When Malina Simone Jeffers heard about IndyHub's 5x5: Urban Love Affair competition, offering $10,000 to the best artistic project pitch, she decided that it was the perfect opportunity to "expose Indianapolis to Indianapolis."
The 5x5 competition series seeks out art exposure projects that are meant to embrace and progress the culture of Indy. To Jeffers, this meant finding and highlighting local artists in a photographic art exhibition that she called "I am an Artist." Fifteen of the portraits graced a variety of downtown windows, from shops to buses, while the rest popped up in "surprising places" around the city, like on paper advertisements, fliers at Starbucks.
"It featured alternative artists, or artists who maybe aren't getting as many projects because of their mediums or because of what they look like," says Jeffers. "I wanted to challenge our perception of who can be an artist, and I wanted to paint a positive image of people of color."
Having recently founded Mosaic City, an organization that aims to diversify, equitize and grow the cultural scene of Indianapolis, Jeffers firmly believes in celebrating different ethnicities and backgrounds, rather than trying to not see them. For the purpose of encouraging residents to be constantly reminded of this, Jeffers decided after the big exhibition in October, the portraits should become relatively portable.
"We chose to highlight 52 artists so that the photos could be turned into playing cards that will be sold by Silver in the City in time for the holidays," she says.
With so many artists to find, Jeffers reached out over social media to see what ideas friends and residents of Indianapolis had to offer.
"I started with about 30 artists in mind," she explains. "Then I put out a notice on Facebook that we were looking, and I left it open for recommendations. It brought in that public component and got more people involved."
Once the 52 artists were confirmed, Jeffers hired photographer Mallory Talty to conduct the photo shoots.
Talty describes herself as someone who loves to participate in unique projects, and she considers the "I am an Artist" exhibition one of them.
"I'm always down for projects that are different," Talty says. "Mali randomly came into my studio and said, "I have this idea.' It was an incredible way to show off the artists."
"We shot [every artist] all over a three-week period," Talty explains. "It was an intense process with every shoot on location and with people rescheduling. But it was really cool to go into people's spaces, where they did art, and had their materials. It was cool, as an artist, to meet a ton of artists that I didn't know were here and to know that they can make a career here, too."
As the project photographer, Talty affirmed that shooting each artist in his or her choice of location was challenging to schedule, but ultimately added to the overall authenticity of the project.
"I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own space; in their own studio where they work," Jeffers says. "Some of them didn't have specific places. We had one who was photographed in Crown Hill cemetery because that's where she feels inspired."
Jeffers got quite a lot of practice balancing project management: setting up the master schedule, working with Talty and the artists as well as setting up locations to hang the posters -- all while getting to know the artists on a more personal level.
"We would spend 20 minutes actually doing the shoot and then 40 minutes just talking with the artist," Jeffers says.
Once the shoots were done and the window spaces reserved, Jeffers had the posters up for the entire month of October. She was pleased with the overall responses: one artist, an actress, was asked to help judge youth talent shows with Community Alliance on the Far East side, another artist was discovered because of the project and now has a teaching job with a prominent Indianapolis art organization, and two venues asked to keep the posters up past the official end date because they were constantly being asked about them.
"I would keep seeing kids (preteens and teenagers) walking over to the Double 8 intersection to look," Jeffers says. "I wanted to show them, too, that there are different career options outside of the 'standard' jobs."
Jeffers succeeded in gaining exposure for the artists to the general public, but also connected them to each other. The portraits can be viewed online and will be available for the holidays in playing card form at Silver in the City on Massachusetts Avenue.
"I hope that it changes perspectives and stereotypes; how we think about people. Sometimes people are intimidated or don't know what to do with them," Jeffers says. "With this project they can say, 'Wow, I didn't know this artist existed!'"