Etheridge Knight mural unveiled in Indianapolis

A two-story outdoor mural of Black Arts Movement poet Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) was unveiled at a free public event on Friday, June 30, at the Chatterbox Jazz Club on Massachusetts Avenue in Indianapolis where Knight used to teach his legendary Free People’s Poetry Workshops in the 1980s. The mural, created by Sunrise, FL-based artist Elio Mercado, is the third in the City of Indianapolis Bicentennial Legends series, a project managed by Indy Arts Council.  

Knight, who became a poet while incarcerated in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City in the 1960s, was a regular at the Chatterbox in the late 1980s.

The Etheridge Knight mural event attracted a crowd of jazz and poetry enthusiasts and featured memories shared by Knight’s friends and family members, music by Carl Hines and poetry by Ashley Mack-Jackson and Elizabeth McKim. Mayor Joe Hogsett also declared June 30 “Etheridge Knight Day” in Indianapolis.

The Etheridge Knight mural is the third in the City of Indianapolis Bicentennial Legends series. The portrait combines visual elements inspired by lines from Knight’s poetry. The mural’s color scheme takes a cue from the cover of Knight’s Belly Song and Other Poems (1973), a Pulitzer Prize-nominated work.

Mercado was assisted by Indianapolis-based painter Kaila Austin as part of the Bicentennial Legends apprentice program.

“Etheridge Knight wielded influence both as a nationally recognized poet and as a conscientious, down-to-earth resident of Indianapolis,” Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett said. “The Bicentennial Legends series has been a great way to honor historic figures like Knight while recognizing the diverse influences that shape our present. Knight put it best in his poem The Idea of Ancestry: ‘I am all of them and they are all of me.’”

Knight was known as “Junior” to his family, and his younger sisters–Clyneese Bennett and Janice Knight Mooney, who live in Indianapolis–said they believed Mercado’s design best depicted the “Junior” they grew up with.

“Placing Uncle Junior’s portrait in the forefront with elements of his story in the background invites people to go and search for more,” Toshiko Baer, Knight’s niece, who lives in Baltimore, said.  

Mercado was one of 137 artists from 31 states who applied for the Etheridge Knight mural commission. His design was chosen by a panel that included representatives from the EK Free Peoples Be Project advisory committee and the Knight family.

“It has been a privilege to work with friends and family members of Etheridge Knight to learn more about his life and legacy and the values that were important to him,” Julie Goodman, Indy Arts Council President and CEO, said. “We are honored to partner with the City of Indianapolis on the Bicentennial Legends mural series and with artists like Elio and Kaila to create visual stories that represent the humanity, talent and courage of people who are celebrated not only in our city, but all over the world.”

About Etheridge Knight

Knight was born in Corinth, MS, but grew up in Paducah, KY. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1947, serving as a medical technician in the Korean War, but was discharged in 1950 after suffering shrapnel wounds. He moved to Indianapolis, where his family had relocated.

In 1960, Knight was convicted of drug-related armed robbery and spent eight years in the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. The back cover of his first poetry collection, Poems from Prison (1968), read: “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.”

During his career, which also took him to cities including Pittsburgh, Memphis, Minneapolis, and Worcester, MA, Knight earned Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award nominations and fellowships and prizes from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Poetry Society of America. But he always remained a community poet. 

“He took a specific experience–Black, formerly incarcerated, junkie–and made it universal through speaking in ways people could understand and by evoking what he called ‘the universality of feelings,’” according to the EKFreePeoplesBe website.

In the 1980s, Knight, who lived at Barton Tower on Mass Ave in Indianapolis, would often visit the Chatterbox, drink Budweiser, listen to jazz, and talk poetry, club owner David Andrichik told WFYI’s Cultural Manifesto in 2022.  

Knight died in Indianapolis of lung cancer on March 10, 1991. Two months earlier, more than 70o people gathered at the American Cabaret Theatre to pay tribute to him. He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery.

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