Updated: August 18, 2013 6:10AM
“The arts are not a frill. The arts are a response to our individuality and our nature, and help us to shape our identity. What is there that can transcend deep difference and stubborn divisions? The arts.
They have a wonderful universality. Art has the potential to unify. It can speak in many languages without a translator. The arts do not discriminate. The arts can lift us up.”
— Barbara Jordan
Karren Lee, 66, is the president of Miller Beach Arts & Creative District. She has been married to husband Patrick for 47 years. They have raised two adult sons. Our interview took place at the Marshall J. Gardner Center for the Arts, at 540 Lake St.
“ Neagu,” she said. “My grandparents came from Romania.”
Born and raised in Gary?
“I grew up in Lake Station. It used to be East Gary. They tried to distance themselves from Gary by changing the name of the town. Growing up in East Gary was interesting. There were no classes; it was all working class. I’m the daughter of a steel worker. Everybody was in the same boat at school or in the community”
Other positions you’ve held?
“I’ve worked a variety of jobs through the years. I was the retail advertising manager at the Post-Tribune for 10 years and also was the general manager of a manufacturing firm for almost 10 years.”
Besides your duties as president of Miller Beach Arts & Creative District, what else keeps you occupied?
“One of my very favorite places to donate my time is to the Nazareth Home, where we take in at-risk babies. They are babies that might have cerebral palsy or alcohol syndrome and their parents can’t take care of them. It’s located right by the Poor Handmaidens of Jesus Christ. I’ve spent probably 12 years giving time and money to that organization.”
Are you a member of the Catholic Church?
“No, I’m actually an atheist. My boys went to a Jewish elementary school and a Catholic high school because they were the best schools. My oldest son attended a Quaker college. My son in Maryland is a member of a Universalist Church out there. My boys are accepting of others beliefs.”
“We’ve had the building two years now. It was formerly Miller Drugs and donated by the Gardner family. We gutted it and then put up plywood, drywall, lighting and painted it. All this was done by volunteers. Miller is a do-it-yourself community
“We’re not an art organization, we’re an art district. We’re not saying this art is good or that art is good. We’re just bringing art here so people with all different tastes and ideas can come and look at it. That’s our function. We don’t promote any one particular thing. We’re letting the community decide what they want to see. We’ve pulled from 400-700 people on the street for some of our events.”
“Miller is such a wonderful area because of its ethnic diversity. I love Miller. You name it; it’s here. We manage to get along most of the time.”
In June, as part of the Lake Effect Summer Expo, you had 40 graffiti artists transform 19 surfaces on or near Lake Street.
“Yes; Ish Muhammad organized the whole thing. Graffiti art has become mainstream. Some people think of it as a bunch of gang bangers, but it’s not. If you really stand in front of it, you can see the quality of the art.
What’s on the horizon?
“From July 29 through Aug. 1, we will have 10 Tibetan monks doing a sand painting here on the gallery floor. If you watch them do it, it’s an amazing, slow process. It takes them days.
“When the monks are done, they will sweep it up and put it into the lagoon. The peace and love that they put into their art will go out into the world.”
Were you a hippie back in the “Psychedelic Sixties”?
What else does the district have planned?
“Everything from the Northwest Indiana Symphony playing at Marquette Park on Aug. 3 to monthly movies shown here at the gallery.”
“There’s a lot of interest in what’s going on in this town because its been down so long. This is the first step toward the rebirth of Gary. We are the model. Then we’ll take it to the Glen Park area or the Tolleston area or wherever. That’s our goal; to bring back the city one neighborhood at a time.”
During our chat together Lee told me about visiting Wynwood, a run-down, abandoned warehouse district in Miami. In 2008, an artist by the name of Tony Goldman purchased and turned one of the buildings into a gallery and courtyard. He transformed the windowless walls of the warehouses into blank canvasses for the many national and international graffiti artists who flocked to the area. In five years, it went from abandoned to the most happening part of Miami with galleries, restaurants, bars and boutiques.
Could Gary become the next Wynwood? A Phoenix risen?
If folks like Ish Muhammad, Lee Botts, Cullen B. Daniel, Corey Hagelberg and Karren Lee continue to roll up their sleeves, it certainly could – one neighborhood at a time.
The arts do not discriminate; they elevate.