Rhum’s business is the next to add to the community’s growing culture of painted murals. According to Rhum, his building will undergo power washing and priming early next month before an image that illustrates a sequence close to his heart is painted on his building.
“The mural will be the history of music. It will start with people beating on logs and work up to the introduction of electric guitars,” Rhum said. “It’s another [picture] that adds to the quality of life, showing beautiful artwork next to a park and trails. This community is taking a step above and beyond to make us a destination.”
Rhum’s enthusiasm for his community’s future never waives, as he takes a breath and apologizes if his answers were too long.
“I just get so excited talking about this stuff,” Rhum said.
It’s that excitement, captured in Rhum’s tone, the elated energy that sparks an outpouring, an energy-fueled effort to not just turn a manufacturing city into something else, but to appreciate Kokomo’s history and presence as a manufacturing city while sparking an incorporation of culture.
Beth Nataro, president of Kokomo Art Association, is a driving force for the arts through the association and its downtown location at Artworks Gallery, where the work of a different artist is showcased each month and an array of classes for all ages are held.
Nataro said it was eye-opening for the city to see the day when the manufacturing town nearly lost all of its manufacturing jobs. It became obvious a shift needed to be made to keep Kokomo alive and for it to progress into something bigger than it had been before.
“The biggest thing is utilizing what we already had and looking at it in a different way,” Nataro said of the active efforts to move Kokomo in an arts-minded direction. “We had this downtown and we needed to develop our city while capturing the past and getting on a path to getting people to take ownership in rebuilding our town.”
Nataro said events such as First Fridays, free concerts in Foster Park, the murals and bringing businesses back to downtown have all contributed to people feeling a sense of pride in Kokomo, and that pride has propelled the arts movement in a community that cares for its own.
“Arts and culture: That’s how we establish a community. You can’t have one without the other,” Nataro said.