Fort Wayne, Indiana: Why Anyone Who Loves Art Needs To Visit

Art is everywhere in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

I didn’t specifically come to the city to take a trip to The Bradley’s powder room, but when my friend emerges excitedly from the ground-floor facilities at the hotel, I’m curious to find out why she’s so animated.

“You have to see the bathroom!” she exclaims.

The front desk clerk laughs. “We actually get that a lot. The restroom’s custom-designed wallpaper is a Vera Bradley exclusive for our hotel only.”

Moments later, I’m staring at a restroom wall covered with bold floral print dominated by peonies and cardinals, Indiana’s state flower and bird. Tucked into the navy blue background, there are illustrations of the Fort Wayne skyline and a classic Vera Bradley handbag. The pattern inspired a product line with the same design sold only at the hotel’s retail shop.  

Vera Bradley, one of the most iconic homegrown fashion brands in the country, is adored for its quilted cotton bags with bold prints, slung over the shoulders of women and men everywhere.

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More than $3 million worth of product ships from the company’s Fort Wayne headquarters every day; not bad for a female-run business that started on a pingpong table in co-founder Barbara Bradley Baekgaard’s basement in 1982.

The Bradley is a personal labor of love for Baekgaard, who partnered with Provenance Hotels to open the city’s first boutique property, located a few blocks from the confluence of the St. Marys, St. Joseph and Maumee rivers. 

The 124-room and nine-suite hotel brims with sophistication from Birdie’s, a Miami-style rooftop bistro with views overlooking the city, to a rotating collection of local art in the main-floor gallery curated by the Purdue University Fort Wayne Department of Art and Design. Artwork from more established artists is sprinkled throughout the lobby and in guest rooms.

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I’m particularly drawn to a series of paint-dipped frames in the lobby created by Theoplis Smith III, aka Phresh Laundry, who is known for his pop-culture-inspired artwork. In addition to painting a series of trees hanging in the hotel restaurant, he is also one of the many talented creatives who have painted the town with larger-than-life murals.

“I am fluent in airbrush, acrylics, aerosols, screenprinting, Photoshop and anything that I can get my hands on,” Smith says later when I happen to meet him at Utopian, a coffee bar at The Landing in Fort Wayne’s historic center where he teaches an art class. “I’m a quiet person, but art is my way of talking.” 

His work speaks loudly on the side of several buildings, including an exterior wall across the street at Mercado, where we sip on mezcal margaritas on the patio of the Cali-Mex restaurant. Smith’s mural on nearby Pearl Street, meanwhile, depicts a dog watching the domed Fort Wayne Courthouse melt atop an ice cream cone. 

Armed with an interactive Google map from Visit Fort Wayne, we set out to discover more works of art along the Fort Wayne Public Art Trail. There’s a cluster of map pins in a two-block radius known as the “Double Plus,” located south of West Berry Street between Harrison and Calhoun.

I am not one to wander down back alleys, particularly after dark, but this area has numerous works of art commissioned by Art This Way, which operates under the umbrella of the Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District. 

The highlight is 77 Steps, a light installation designed by Kelty Tappy Design, a local architecture firm. Hundreds of tubes with programmed colored LED lights gently sway above our heads while we count the number of footfalls it takes to walk the length of the 150-foot alley. 

As you may have guessed, we counted 77, before taking a few extra steps to grab a bite at 816 Pint & Slice, a local hangout with a patio in yet another colorful alley in Fort Wayne.