When Valparaiso was named as a quarterfinalist in the American Best Communities Competition in April of 2016, the city was awarded a $25,000 prize to go toward various initiatives they had in store. At the top of the list was building its long-awaited downtown arts district, an effort that culminated in what is now a community with a focus on arts and culture. This is thanks to organizations like the Valpo Creative Council and its president, Nicole Upton.
For Upton, this large-scale plan to make Valpo the creative and artistic area it is today was years in the making. An artist since childhood, Upton has had her hands in a variety of artistic forms, from painting to writing to theater.
“I know the effect the arts had on me as child,” Upton said. “My life work has really been about ensuring that all our kids, whether they’re here in Valpo, or in Chicago where I work, have access to a robust arts education as part of their educational experience.”
Upton attended Northern Illinois University for her undergraduate degree in comprehensive theatre studies, then went on to receive a graduate degree in educational theatre from New York University (NYU). She has used this area of study in her life and career outside of theatre, specifically in equity building and accessibility to the arts and arts education for her job at Ingenuity, a nonprofit arts organization in Chicago. As Director of Partnerships and Professional Learning, Upton works closely with art education partners in Chicago Public Schools to develop city-wide strategies to strengthen students’ learning of the arts.
“My whole professional career has been in arts education,” Upton said. “It’s really important work to me.”
When Upton moved to Valpo six years ago with her husband, a professor at Valparaiso University, she saw the opportunity to push forward the unique culture that could be found throughout the city.
“The vast and diverse offerings that we have is what stands out to me,” Upton said. “When I moved to Valpo six years ago, I was not aware of everything that was available. We have major performing arts institutions that have such a strong hold on the city. We have so many unique artists and makers and unique opportunities to display that work. That’s the most exciting thing; the chance to showcase that diversity.”
So, when Valpo was awarded the $25,000 prize from America’s Best Communities Competition, there was momentum to create the downtown arts district the community had always wanted.
“The result of the competition was a really intense plan with 34 different actions around Valparaiso Creative District,” Upton said. “We had three major themes: Create, Explore, and Celebrate.”
The Valparaiso Creative District Plan, born from the ValpoNEXT Citywide Vision Plan, outlined the creation of the Valpo Creative Council, a collective with the goal to enrich the community by promoting, developing, and supporting local efforts, artists, and organizations. In its young life, the council has implemented exciting changes in the community by doing exactly what its mission says—partnering with organizations and local artists to promote events, activities, and culture happening throughout the city.
But as the Council began executing these changes in Valpo, it became clear that only so much could be done if the community did not know where to find information about these organizations, artists, and upcoming events. So, the Valpo Creative Council Portal was created. The Creative Portal is a website where community members can find local artists, organizations, events, and activities in one accessible place.
“It allows those organizations and artists to amplify what it is they are doing and connect members of the community to those different activities,” Upton said. “They can search by different categories, or by different art forms. They can search by discipline, as well. We have everything from calls for art and audition notices, to performances and concerts, to even summer camps.”
That access to information, classes, and organizations has been vital in the years since the Valpo Creative Council was created, thanks to Upton and her team of volunteers’ dedication to ensuring everyone has the opportunity to engage with art in all its forms.
Outside of work, Upton does what she can to be creative in her everyday life, as well. She recently became a certified yoga instructor here in Valpo.
“I’ve always been a yoga person, but it wasn’t until I moved here to Valpo that I found a studio that really aligned with the values of meditation, movement, and mindfulness that I focused on,” Upton said. “It’s a really beautiful community of people who are supportive of one another and do their part to amplify love and goodness around each other.”
Along with yoga, Upton makes jewelry—something she sees as tied to her yoga practice. Using crystals and materials that promote wellness and healing properties, she is able to use the art form as a way to stay creative and mindful.
For more information about the Valpo Creative Council, please visit their website at https://www.valpocreates.org/.