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Installation of Booker art moves to July 14: Nine works sprinkled downtown were inspired by auto industry, Madam Walker, among others

June 16, 2008

Now the city is ramping up to show off 10 pieces from New Yorkbased artist Chakaia Booker-all but one of which she is creating specifically for Indianapolis. Set to roll out July 14, the ambitious outdoor show features nine pieces Booker came up with after three visits to the city.

One existing piece, a 6-foot sculpture made of steel and tires that resembles a palm tree, will be installed at the Indianapolis Art Center's ArtsPark.

Her new work was inspired by long talks with a local historian about topics such as the Underground Railroad, Indianapolis entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, the city's once-thriving jazz district and-of course-its auto-racing legacy.

"This is the first time [Booker] has created this many large, new sculptures," said Janis Gardner Cecil, director of Marlborough Gallery in New York, which represents Booker. "It's absolutely inspirational for her to be working in the city center itself, to be creating work that is a dialogue with the city."

The 55-year-old black artist is known to be media-shy. Booker wasn't immediately available for an interview. She's swamped, Cecil said, making the sculptures, which also feature steel and tires.

Having tailor-made pieces makes the show more interesting, said Mindy Taylor Ross, director of public art at the Arts Council of Indianapolis. "It's really pushing [Booker] in a new direction in her career," she said.

But it's also a tougher job to organize. Booker's work originally was scheduled to hit town in May, tying it into the hubbub around the Indianapolis 500. Fabrication delays pushed that back to mid-July.

And unlike previous public art exhibits, the work won't be done in time for thumbnail images to be included in promotional brochures and maps.

While Booker's studio has built the steel frames into which she weaves cut and molded tires, most of the works are not complete. As a result, maps merely will show where the pieces will go and describe Booker's work.

Plus, it's harder to get the artist to promotional events.

"She's not as available because she's focused on completing the pieces," Ross said.

Despite those challenges, Ross thinks the creations will be a hit.

"Her work is more challenging" because it's abstract as opposed to representational, Ross said. "People find that exciting."

But the Indianapolis show may be some of the more literal work Booker's done. For example, "Plus or Minus?" planned for the southeast corner of Washington and Meridian streets, resembles a lantern and may be illuminated.

Or, there's "Take Out" by the City-County Building, which resembles a large, tire-covered frame. Viewers see one take on the world while also becoming part of the scenery for those looking from the opposite side.

Ross said the artist also may paint a footprint trail from Union Station to that intersection, mirroring the northern migration of blacks and tying into the city's role in the Underground Railroad.

That's a topic Booker discussed in depth with local history researcher Dona Stokes-Lucas during a walking tour of the city. Stokes-Lucas told Booker about Underground Railroad stops that dotted the city, a speech President-elect Abraham Lincoln made downtown from the Bates House balcony and about Madam Walker.

The Indianapolis Cultural Development Commission, which is funded from a Lilly Endowment grant, paid for the $250,000 exhibition. Booker will receive $140,000 directly to help cover the costs of creating the works, which she will own. The remaining funds will be used to ship, install and promote the sculptures.

Michelin North American donated the non-radial tires Booker uses in her sculptures. The exhibition will be removed on April 1, 2009.
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