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What does Martinsville, Indiana have in common with Belfast, Ireland? I recently found out reading a blog post called TEDxStormont – Creativity & Community Collide in Belfast by Gregg Fraley about building community through the sharing of ideas, networking, and laying the building blocks for collaboration. Fraley, coordinator and keynote of the Creative Oklahoma Forum last November and expert on how communities get started, was referencing a TEDx event in Belfast,Ireland. He had observed how the event gathered people together of varying backgrounds and encouraged them to interact with one another — sparking collaborations. A trip the next day to Martinsville, Indiana showed me a local example of how creativity is the perfect building block for a community. As the Marketing Assistant for Success Work!, my assignment was to write about the connection between creativity and the revitalization transforming Martinsville, IN.

Prior to this visit, I had never been to Martinsville, Indiana. I’d driven passed on the highway, but never really spent time in the town. That all changed when Ladi and I were invited by Ron Stanhouse to tour the town, starting with his community arts project, Art Sanctuary. Located in a converted church building, Art Sanctuary was founded by Stanhouse in 2009 and provides artist studio & gallery space and reception/banquet space and much more. The Sanctuary is an artist and community incubator, and only the starting roots in new and growing efforts to revitalize downtown Martinsville.

Courtesy of Art Sanctuary

Consider the budding artist who has always kept their artwork as an ‘on-the-side’ activity, working their day job with dreams of being able to create art full time. Art Sanctuary not only provides artists with an affordable space to create their works, it also offers a place to develop their craft, network with other artists and art lovers, showcase their work, and build their confidence. With multiple forms of art including painting, photography, pottery, and even fashion, Art Sanctuary is a great opportunity for artists to learn from and be inspired by one another. Monthly gallery events allow the artists and surrounding community members to interact and that type of engagement results in creativity and innovation in a community.

“I used to always pass through Martinsville on my way to IU,” said Stanhouse – an Indianapolis native, “before they upgraded highway 37, people used to have to drive through the main street of Martinsvilleto get to Bloomington.” Today Indiana State Road 37 runs just east of the Martinsville town area. Travelers often pass-by rather than pass-thru and this, among other factors, has led to a decline in visitors and business.

Ron Stanhouse, Founder of Art Sanctuary

Stanhouse never forgot about the towns many treasures including the Martinsville Candy Kitchen and the annual Fall Foliage Festival. “I saw an opportunity; this town has a certain charm and a lot of potential. It’s the perfect location, right in the middle of Indy and Bloomington, for people to stop and enjoy a nice sandwich or some shopping,” said Stanhouse as he led us out of the Art Sanctuary and into the town. “I started Art Sanctuary because it fulfilled a specific need in this community for artists, but my goals are much bigger for the town”.

As he led us around the downtown square, the creative energy was palatable.  Stanhouse made a point to visit the Everthings a Canvas Art Studio owned by Suzanne Lawler. We were instantly transported into a colorful studio filled with hanging portraits, shelves of pottery, and hand-crafted trinkets. In the middle of the studio/shop was a table surrounded by young girls participating in a painting class. Stanhouse noted that Lawler had begun her art business at the Art Sanctuary. She had received such support from her experiences that she decided to open her own business in the heart of downtown, just up the road from the Sanctuary.

Are these the seeds of a community in bloom? Certainly, and it would be easy for the story to end there, but the roots stretch even further. Ron shared how the revitalization was a community endeavor that he was simply facilitating. He talked about how when a group of interested individuals come together, the ideas that can result are bigger than any one person’s idea.  “My vision isn’t necessarily the best idea,” he mentioned, “there has been so much input. The more people who get involved, the more ideas we have to choose from.” But it takes an individual with a vision to make it happen and that person for Martinsville is Ron Stanhouse.

Inspired by the vision of Bloomington mayor Mark Kruzan, Stanhouse – the current owner of Crazy Horse in Bloomington, saw a chance to make a difference in Martinsville by bringing the community together with art. The Art Sanctuary encourages local citizens to take notice of creativity happening right in front of them, rather than traveling all the way to Bloomington or Indianapolis for a cultural experience. It builds a sense of civic pride in both artists and art appreciators, and opens opportunities for further projects.

“Bloomington has had a big head start in terms of tourism,” said Stanhouse. “Thirty years ago they created Downtown Bloomington, Inc. which set a mission to promote Bloomington’s thriving downtown shops, events and restaurants.” Fast forward to today and there are multiple initiatives such VisitBloomington, Bloomington Entertainment & Arts District (BEAD), and Bloomington Independent Restaurants Association (BIRA) that work around the clock to point campus, regional and even international visitors to Bloomington.  All of that progress was a result of creativity in action…people coming together with a clear vision that resulted in big ideas and successful results.

Martinsville’s response to the challenge is Rediscover Martinsville, a non-profit organization whose mission is to boost the town’s downtown to become a “vibrant center of activity” while preserving its “unique cultural and architectural heritage.” Steps to accomplish this theme have included decorating storefronts, hosting downtown events, and encouraging people to get involved. As more people are getting involved with Art Sanctuary, they are finding more reasons to be downtown, and businesses are beginning to blossom in response. But the creative process is just beginning, and I for one, am inspired to witness the transformation.

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