by Evan La Ruffa
IPaintMyMind’s genesis story and trajectory, is itself a mix of inspiration and encouragement. An amorphous, creative spark that started with a broad vision that has been honed over the course of 10 years. If there’s one thing that’s been made clear to me, it’s that most worthwhile projects rarely start fully-baked, mature and strategic. The vast majority exist at the intersection of great idea and consistent tinkering, and IPaintMyMind definitely fits that bill.
After college I had the same existential dilemma most recent grads have, and after a stint working in a quaint little bookstore, I began a position doing Outreach for CUB, The Citizen’s Utility Board, an advocacy group that helps Illinois consumers save money on their utility bills. Most of my work included hosting events at community spaces all over the state of Illinois – community centers, libraries, senior homes, etc. That role gave me an outlet for working with people and helping through direct action. It filled me up in that way, by helping others. My previous work with labor unions, organizing direct actions, improving workers rights, and socio-political movements all had me primed to help.
Even though it certainly met the requirement of fulfilling my desire to address systemic issues in our society, it really didn’t tap into my love of art and music, or fill me up creatively. As someone who up to that point had always considered himself a writer, I wasn’t really writing that much. What happened next was a potent mix of encouragement & timing.
(By the way, encouragement is a FREE and a perpetually renewable resource, spread it!)
During a trip to a friend’s cabin, another friend gave me a nugget of encouragement, that for whatever reason landed with me. The friend said I should start a blog since I was always telling him about the latest album I was loving, concert I had been to, or far out art piece I had encountered. He said, “I’d read your blog, man!” At that point it was 2009 and “blogs” were already happening. Anyone with some perspective and an internet connection could publish, eroding the gatekeepers through the digital revolution, and giving folks like myself an outlet.
The friend who suggested I write a blog didn’t even know I was much of a writer (I don’t think), but after a few months of chewing on the concept, I started a blog in February of 2009 and called it IPaintMyMind.
I Paint My Mind, taken as 4 words, just like any other fun language combo, sounds cool. As a drummer and a poet, the way those words came together just moved me. I’m also hugely inspired by the way words can be linked to break open new ideas, create new possibilities, and even come together in a cadence that makes the sum so much more potent than the various parts. ‘IPaintMyMind’, taken together, ticks that box in my humble opinion. The word combination came from the lyrics in a John Frusciante song, which goes as follows:
To me, these lyrics always signified an innate human desire to express ourselves, to create, to make, to divine new solutions, and to do it together, in community. They are emblematic of the incredible activation, bond, and connection that occurs when our aliveness reverberates in others, steadily adding to the massive creative & artistic snowball humanity is responsible for. As the blog grew a readership, connected with more artists, and gained momentum, myself and a few friends began hosting art shows, live music, and film screenings in spaces around the city. Those events continued from 2010 – 2013, then increased in frequency and scope when we opened a gallery space in the Fall of 2013.
Just prior to that we had received roughly 20 pieces of art from various artists as Thanks You’s for having featured them on the website. Shortly thereafter, I saw the film ‘Herb & Dorothy’, which is about a couple that lived in Manhattan and spent one of their salaries on art and the other salary on living expenses. Once they were older, their collection began to tour the world to be shared with people everywhere. It was a lightbulb moment for me.
I started thinking about the incredible impact that a growing, accessible, rotating art collection could have if shared with communities in perpetuity. Recontextualizing the art experience would be a central tenet by displaying it in a unique way, breaking down barriers to stodgy art, and creating more opportunities for Chicagoans from every neighborhood to be inspired by art. That birthed what is now the Shared Walls Program, which leases IPMM’s growing art print collection to businesses at a fee, then uses that revenue to provide FREE art exhibitions, curriculum, and artist workshops, to deserving yet underfunded community hubs, like schools, libraries, parks, and youth centers.
The model for IPaintMyMind’s Shared Walls Program ensures that artists earn real dollars on the front end, while IPMM accumulates an asset that not only increases in value, but also perpetuates the program and the mission while sustainably funding our continued program expansion without the typical pitfalls that belie most small to medium sized nonprofits.
Since 2013 we’ve worked with partners like Adidas, LinkedIn & DocuSign, and have been able to bring our programs to neighborhoods in every corner of our city, installing 80+ art galleries in local communities, displaying thousands of pieces of local art in Chicago’s neighborhoods, paying out tens of thousands of dollars to local artists, and giving businesses an incredible service that provides incredible art and an impactful give-back for IPMM clients.
2019 saw us expand to Detroit, MI and we’re working hard to expand the program to new markets while focusing on bolstering our connection with the communities we serve by offering additional program touchpoints like Professional Development Workshops for local Art Teachers.
As we grow our client and partner list and continue to tell the story about how we’ve built a nonprofit arts organization with a sustainable model, it’s our responsibility to activate you, our partners, clients, and supporters, to embody our mission & feel our impact.
To anyone who reads this, the world needs your big idea. Follow that thread. Flesh out that idea. Write it down, speak it, start it. No matter what your moon shot is, go for it.
As I reflect on why I’m leading this organization and why I am called to do this work, I can’t help but think about the artists, teachers, and do-gooders that have inspired me throughout my life. From a creative and empowering school environment, to inroads for inspiration, and outlets for creation, what this is really all about, is ensuring that everyone in our society has access to the moments that stop us in our tracks, access to the creative experiences that stop time, inspire us, and get us thinking about ourselves, the world, and our collective future, in a brand new way.
Thanks for painting your mind with us.
Sincerely, Evan La Ruffa
FOUNDER & EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
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