GREENFIELD — Pamela Bliss barely had time to let the paint dry on the “Tall Tales” mural she painted in downtown Greenfield this summer before starting a second mural on another building just a block away.
The Indianapolis artist is putting the final touches on her latest work — a portrait of the poet James Whitcomb Riley — which graces the north-facing wall of the former Dance East Ballet studio at 28 N. East St., now home to Passtime Fabrics.
The building sits just across from the Hancock County Memorial Building, southeast of North and State streets. The mural will serve as an anchor for the upcoming Riley Literary Trail.
Greenfield’s city planner, Joanie Fitzwater, said the site was chosen for its high visibility to those traveling south on State Street.
“Our goal was to create really beautiful murals on all four sides of the downtown, serving as gateways into the historic district,” said Fitzwater, referring to the Downtown Greenfield Mural Committee.
The group of 10 or so civic and community leaders have been working for the past several years to make that vision a reality.
Their first project was “A Barefoot Boy,” a colorful creation based on a Riley poem by the same name, painted on a building across the parking lot from Lincoln Square Pancake House. It was painted by Los Angeles artist Andrew Hem in 2018, serving as a gateway to those coming into town from the west.
Their second was the “Tall Tales” mural on the three-story blue building at the southeast corner of Main Street and American Legion Place, serving as a gateway from the east.
The Riley mural is the third, serving as a gateway from the north.
The committee already has plans for a fourth mural to go on the south-facing wall of the building at 9 American Legion Place, which faces the Hancock County prosecutor’s office.
Another artist has been tapped to paint that mural, which will take on the appearance of a wall-sized bookshelf filled with books.
Committee leaders were thrilled when Bliss — a nationally known muralist — agreed to paint not one but two murals in downtown Greenfield this year.
The artist said she’s driven by a desire to convey a community’s heritage through her art, which is exactly what the Riley mural was intended to do.
Riley was born in Greenfield in 1849, and lived here for several years before moving away and becoming a nationally renowned poet.
Bliss’s newest mural is meant to serve as an anchor for the future Riley Literary Trail, which is set to break ground next year, creating a cultural trail through downtown Greenfield celebrating the city’s heritage.
The 24-foot-tall mural shows a middle-aged Riley with his signature round spectacles and black top hat. To the right of his visage is an excerpt from his poem, “Wet Weather Talk.”
Bliss — known for her larger-than-life portraits of Reggie Miller and Kurt Vonnegut in downtown Indianapolis — said she had long wanted to paint a mural of Riley in Greenfield.
“Every time I go into a town I think about what asset the town has that sets it apart, and for Greenfield, it’s James Whitcomb Riley,” she said. “I guess I thought about it long enough that I manifested it into happening,” she joked.
Bliss started on the Riley mural Oct. 30 and is now working on the final detail work. She hopes to be done in time for the artist reception to be held from 5-7 p.m. Nov. 18, at the Twenty North Gallery in Greenfield, which provides a clear view of the mural across the street.
Fitzwater said that Stellar Community funds awarded by the state in 2018 helped cover a portion of Bliss’ $7,000 fee to paint the mural, in addition to funds from the Hancock County Tourism Commission and the Riley Old Home Society. She also credited the building’s owners, Jeff and Linda Congdon, as well as Greenfield Main Street, for making the project possible.
Bringing art like this to the downtown historic district not only enriches the community, she said, but brings the city one step closer to creating an arts district that will benefit the community for years to come.
Creating an arts district is a huge undertaking, said the planner, and a consultant may have to be brought in to lead the process. The Indiana Arts Council will also be an invaluable resource, said Fitzwater, as will other cities who have successfully created arts districts around the country.
“I think an arts district certainly attracts artists, which then attracts art lovers,” said Fitzwater. “It’s just a great way to revitalize and invigorate our downtown, and it’s an economic driver as well.”
A key component is focusing on an aspect that makes the community unique, she said, “and for us, that’s James Whitcomb Riley. He is something that makes Greenfield different from everybody else, so we think he should play a very important part in our culture and our history.”