SOUTH BEND — More than 220 local artists flood the South Bend Museum of Art’s galleries with their works, all created since 2020, to celebrate the museum’s 75th anniversary.
We spoke with four from the “Around the Bend” exhibit that’s up through June 26. They surprised us with unusual tales of becoming artists.
Nearly every artist that submitted works was selected. Coming from seven counties, Curator Mark Rospenda said, the wealth of art “gave me a whole new sense of pride … to see artists I’d never seen before.”
Tracy L. Brown, aka TaTLZ
Tracy L. Brown of Mishawaka turned to art out of a hardship. And she’s learned never to control her creative flow again. Her artistic name, TaTLZ, stands for The Artist Tracy LeeZarah; LeeZarah is her middle name.
Q: How did you get into art?
A: I thought I was going to be a writer. I write poetry and things like that. … I was writing a book, and it was going very, very well. I was 85% finished with it. At some point, I decided I needed to hurry up and finish it (in 2014, four years after she started). I forced myself to write. And, at that point, my characters lost their identity. It was like a death. It was physically painful to me. One day I was sitting, emoting, when the Holy Spirit told me: “Do art.” … That Sunday, I was watching “Sunday Morning” on CBS. It talked about an artist and his success. After work (a few days later on June 18), I went to the art supply store and came home and started drawing and painting. That first night, I did about 30 pieces. It was like somebody took a bottle of soda and shook it. It came out so fast. At that point, I decided: This is what it’s about. By July, I had about 400 pieces. … I’m still telling stories, but I do it through visual art.
Q: Did you let the book go?
A: I never finished it. I still have it. I don’t know. It’s not front and center.
Q: Were you self taught as an artist?
A: Yes. I was always doodling before.
Q: Why did you want to be in this exhibit?
A: I like that we as Midwestern artists are given the opportunity. That’s high praise for an artist (to be in a museum’s exhibit). That’s the Grammy’s.
Q: Why did you make these two pieces for the exhibit?
A: The first thing I created was a tortoise. I was curious: Why? Then it popped in my head: Oh, the tortoise and the hare. (So she made the hare piece.)
Q: You used mixed media. What went into them?
A: For the tortoise: oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel, ink, marker, corn starch, talcum powder, gelatin and $5 eye shadow. For the hare: oil, watercolor, acrylic, epoxy, glycerin, corn starch and ink.
Q: Why such a mix?
A: It’s my meditative space. I don’t plan. I just follow where it goes.
Alex Ann Allen
In just the past few years, Alex Ann Allen’s colorful, striped and geometric murals have popped up on such downtown South Bend businesses as J2 Marketing and the Monroe Street galleries. But the artist also does portraits with warm bursts of color.
Q: When did you become an artist?
A: My whole life. But I’ve been doing it full time for three years as a source of income.
Q: Did you go to art school?
A: I’m self taught. I was working in factories. And then I decided to give it my all and definitely haven’t looked back.
Q: How did you learn?
A: Practice and consistently doing things. I’m just starting out. … Art school is very expensive. I would have loved to go. I can’t afford going into debt.
Q: How did you get into painting murals?
A: Three years ago, someone referred my name. I didn’t know I was going to paint murals until that project. It just felt right. Things started to take off very slowly. With every year, I began to take it more seriously and be more professional with it.
Q: You also do many portraits. In fact, your piece in “Around the Bend” is a portrait of Khalin Diggins. Who is he? And why him?
A: Khalin rents the studio across the hall from where I rent. He’s a friend and musician, and I wanted to paint him. I want to paint people holding their heads high. I want to make my friends shine.
Q: Your murals are very abstract and geometric with a rainbow of colors. Your portraits, in aerosol, oils and acrylic, also use a range of warm colors in somewhat geometric patterns. What guides you?
A: I’m drawn to perspective and gradients. It never gets boring to me. I love to bounce back and forth between portraits and abstract. It’s fun.
Q: What else are you working on?
A: I’m also curating a mural festival in July. There will be five new murals going up in downtown. Not mine. I’ve been organizing this for a year. I want to diversify the art scene. South Bend needs more murals. … My goal is to have a lot of kids come (treasure hunts are in the works). … We’ve got all the funds. The artists are ready. The city is helping to fund it.
