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A message from the Department of Public Words: "You Are Beautiful"

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A message from the Department of Public Words: "You Are Beautiful"

Eastern Pulaski Elementary students show off the self-portraits they created for a "You Are Beautiful" mural.

Maybe you haven't heard of Department of Public Words (or DPIndy). The nonprofit was incorporated little more than a year ago. But you've likely seen their handiwork: The YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL sign atop Fountain Square's Murphy Art Center that has greeted passersby for seven-plus years.

Originally built with large capital letters in plywood, the sign was installed by Holly and Dave Combs, now the executive directors of DPIndy. It was only supposed to be up for 30 days, but no one told them to tear it down. And the city, as well as the new owners of the Murphy, fell in love with it.

But it needed a freshening up. "We went up on the building and observed that the decay was much worse than what we had actually thought," Holly says. "We've been fundraising all year for that and we were just able to, a month ago, replace those letters with metal letters."

While the sign — Holly prefers the term "installation" — predates the incorporation of DPIndy, it anticipated the nonprofit's mission. To quote from, the Department of Public Words is committed to "using the power of positive words to build, sustain, and empower community through strategic arts partnerships, mentorships, events and education."

"All the arts organizations that we saw had art as their goal — creating art — and for us it was never really about that," says Dave. "Art was a side effect of teaching kids positive life skills. So we used art as a gateway, to get our foot in the door. And then we would teach kids that they are awesome."

The process starts with a collaborative art project like the "crowd art mural." Participants draw their self-portraits, which the Combses then incorporate into the letters of a positive message. These letters are then digitally printed and installed in the school or community center.

One of these crowd murals sits in DPIndy's studio at the Murphy, located in the second floor space formerly occupied by Big Car, another nonprofit engaged in collaborative art projects.

"[The public school students] are learning the proper proportions of the face," continues Dave. "And it builds some confidence in the kids, especially if in middle schools they're like 'Oh, I'm so ugly.... I can't look at my own picture.' At the end we have kids saying 'I am beautiful.'"

You can see another example of DPIndy's artwork along the Monon Trail between 52nd and 54th streets. The 600-foot mural, called The Love Trail, was realized with the help and guidance of St. Louis-based stencil artist Peat Wollaeger.

'We used over 300 volunteers over four months of planning and painting," says Holly. "There's over 280 positive messages throughout the 600 feet."

But DPIndy's most powerful and innovative program may be "Don't Label Me." Holly discussed it in her TEDx Indianapolis 2014 talk, describing the destructive labels she was saddled with in school ("dyslexic" happened to be one of them) — and how these formative experiences have influenced her life's work. Participants are asked to write down the negative labels that they've been given throughout their lives — and then tear them up and write new ones.

"About five years ago, I started working with juvenile offenders," says Holly. "Those are the people we really seek to serve in the Department of Public Words. And I have now worked in 90 percent of all juvenile detention centers in our state. And I kept thinking, 'How can I use my personal story to help these students who have gone through the worst life experiences.' And I started thinking about the idea between how we're labelled in society and the connection that has with stickers."

Ultimately, the Combses hope there will be a Department of Public Words in every major American city. But before that, they hope to raise funds to accomplish a more modest goal: making sure you can see the YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL sign in Fountain Square at night. Installation of low-maintenance, solar-powered LEDs would cost $5,000. Donations are being accepted at Maybe the Department of Public Works can lend a hand.

Get involved

Visit DPwords' studio in the Murphy Art Center (Ste. 215) on Feb. 6 during First Friday. Or consult for information about the organization and volunteer opportunities.

Writer Arts, Faith & Equity

Having lived and worked in Indy on and off since 1977, and currently living in Carmel, I've seen the city change a great deal. I love covering the arts in all its forms, and the places where the arts and broader cultural issues intersect.