by Jim Walker

Big Car started in a classroom, a newsroom, a bathroom. It was early 2004. I was working several jobs to piece together a living for our young family in Fountain Square. One of those jobs was teaching creative writing on Saturday mornings to IUPUI students, many my age or older, who really wanted to learn. I also worked as staff photographer at NUVO Newsweekly, allowing me the chance to meet lots of great people in the arts, government, and philanthropy in our city. I snapped their pictures, heard their stories, visited their offices and studios and homes. And many became my friends, too. On top of all that, I spent every day with a staff of multitalented writers, designers, and artists right there at NUVO.

In the middle of that mix, a small group of artists, writers, designers and musicians — pulled together from these circles —began working to make creative things happen in Indianapolis. Instead of sitting around and complaining about the cultural offerings our city lacked, we started making things happen. We started by renting a tiny studio — formerly a bathroom — in the Murphy Art Center in Fountain Square for $135 per month. We stuck a handmade sign on the door that said “BIG CAR.”

Soon, we moved from the bathroom into a larger studio space, pooling our money and sharing the room with belly dancers, a visiting artist from Hungary and a local record label, to make rent. Meanwhile, we brought First Fridays to Fountain Square and worked hard, then as volunteers, to do what artists can do to help turn our neighborhood around. That happened. And Big Car continues to thrive in this friend-based, collaborative, multi-disciplinary, yes-saying way.

After a few years of operating mostly as a board-run all-volunteer organization, a handful of big-vision people helped us grow up and into a full-fledged nonprofit. First, Ken Honeywell hired me to work for him at his new marketing company in Fountain Square. There, I was able to split my time venturing into nonprofits myself, including working on Big Car, while also learning about nonprofits from the inside by writing about Well Done’s clients, including LISC and their quality of life plans. In 2009, Big Car received a $50,000 GINI Imagine Big grant from the Indianapolis Neighborhood Resource Center. With the guidance of Marc McAleavey, then at the INRC, we completed social practice projects in eight neighborhoods — all with no paid staff time. Then we found Service Center in Lafayette Square and began receiving support from the Indianapolis Foundation and enjoyed the mentorship CICF’s president, Brian Payne. At that same time, the Allen Whitehill Clowes Charitable Foundation began supporting us too.

Then, Jeremy Efroymson, of the Efroymson Family Fund — who, along with the Arts Council of Indianapolis, was the first to back Big Car in early years — granted us a three-year gift so I could begin working as our first full-time employee and executive director. This grant that started in 2011, allowed me to focus on Big Car programming, fundraising, and strategy. Soon, we received a similar two-year grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust and hired Anne Laker, also one of our founders, as our full-time program director. Upon the suggestion of Michael Twyman, then of Pulliam Trust, we began a fee-for-service design program that allowed us to bring our creative director, Andy Fry, also a Big Car founder, on staff full time. Also in 2011, David Forsell of Keep Indianapolis Beautiful connected us with Lilly Day of Service and Sherrie Bossung of Eli Lilly & Co., who leads this effort. Since then, we’ve enjoyed many public art projects in partnership with Lilly, including one in 2014 that had us complete community-engaged murals in 10 cities across the Unites States.

Note: a version of this essay by Walker appeared in Sky Blue Window in 2014.