Three locals lending talents to state’s ‘Bison-tennial’

Huntington artists (from left) Katrina Mitten, Katy Strass and Angela Ellsworth apply the brown undercoat on the life-sized, fiberglass statue of a bison on Thursday, April 7, in Schenkel Station, before adding more colorful decorations depicting Huntington County’s history and culture. The project is in conjunction with Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration this year.
Huntington artists (from left) Katrina Mitten, Katy Strass and Angela Ellsworth apply the brown undercoat on the life-sized, fiberglass statue of a bison on Thursday, April 7, in Schenkel Station, before adding more colorful decorations depicting Huntington County’s history and culture. The project is in conjunction with Indiana’s Bicentennial celebration this year. Photo by Rebecca Sandlin.

Originally published on April 11, 2016.

Three Huntington County artists are lending their talents to say “Happy 200th Birthday, Indiana” by painting a five-foot-tall fiberglass bison, adding to a herd of bison that will be seen throughout Indiana this year.

The project is the brainchild of the Indiana Association of United Ways, which has launched a statewide “Bison-tennial” public art project in each of the state’s 92 counties, in partnership with the Indiana Bicentennial Commission.

“We at Indiana Association of United Ways are excited for this new and unique way to engage with our communities across the state,” says Sarah Nahmias, newly-elected board chair of the Indiana Association of United Ways. “We believe this project will be a chance for counties to display their county pride and individuality while simultaneously boo-sting awareness about Indiana United Ways and Funds’ community efforts and initiatives.”

Three Huntington artists, Katrina Mitten, Katy Strass and Angela Ellsworth, have been charged with decorating the county’s fiberglass bison and the base upon which it will stand once completed. At the moment, the statue is housed at Schenkel Station in downtown Huntington while the artists sand it, apply gesso, a brown acrylic base paint and then decorate it with other colors.

Mitten, a distinguished traditional and contemporary beadwork artist, has had her work exhibited across the country, including the Eiteljorg Museum of Native American and Western Art in Indianapolis, National Museum of the American Indian in New York, NY, and the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.
Strass, who is Mitten’s daughter, also works in printmaking, graduating college with a degree in art from Indiana University Fort Wayne.

Ellsworth owns Black Dog Studio. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts from IPFW and is a recipient of the Winger Award. She has been working as a printmaker and commercial and fine artist for more than 25 years and is the artist-in-residence at the Parkview Boys & Girls Club of Huntington County.

Mitten says the bison’s design will largely be kept secret until the official unveiling. However, Huntington County United Way Executive Director Jenna Strick says the artwork will emphasize three main aspects of Huntington’s culture, both past and present.

“The theme is going to reflect our heritage, so there will be some symbols of the Miami Indian tribe,” she says. “And we’re also going to display the canal and the railroad, kind of going back to when Huntington was getting its start and what put Huntington on the map.”

Mitten and Strass are members of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, the project marking special significance in their heritage.

“One of the main reasons I jumped on board, I wanted to be a part of the buffalo,” Mitten explains. “The Forks of the Wabash is our family home. Our family lived there up until just before my mother was born. So from the time it was built until the early 1930s – for over a hundred years our family lived in the houses at the Forks of the Wabash. It was very important for me to showcase what the Miami people have to do with Huntington County. We have a great history here.”

Strass says she, too, is excited to contribute to the project.

“It’s an honor to be involved in something that’s going to be there for a while,” she says. “I feel like I’m contributing to my community.”

Ellsworth’s family also has strong ties to the community via the railroading industry, which will also be reflected in the bison’s artwork.

“Most of the men in my family worked on the railroad,” she explains. “My great-great-grandfather worked the railroad that went from here to Detroit, and came into this depot every two weeks. My family would meet him here and they would have a big celebration every two weeks. My great-great-grandmother didn’t want to leave Huntington and move to Detroit, so he just came back every two weeks, would be home for about three days then gone again. So that has a significance for me to be able to paint it in this depot.”

However, Mitten says the entire county will be represented, either on the body of the bison or on the base upon which it stands.

“It’s going to be a total transformation,” Mitten says. “It’s going to represent everyone here in Huntington County … It’s not just the city of Huntington. There will be something that’s going to represent everybody, with pride, from Markle to Andrews and Bippus.”

The artwork began about two weeks ago and should be completed by the first week of May. After the acrylic paint has dried, it will be clear-coated to protect it from the elements. Mitten says the group is hopeful a local auto body or repair shop will step up to donate the clear coating treatment.

A ceremony to reveal the bison to the public will take place in conjunction with the LaFontaine Arts Council’s fire hydrant painting project, Monday, May 30, at 2 p.m. at Rotary Park. The event will kick off both the fire hydrant walk as well as the bison. It may reside at the park for a week or two, Strick says, but will make the rounds throughout the county during its festival season. The bison will also be one of a herd that will be highlighted along the Bicentennial Torch Relay route, with a torch ceremony planned at Hier’s Park on Sept. 30.

Ellsworth says it’s a great opportunity to exhibit the art where everyone can see and appreciate it.

“We don’t have too many public art things in the community, so this is a way to kind of bring something more out into the community,” she added. “It’s going to get seen by a lot of people, and just to be able to have that art aspect is important.”

The statue will eventually find a permanent home on the grounds of the Forks of the Wabash. The artists say visitors to the historic site should look for the bison to be “grazing” in one of the park’s garden areas.