For their biggest show of the year, the artists of Know No Stranger explored the spirits of pizzas past, 8-bit party songs and visiting doppelgangers from another dimension.

The group put together a watercolor painting series about Indianapolis residents’ favorite things, featuring summer bonfires, pickles and vegetable gardens.

Their animated series and puppet shows feature characters such as Catmandude and Jamie Snodgrass, a Class-C Mulberry Scout.

The work of Know No Stranger isn’t the kind that is traditionally found in a museum. But their out-there imaginations and everyman approach to artistry has led to a blockbuster partnership with the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

The collective has been named the museum’s artists-in-residence for the next two years, allowing the two entities to work together on unique events and long-term projects that hopefully shine a light on performance-based art in the city.

“This work that’s multidisciplinary, that has theatrical basis and is also interested in visual arts and music and film, is growing,” said Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performances for the museum. “They’re right where the edge is, and it’s only growing.”

The message of the group is one of inclusiveness, that anyone can be an artist if they want to be. The name attests to the mission to use performance to break down barriers.

“We want people to know that creativity is a human experience and everyone can participate in it,” said Brandon Schaaf, one of the group members. “Everybody has a pool of creativity that they can tap into. When you get together in a group, especially, that can really come out.”

Know No Stranger is an arts collective that aims to engage people and encourage creativity. All of the participants are from central Indiana.

It includes writers, fabricators, painters, puppeteers and musicians. Though hard to pinpoint, one way the group describes themselves is as an “art gang.”

“The reason it’s so generic is we do so many things, from video to live performances to being a presence at events, installations, all kinds of stuff,” Schaaf said. “It’s hard to nail down because there are so many things at once.”

The collective came together in 2009, when a group of Indianapolis-area friends decided to use their varying skills to create a show together. The event was titled Optical Popsicle.

“It was a response to hearing people say that Indianapolis wasn’t a fun place to be or that there wasn’t anything to do,” Schaaf said. “That was something we got used to hearing, and we wanted to pass along this idea that, if you want something to do, you can make something to do.”

The shows are part original sketches and video material, part guest performances from as far away as Chicago or Nashville, and part narrative.

“It’s a visual variety show — it’s visually sweet, like a Popsicle,” Schaaf said. “It’s kind of like an episode of ‘The Muppet Show,’ where they have this problem and solve it, but until they do that, here are some vignettes.”

Trafalgar native Ryan Felton joined the group shortly after seeing the initial Optical Popsicle performance. Though his main focus is writing, he has since taken on everything from illustrating to puppeteering to performing with the group.

“I love working behind the scenes, writing these stories and building these puppets,” he said. “That’s a lot of fun, but it’s that moment where we take what we’re working on and say let’s all have a good time and inspire each other and perpetuate this creative wheel-spinning that makes it so enjoyable.”

Optical Popsicle grew into an annual event. The initial show afforded the group additional public art opportunities. They’ve participated in WFYI’s Kids in the Park and performed at the Eiteljorg Museum.

The group participated in the latest chapter of Creative-Mornings, a breakfast lecture series. Spirit & Place Festival has tapped Know No Stranger to spearhead flash mobs and activities such as a citywide game night.

“When we do a performance piece, even if we’re on stage, we’re pulling the audience in with us,” Felton said. “To surprise people into being part of the show with us, to spring that moment of whimsy on them is a really special feeling and unique experience. I’ve never felt that in any other environment.”

But it has found a true home with the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

As the group’s efforts grew in scale, it became a natural fit for the art museum to seek them out for some of their events and activities.

The museum hosted Optical Popsicle in 2014, which sold out. That success led museum organizers to expand the event to three performances this coming year, Stulen said.

Know No Stranger was invited to provide interactive entertainment during the museum’s annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

With the museum focusing more on performance and experience-based art, Stulen reached out to Know No Stranger about a more permanent role.

“We thought it would be really interesting to start an artist-in-residence program with artists who are working in that performance realm,” Stulen said. “We’re really lucky to have a group like Know No Stranger, who is local and fit that mold so perfectly.”

Know No Stranger will be one of the few performing artists-in-residence in the country, Stulen said.

The residency will last two years, and allow both the museum and the collective to develop some projects long term.

They are writing and creating original musical, which will premiere next spring. The group will host workshops during the museum’s Cirque D’IMA summer camp, teaching how to create puppets and put on a musical performance.

For a secret-themed Family Day in November, Know No Stranger is developing a slate of mystery events.

The relationship benefits both sides. Know No Stranger has the weight of the Indianapolis Museum of Art behind it when searching out guest artists or other collaborators. The museum can connect them with a larger audience than if they were organizing activities on their own.

At the same time, the museum benefits by having unique programming to attract more visitors, Stulen said.

“We’re a few months into this engagement, and from our end, it’s been great. I’m excited to see where we can go from here,” he said.

The residency comes as Know No Stranger prepares for the next phase of its existence. The group would like to become more self-sustaining, adding events and allowing themselves to do their art more permanently, Schaaf said.

One idea includes creating a model for taking Optical Popsicle to surrounding cities and states and figuring out the logistics and needs to make that happen.

“It’s something that we’ve said, ‘Wouldn’t that be amazing?’ But it becomes a reality in this partnership,” Schaaf said.

At a glance

Know No Stranger

What: An artist collective that aims to contribute a wide variety of positive, engaging and fun programming to the Indianapolis arts community, including pop-up shows, performances at charitable events, distributable video commercials, crowd interaction, and online short films.

When: Founded in 2009

Upcoming events:

Saturday: WFYI PBS Kids in the Park, Military Park, 601 W. New York St., Indianapolis, free; Know No Stranger will perform at 10:30 a.m., noon and 2:30 p.m.

July 4: Fountain Square Music Fest

Oct. 15 and 17: Optical Popsicle, Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 N. Michigan Ave.


Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.