By Keith Knepp
NAPPANEE — Nine years ago, Jeff Stillson put into motion a vision he had for his hometown: to bring colorful art to the streets of Nappanee.
What began as a personal project for this multimedia artist has become part of the grander design for the Elkhart County city. Located on Oakland Avenue is the half-mile long “Art Path” which currently features approximately 130 sculptures designed by local artists. The sculptures all had a turn to grace the sidewalks of downtown Nappanee before being retired to the Art Path.
Stillson’s initial sculpture project involved large half apples, each around 3 feet tall and uniquely painted by a local artist to represent the apple’s sponsoring business or individual donor. His vision came from similar projects that had been appearing in much larger cities, utilizing objects that were representative of their particular locale.
The apples spent four years as part of the downtown landscape before Stillson and others in the community began wondering, “What’s next?”
He was approached by Nappanee Mayor Phil Jenkins, who proposed the idea of an arts commission for the city, from which the Nappanee Arts Council soon became a reality. Since its inception, the council has been busy making Nappanee an arts-friendly community.
The Nappanee Arts Center, managed by Stillson, became a physical manifestation of the council’s collective vision, offering a place for artists of all ages and abilities a place to create, using a multitude of mediums.
The other thing the council did was to further Stillson’s original apple sculpture plan with an annual replacement of the public display. Since the apples, there have been six themed displays of sculptures, all sponsored by local individuals, businesses and corporations and created by area artists. The projects receive no taxpayer money and are completely sustained through donations, contributions and revenue garnered through sales and classes that take place at the Nappanee Arts Center.
For each installation, the artists are given a theme, from which they are free to create a sculpture as they see fit. Since the original apples, the themes have included “Flower Gardens,” “Junkyard Dogs,” “Woodland Creatures,” “Tour de Nappanee” and “Love is in the Air.” The display that currently dots the sidewalks is “The Touch of a Butterfly,” which will remain in place until September, when it will be moved to the Art Path for permanent display. It will be replaced by a new project, “Outta this World,” which will feature 19 original works currently being created by the artists.
Last month, the arts council officially installed “Nappanee’s 100th Sculpture,” which sits on the south end of the Art Path, just outside its arched entrance. While it was not the 100th sculpture installed in the walk, it was commissioned and designed prior to the last set of sculptures being moved to the Art Path. The centennial work was a collaborative creation by Stillson and Jennifer Tompos and includes a waterfall and butterfly.
Stillson’s plan is for the Art Walk to become a regional destination for appreciators of art. Visitors can walk the paved path, enjoying each of the seven pods of art projects. As future displays are retired from their downtown locations, they will be moved on to the Art Path, creating an even larger display for people to enjoy.
“We’ve seen foot traffic in the area grow threefold since we installed the Art Path,” said Stillson. “We see it as a vitality project for the city. We’re working with the Elkhart County Convention and Visitors Bureau to advocate for us as a destination for visitors to the area.”
Stillson also gave credit to the Community Foundation of Elkhart County for providing matching grants for each pod of sculptures. Without its support, Stillson said the Art Path would not be possible.
This fall, the Nappanee Arts Council will hold its second annual “Trails and Treats” event to highlight the Art Path. A date has not yet been finalized, but the event will once again feature food, entertainment and fun. Last year’s event drew more than 1,500 people to the Art Path, and this year Stillson anticipates an even larger gathering.
For further information, about the Art Path and the Nappanee Arts Center, click here.