At age 72, David Allen regularly paints outside, taking on the most ordinary urban scenes, from alleys to the St. Joseph River. He’s been painting since he was a teenager in South Bend while he’s often earned a living in factories. He isn’t related to Alex Ann Allen.
Q: How did you become an artist?
A: I used to draw in church (as a boy). My mother would bring us some pencils and paper and Cheerios to keep us quiet. I had paint-by-numbers. … When I was 14, my father bought me some oil paints. … I did go to IU (South Bend in the early 1970s). I never got a degree. I went for the girls and fun. I cherry-picked the art department (classes), and that was it.
Q: What attracted you to art?
A: I couldn’t do anything else. I don’t think you’ll find most artists choose to be an artist. It’s more of a calling.
Q: The late local artist Harold Zisla played a key role as one of the early directors of the South Bend Museum of Art, as well as the first chairman of the fine arts department at IU South Bend. You credit Zisla with mentoring you as an artist for 40 years, both in the classroom and in casual conversations about living a responsible life. What did Zisla teach you?
A: He taught me: Stay amused until you die. He was incredibly funny and inquisitive. … You will find an astonishing number of people who had Harold Zisla as a teacher or were influenced by him. … I was an incredibly shy person when I met Harold Zisla. I watched Harold and listened to Harold. He gave me confidence in many ways.
Q: Why do you paint neighborhoods?
A: There’s not a neighborhood in South Bend I haven’t painted. I’m not doing anything unique. There’s a long history of urban painting going back to the turn of the century. … That’s what’s there. That’s my reality. … I think you should explore the reality of your foundations. That’s where you live. … The last few years, most of my paintings have been within 1,000 yards of my home. … Don’t look for it. Just let it hit you from an oblique angle.
Q: Why did you want to enter the “Around the Bend” exhibit?
A: Why wouldn’t I enter this show? Why wouldn’t an artist take advantage of being in the museum?
Elle Velazquez moved from Milwaukee to South Bend a few months ago and noticed a need for diversity in the arts.
Q: You write poetry, paint and do some performances in drag, but you’d studied dental hygiene in college. How did you learn art?
A: I did not go to art college. … I was very little, probably 6 or 7, when I joined a Mexican folklore dance team in school (back home in Mexico). We’d perform for holidays. I also started singing. My background is all over. They provided clay (for ceramics) in school. I would make flowers and vases. I’m a very emotional being. I’ve always written down my feelings. Once I moved (to the United States at age 11) and finished college, I was able to pursue all of the passions I had when I was little.
Q: Why did you want to be in this exhibit?
A: I’m giving myself permission to be creative. … I sometimes see a lack of diversity. I believe we need more representation out there — brown people, queer people. I consider myself trans (gender).
Q: Your piece in the “Around the Bend” is like a Mexican ofrenda, with two narrow shelves on either side of a digital screen that shows your poetry in English and Spanish. Explain what’s happening.
A: This comes from a very deep place in my heart. It’s an experience of nostalgia if you want to fall in love the Mexican way. … I wanted to show that, with everyone, there is a way of loving. … On the top left, you see my mom getting married in a Catholic church. … You see my grandparents. My grandparents have indigenous roots. That’s why I show indigenous sweets. You see the molcajete (traditional stone tool) to make salsa. My mom — she is so sassy and so expressive, like salsa. Food is emotional. We use it to express love in Mexico. … You see mariachi figurines with a bottle of tequila. People would drink and scream love songs.
• What: “Around the Bend”
• Where: South Bend Museum of Art, 120 S. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., South Bend
• When: Through June 26
• Hours: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays
• Public reception: 5 to 8 p.m. May 6 with artists from the exhibit. Local artist/musician Eli Kahn will do a brief performance at 6:30 p.m. with his “How Are You? No, Really … How Are You?” exhibition in the adjoining Art League Gallery.
• For sale: Much of the art is for sale, unless it’s marked as part of a collection. All proceeds go to the artist.
• COVID protocol: Masks optional
• Admission: Free
• For more information: Call 574-235-9102 or visit southbendart.org.
This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: South Bend Museum of Art’s 75th anniversary draws artists unique Q&A