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Public Art With A Message And A Mission

There’s a new sculpture in downtown Nashville, Indiana. It’s the first of what Elder Heart hopes is many projects that unite veterans and community members.

soaring, close up

Front And Center

Sheila Dollar says the best way to see downtown Nashville, Indiana is to hop on board her Nashville Express Train Tour.

“We point out a lot of things in cubby holes that people didn’t know existed,” she says.

She drives past the Main and Van Buren intersection at least ten times a day. That’s where the Brown County Visitors Bureau is located. On a July evening, that part of the street was blocked off, as hundreds of people watched the dedication of a new sculpture.

Soaring is an 18-foot tall steel structure comprised of 22 maple leaves. The leaves are painted red, orange, yellow and brown to represent Brown County in the fall.

“We’re proud to have it down on our main street right now,” says Bob Kirlin, president of the town council in Nashville. “It’s sort of a signature for our arts and entertainment district.”

But this sculpture is more than just a celebration of the beauty of Brown County.

The group behind Soaring is the Nashville-based Elder Heart. Over the past year, they organized twenty veterans and other volunteers to work with artist James Connor on the construction of the piece.

Art With Heart

Magnus Johnson is the founder and president of Elder Heart. He points to the plaque at the base. It explains why the sculpture includes 22 leaves. That’s how many veterans committed suicide each day in 2010.

[pullquote]I was the one that wasn’t engaged. I was the one that wasn’t involved. I was the one expecting people to understand. Then I discovered how much of an impact art could have if harnessed.[/pullquote]

Johnson’s interest in public art developed after his military service ended. He did a tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2011. When he returned, he felt isolated and disconnected from the community.

“I was the one that wasn’t engaged. I was the one that wasn’t involved. I was the one expecting people to understand,” he says. “Then I discovered how much of an impact art could have if harnessed.”

Specifically, in bridging the gap between vets and their communities.

Get Connected, Not Healed

Johnson still feels the effects of anxiety and irritability, but he’s not diagnosed with PTSD. He says he doesn’t need a doctor to help him cope. In fact, he finds that word cope problematic. He puts it in the same category as broken and even disabled. Words like those make him feel boxed in.

He also pushes against the assumption that making art can be therapeutic.

“That’s what a lot of people tend to think, the art healed you. That’s kind of arrogant to think that,” he says.

Elder Heart does not make assumptions about the role art plays in vets’ inner lives. Instead, they see public art as a way for vets to get connected with their communities.

The Full Story

Back on the Nashville Express, Sheila Dollar has added a new line to her script to bring visitors’ attention to the new sculpture.

“Notice our new addition to town, the beautiful Soaring sculpture there, made by local veterans and local artists,” she says. “I hear a lot of oohs and ahhs as we go past it.”

But those visitors will have to hop off the train and read the plaque to get the full story behind Soaring.

This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. Art Works.

NEA logo

Annie Corrigan

Annie Corrigan is a producer and announcer for WFIU. In addition to serving as the local voice for NPR's Morning Edition, she produces WFIU's weekly sustainable food program Earth Eats. She earned degrees in oboe performance from Indiana University and Bowling Green State University.

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