INDIANAPOLIS – Since 2012 Bruce Armstrong has painted murals on the billboard on the corner of Central Avenue and 30th Street. The longtime Indianapolis artist, perhaps most recognized by his signature “Bruce A.” began putting thought-provoking phrases on the large wooden plank shortly before Trayvon Martin’s death.
“A lot was going on back then,” Armstong told WRTV. “I started putting the shortest sentence I could come up with on the board to draw attention to maybe a solution, maybe a question.”
Armstrong’s art studio is across the street from the wooden platform he used to paint 10 years ago. He’s been renting the brick studio for the past two decades after he retired.
“I love it, I love it, I love it!” Armstrong said of the retired life.
The 79-year-old has been making art all his life. He says he always challenges himself to learn something new.
“I do a little bit of everything. Realism, abstraction, charcoal, acrylic, sculpture – a wide range. I’m just really exploring the various mediums,” Armstrong said.
Despite his breadth of artistic skills, his latest work on the north-facing display panel is honestly quite simple.
An equation in white on a black background is presented: “10 + 21 +?”
It is a basic painting with a complex meaning, requiring what is, perhaps, an even more complicated answer.
“As we all know, about a month ago, we had 10 who were in Buffalo, who were massacred. And then in Texas, we had 21 who were massacred,” Armstrong said. “In my mind, I said, ‘This will go on,’ you know. And so, using my board here, I said, ‘What can you put in there to draw attention to this?'”
Armstrong says the most important part of this equation is the question mark.
“The question mark determines that element of ‘What can we do?'” Armstong said.
Armstrong says that with every word, phrase, or call to action he puts on the board, in return he “pushes to get a question.” A question for a question, if you like.
Armstrong explained that he believes if people go deeper; if we engage in critical conversations by asking questions first, we will find that we are more alike than we think and we will find common ground and perhaps even a solution.
“Sometimes we’re too busy thinking about the conclusion and not thinking about how we can affect it all,” Armstrong said.
The artist says that when the corner of 30th and Central became a four-way stop in recent years, traffic slowed down. It allowed people to look around, especially that billboard.
“So I said, ‘You know what, in their busy (passersby) day, whether it’s good, bad or indifferent, if I put something enlightening here, maybe their day changes for the better,'” Armstrong said. “And so, I looked around the corner and said, ‘You know, you can put something here to create a question, which provokes a conversation.'”
Armstrong has made only a dozen paintings on billboards in the past decade. He said he painted a flag of justice, the word “VOTE” in 2020, and just before the last equation, he painted a mural titled “Prove”.
“This gives you an indication of ‘Try what?'” Armstrong said. “I’m pushing to get a question with what I put in here.”
Armstrong hasn’t made many people realize that he was behind the art of this billboard, but when they do, some call to talk.
“They were all complete strangers,” Armstrong said.
Every conversation went well, Armstrong said, even as they began to confront each other.
“I got a call from a gentleman because I had a flag up here. And I wrote in ‘Justice’, you know, now justice is very broad. But when he spoke to me, he said, ‘That flag, it might sound demeaning,” according to its interpretation. But the moment I said, “Well, I’m a Vietnam vet, are you a service guy?” And he was a service guy, “Armstrong said of the conversation.” That changed the dynamics. We found the common denominator only in being in service. And then the questions got more general and we managed to have a good conversation, you know? “
At the end of the day, Armstrong hopes his art at the 30th and center will improve the viewer’s day and lead to an inspiring conversation. Both with yourself and with someone in the community.
“Every now and then I would get a call and they would say, ‘Are you Bruce A.?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’m Bruce A.’ And they said, ‘I love that piece up there!’ And I said, “Great! I hope it improves your day. “That’s my goal,” Armstrong said.
You can see more of Armstrong’s works and meet him at the French market on Saturday 10 September, where he will have a stand. He is also part of the “WE ARE INDY ARTS” organization.
WRTV digital reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at [email protected] You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.