New downtown mural pays homage to Miami Nation of Indiana

·5 min read

Aug. 15—A face emerged on the side of The Foxes Trail on Friday.

Towering roughly 60 feet tall, Kokomo's newest mural was dedicated Sunday afternoon. The street-facing mural at 305 S. Main St. depicts Sarah Siders Bitzel, a member of the Miami Nation of Indiana, looking toward the sky and praying.

The mural is a testament to the Miami Nation of Indiana that once occupied the land that The Foxes Trail now sits on. The project was organized by The Arts Federation and Kokomo community members.

Sunday was the first time Siders Bitzel had seen the mural. Her main involvement with the project was meeting with the artist, Thomas "Detour" Evans, to model for photographs and tell Evans about the Miami Nation of Indiana.

The first thing the model noticed about the mural was the turtle necklace she was wearing in the painting.

Siders Bitzel's grandmother had been the secretary of the Miami of Indiana for decades, the model explained. Now, Siders Bitzel holds the same position.

The necklace shown in the mural had been passed down to Siders Bitzel from her grandmother. The turtle at the base of the necklace, she explained, was a representation of her family.

"Being a representative of the Miami Nation of Indiana I've done, pretty much, my whole life. So it's not really anything that feels any different," Siders Bitzel said. "But to be able to contribute to the city of Kokomo and to the community here in such a manner is a great honor."

A crowd gathered across the street as the dedication organizers prepared for Sunday's event. Multiple pedestrians stopped to speak with the artist before the speakers called him over for some photos. A handful of the passersby had already met Evans and simply wanted to compliment him on his work.

In a Friday phone interview, Tetia Lee, CEO of The Arts Federation, explained the project was first considered in 2020. Then, after receiving a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a team was built by local Arts Federation representative Robin Williams to discuss how the mural should be executed.

The local team included J.C. Barnett, Maynard Eaton, Sally Tuttle and Janie Young. Each of the members, Williams said, were selected for their efforts in social discourse.

"Even though we do have public art, we have Artists Alley and we have all of these things to appreciate, we're not seeing art as a pivotal force in terms of social discourse and social justice," Williams said in a Friday phone interview.

It took several meetings to settle on the content and location of the mural, Williams said, adding social discourse was kept in mind through every stage of the process.

"I think it shows not only something that needs to be celebrated and venerated in this community, but I think we're going to be able to, with this project, take what's possible with public art to higher heights," Williams said.

Initially, the group had considered using the likeness of Chief Kokomo, who the city is named after. However, the group wanted to show the Miami Nation's ongoing presence in Indiana.

Chris Ward, co-owner of The Foxes Trail, explained he was also proud to see a woman depicted on the building. Linda Lucas, he said, is the main owner at The Foxes Trail.

"It's a female owned business," Ward said. "And we thought that it would be important to project female Native American presence downtown."

Williams explained the group also decided to use a living member of the Miami Nation of Indiana because Evans prefers to work with live models.

Evans explained Friday his process started by meeting with Siders Bitzel and asking her to pose for different photographs. The artist said he prefers to take his own photographs because his vibrant abstract portraitures require contrasting shadows and highlights.

"She told me about how, when she participates in powwows, there's a part where they look to the sky and close their eyes. It's praying," Evans said. "I really liked that pose because it had a little more meaning to it."

After taking the photograph, Evans painted the mural's background on Thursday and layered the model photo over a photo of the building. He then marked where certain points would be on the wall and filled in the rest. The process, he explained, is called a doodle grid. The wall's bricks helped him make sure everything was level.

He started work on the Kokomo mural before noon each day and would continue until dusk.

"It's not as hard as just tedious," Evans said of the process.

Evans said he began developing his vibrant portraiture style in 2014. He was frequently painting live at the time and would only have 5 to 8 hours each day to work on a piece. The time restraint led to him using the paint straight out of the bottle, rather than mixing the paint.

Other than the challenge of working around obstacles, he also enjoys working on murals because there's a public element.

"It's going to be there for a long time. People walking by, going to work or going home, they're going to see it and get a message from the wall," Evans said.

Evans explained most of his work is connected by community elements. He prefers to do portraits of community members, rather than famous figures.

"I've always been community oriented," Evans said. "It's just a natural direction for my work."

Evans is a board member at RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver, Colorado, where he lives. He volunteers with the organization to help open art spaces for the community's homeless population and visits schools to teach students about art.

Roughly half of Evans' murals are outside of Denver. The new mural on The Foxes Trail was his first in Indiana. His visit to Kokomo was also Evans' first time visiting the state.

To celebrate his visit to the "City of Firsts," Evans was given a set of coasters that had the town's name and depicted iconography representative of the city.

"It was a blessing to be able to come here and to learn about a community that I didn't really know existed before," Evans said.

James Bennett III can be reached at 765-454-8580 or james.bennett@kokomotribune.com.