Massachusetts Avenue may look a little different starting this week, as a new mural capturing the life and legacy of Indy-based poet Etheridge Knight will soon be unveiled.

The two-story mural will be unveiled in a ceremony on June 30 at the Chatterbox Jazz Club, 435 Massachusetts Ave., beginning at 5:30 p.m. The unveiling is open to the public and will feature shared memories from family members, a poetry reading from Elizabeth Gordon McKim, Knight’s longtime partner and author of the memoir “Elizabetheridge,” performances by Indianapolis-based poet Ashley Mack-Jackson and Carl Hines jazz trio, said Julia Muney Moore, director of public art for Indy Arts Council. 

“It’s just basically a celebration of Etheridge and then really kicks off what’s going to be the next two years of activities that will serve to activate the mural,” Moore said. “And really, the whole idea is to try and get people who are unfamiliar with him before to really start to get into his poetry.”

Knight grew up in Paducah, KY and moved to Indianapolis to be close to family after being discharged from the military due to injury during the Korean War. Knight got his start writing poetry professionally during his eight-year incarceration in the Indiana State Prison System and later became an influential part of the Black Arts Movement, said Hanako Gavia, assistant director of the Center for Citizenship and Community at Butler University and spokesperson for the Etheridge Knight family. 

Knight is best known for his first published volume of poems “Poems from Prison,” released in 1968.

After his release, Gavia said Knight spent a lot of time at the Chatterbox Jazz Club Downtown hosting the Free People’s Poetry workshops — a venue that will now bear the mural memorializing his life and legacy.

“I think that instead of just seeing him as just a resident, it really shows how influential he was in the poetry community nationally and internationally,” Gavia said. “And also gives us pride as an Indianapolis resident that he was a native here and that he has ties here in Indianapolis.”

Gavia is one of Knight’s nieces, and although she was only one year old when he passed away in 1991, she said she grew up knowing him not as the legendary poet but as a family member — something she said the mural aims to share with the City of Indianapolis.

“I think for us, it’s not just him as an individual but us as a family and our family legacy,” Gavia said. “I know him through stories of my family … When I see his image, I see my grandfather, I see my aunts, I see my family members. So, it’s really not only representing him as a family member and getting his flowers in his honor but all those people that he touched.”

The mural honoring Etheridge Knight is the third in the City of Indianapolis’ Bicentennial Legends series — which aims to showcase those who “embody the City of Indianapolis Bicentennial Commission’s guiding principles: History, civic pride, innovation, and legacy,” according to the Indy Arts Council. The first two murals in the city depicted Major Taylor and Madam C. J. Walker.

“I think when you see someone’s face really big in your city, you kind of have to understand, and you should be curious about who they are and what they did and why they’re important,” Moore said. “Etheridge Knight knew and he understood that what you experience every day is art, that is who you are, and that art can help you understand what your reality is.”

Extensive care and consideration go into the creation and execution of each of the murals in the series, and Gavia said the family was very intentional about who they selected to paint the mural memorializing Knight.

Elio Mercado, a Dominican artist from South Florida painted the mural of Black Arts Movement poet Etheridge Knight. (Photo provided/Indy Arts Council)
Elio Mercado, a Dominican artist from South Florida painted the mural of Black Arts Movement poet Etheridge Knight. (Photo provided/Indy Arts Council)

Elio Mercado, the artist selected for Knight’s mural, was chosen out of a list of hundreds of artists across the country, Gavia said. She said the family was intentional about choosing an artist of color to do the mural, and Mercado’s vision of who Knight was outside of a poet — who he was as a person, as “Uncle Junior” — aligned with their vision.

“Hearing him (Mercado) speak about his inspiration, how much thought he put into it, the work, and also my family feeling like Elio captured who they thought of when they thought of Uncle Junior — or Junior in our family — that was the image that came to mind the most,” Gavia said. “And him being that person, that kind person, they were like, ‘That’s the kind of thing that we want the city to know him as; that we want to remember him as.’”

Gavia said preserving Knight’s legacy goes beyond the mural and encourages people to keep reading his work, keep talking about his life and legacy and bring his memory back to the community. She said Knight was a good example of proving you do not have to be perfect to make a difference.

To future generations, Moore said she hopes they feel inspired by seeing the mural and that they have a desire to learn more about Knight, read his poetry and find relevance in their lives today — maybe even find their own voice as well. Moore also said she hopes that the placement of Knight’s mural at Chatterbox sparks an interest in the history of Massachusetts Avenue beyond its gentrification and current boutiques and nightlife.

Contact staff writer Chloe McGowan at 317-762-7848 or Follow her on Twitter @chloe_mcgowanxx