The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum’s new exhibition both explores the art of the racing helmet from the 1930s to today and highlights local creatives and artists.
“Sleek: The Art of the Helmet,” which opened Tuesday, showcases 27 different racing helmets, split up in three distinct categories — historical, contemporary and commissioned pieces by Indianapolis-based artists — to tell stories that have never been told before, guest curator and local creative Amiah Mims said.
Mims, the museum’s first guest curator, was tapped for the project when its first phase began in February. She said the overall idea was to feature artistic renditions of helmets and unite fans of racing and art who would not normally blend.
“This exhibition is a first-time in a lot of senses,” Mims said. “It’s a first-of-its-kind in terms of exhibitions like this for the museum. It’s the first time that the stories have been told. It’s the first time some of these artists have been in this racing space. So I just hope that visitors get to see racing through a different lens.”
Paired with the Indianapolis Arts Council, Mims and the speedway issued an artist call-out to get exhibition applicants, and nine artists were selected to create unique rendition of a racing helmet.
The various artistic disciplines and experiences with the speedway brought about differing interpretations of helmet design. Vice President of Curation and Education Jason Vansickle said artists had full creative control over what they decided to display.
“One of our goals was to not outline, in any way, the helmet design or stipulations,” Vansickle said. “So, we let them go wild.”
The helmets will be auctioned off online in December, with some proceeds given to the artist and the remainder supporting the museum.
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Meet the artists
Conceptual artist and sculptor April Knauber said her helmet’s inspiration came from the artists’ tour of the speedway during which she noticed a bunch of people looking at the track. She learned that before they do a race, the drivers look at every imperfection on the asphalt that may impact their performance.
So, she replicated the track’s texture by using thick applications of red paint. To achieve a three-dimensional feel, she replaced the helmet’s interior with a bright neon orange fabric, allowing the color to pop from behind the clear visor.
“We all have such different designs and different ideas,” Knauber said. “So, it’s neat to see it all come together.”
Visual artist and illustrator Shaunt’e Lewis’ bold interpretation has striking lines reminiscent of her own unique style.
Lewis said she wanted to incorporate women into the design, but when she started doing research, she looked for inspiration in women of color who were race car drivers, but she found not many drivers have been women of color, let alone women.
So, in her design, she included a portrait of a woman, in addition to vibrant, energizing colors, lines and checkerboard pattern much akin to a checkered flag.
“It was hard to find women at all, so I definitely wanted to reflect that in my helmet, as well as the flowy colors, incorporating the speed of racing with the speed of color and tying those two things in,” Lewis said.
She said she hopes her helmet inspires people to follow their dreams, even if it is not something mainstream and traditional for one’s gender.
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While some artists maintained the typical helmet shape, some took an unconventional approach.
Self-taught metalsmith and jewelry maker Nancy Lee said she knew she wanted to incorporate leaves in her design, and after learning Indiana’s state tree is the tulip poplar, she walked around her neighborhood in search of poplar leaves to use as models for size and line definition.
Then, she constructed leaves and stems out of enamel on copper wire, fired in a kiln and attached to her green-painted helmet. The leaves, in addition to the poplar flower on the chin, protrude from the headgear, giving it more dimension.
“The whole idea is the leaves look like they’re blowing back in the wind, and then it’s a nod to my roots and the roots of the race,” Lee said.
Lee’s roots are represented by the Schwitzer logo she placed on the back of the helmet, which pays homage to the Circle City Industrial Complex, where her studio is located. The CCIC was built by Louis Schwitzer, who won the very first race — not the first Indianapolis 500 — at the speedway. The race was just two laps.
Lee said she feels honored to be an artist selected for the exhibition.
“I think it’s really forward-thinking to loop artists into an area where we wouldn’t normally be seen,” she said, “which is at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in the museum.”
While this was the first time creating art on a helmet for many creatives, for designer Austin Polen, it’s just what he does at his day job.
With his Polen Designs company, Polen is behind the helmets of a number of INDYCAR, NASCAR and NHRA drivers, including Noah Gragson, Jack Harvey and Alex Laughlin. He describes his style as aggressive, while also maintaining the sleekness and speed of racing.
His contribution departs from his usual style of work, ditching the vibrant colors for something more conceptual. The halves of his helmet are bisected by an airbrushed strip of brick, paying homage to the speedway’s original bricks.
“After coming to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a kid, and to now have my helmet in the museum, it’s sort of like a dream come true, honestly,” Polen said.
If you go: Sleek: The Art of the Helmet
Sleek: The Art of the Helmet is located in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, located at 4750 W. 16th St. Indianapolis, IN 46222 and open from 9-5 p.m. daily. The exhibit will run until Jan. 8.
Admission to the exhibition is free to members and is included in general admission tickets to the museum.
You can reach Pulliam Fellow Griffin Wiles at [email protected] or on Twitter at @griffinwiles.