INDIANAPOLIS — Bruce Armstrong has been painting murals on the billboard at the corner of Central Avenue and 30th Street since 2012. The longtime Indianapolis artist, perhaps more recognized by his signature "Bruce A." started putting thought-provoking phrases on the large woodenboard shortly before Trayvon Martin's death.
"A lot was going on then," Armstong told WRTV. "I kind of started putting the shortest phrase 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 woodenplatform he took to painting 10 years ago. He's rented the exposed-brick studio for the last couple of decades after he retired.
"Love it, love it, love it!" Armstrong said of retirement life.
The 79-year-old has been making art his whole life. He says he's always challenging himself to learn something new.
"I do a little of everything. Realism, abstraction, charcoal, acrylic, sculpture — a broad range. Just really exploring the various mediums," Armstrong said.
Despite his breadth of artistic abilities, his latest work on the north-facing display panel is honestly quite simple.
An equation in white font is presented on a black background: "10+21+?"
It's a basic painting with complex meaning, demanding what is, perhaps, an even more complicated answer.
"As we all know, a month or so ago, we had 10 that was in Buffalo, that was massacred. And then in Texas, we had 21 that was massacred," Armstrong said. "In my mind, I said, 'This is gonna keep going,' you know. And so, using my board here, I said, 'What can you put up there to draw attention to this?'"
Armstrong says the biggest part of this equation is the question mark.
"The question mark, it brings about that element of, 'What can we do?'" Armstong said.
Armstrong says with each word, phrase, or call to action he puts up on the board, he's "pushing to gain a question" in return. A question for a question, if you will.
Armstrong explained that he believes if people push deeper; if we engage in critical conversations by first asking questions, we'll find we're more alike than we think, and we will find common ground — and maybe even a solution.
"Sometimes we get too busy, and we think about the conclusion and not thinking about how we can affect the whole," Armstrong said.
The artist says when the corner of 30th and Central became a four-way stop in recent years, traffic slowed. It allowed for folks to actually look around, particularly at that billboard.
"So I said, 'You know what, in their (passersby) busy day — whether it be good, bad or indifferent — if I put something up here enlightening, maybe their day changes for the better,'" Armstrong said. "And so, I looked at the corner, and I said, 'You know, you can put something up here to create a question, which brings about a conversation.'"
Armstrong has done only about a dozen paintings on the billboard over the last decade. He said he's painted a justice flag, the word "VOTE" in 2020, and right before the latest equation, he painted a mural titled "Try."
"That gives you an indication of 'Try what?'" Armstrong said. "I'm pushing to gain a question with what I put up here."
Armstrong hasn't had a lot of people figure out it's him behind the art on this billboard, but when they do, some call to talk.
"All of them have been total strangers," Armstrong said.
Each conversation went well, Armstrong said, even when they started confrontationally.
"I had one gentleman call because I had a flag up here. And I had written 'Justice' on it, you know, now justice is very broad. But when he talked to me, he said, 'That flag, it could look demeaning,' by his interpretation. But the minute I said, 'Well, I'm a Vietnam veteran, 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 just by being in the service. And then the questions became more general, and we were able to have a nice conversation, you know?"
At the end of the day, Armstrong hopes his art at 30th and Central enhances the viewer's day, and it leads to a thought-provoking conversation. Whether with yourself or with someone in the community.
"Every now and then, I would get a call, and they said, 'Are you Bruce A.?' and I said 'Yeah, I'm Bruce A.' And they said, 'I love that piece up there!' And I said, 'Fantastic! I hope it enhances your day.' That's my objective," Armstrong said.
You can see more of Armstrong's work and meet him at the French Market on Saturday, Sept. 10, where he will have a booth. He is also part of the organization "WE ARE INDY ARTS."
WRTV Digital Reporter Shakkira Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter, @shakkirasays.