In the search for a symbolic representation of Indiana, it doesn’t get more spot-on than a cardinal with a crown of corn riding on a race car.

Southside resident William Denton Ray was trying to design a sculpture. The idea had to be based on Indiana history and culture.

He envisioned the central concept of a cardinal, Indiana’s state bird. From that starting point, ideas spilled out of his imagination.

“I thought I’d put him on a race car, and I’ll put a barn back there, and I’ll give him a corn crown,” he said. “I started doing all of these mashups of icons of Indiana and put them together in a unique sculpture.”

Story continues below gallery

Ray’s piece is a work of art on its own. The fact that it was completed as part of a hip new mini-golf course makes it even more unique.

High-brow artistry and low-brow entertainment collide in the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s project. The playful, interactive summer installation features 18 holes designed and built by local and national artists, each with an Indiana theme.

Players can knock their balls around a recreation of author Kurt Vonnegut’s office, play around guitar monuments to the Hoosier State’s heavy metal gods and putt through the state’s covered bridges.

At the final hole, sink your putt into the mouth of Willy the Whale, a beloved character that was a favorite of visitors to the former location of the Indianapolis Zoo.

“It fits really well into a lot of the work I’ve been trying to do here, making things that are aesthetically interesting with artistic components, but also are highly accessible and fun,” said Scott Stulen, exhibition curator and the museum’s curator of audience experiences and performance. “All of them are sculptures, and it gets people to think a little bit and learn about art and Indiana history.”

One week before the course opened, artists were putting the finishing touches on their creations.

Indianapolis artist Colin Nesbit was laying down bright purple matting on his hole, fitting in with the hair-metal theme of his work. Nesbit designed his hole as a nod to “Green Light Corridor,” a famous work created by Hoosier-born artist Bruce Nauman in 1970.

Players putt through a tall, narrow structure, before having to play around a series of guitars sticking out of the ground. Each guitar represents a different Indiana-born icon of heavy metal: Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth and Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin.

“A lot of my work deals with history, so when I was trying to figure out the theme, I realized Bruce Nauman was from here, and so are all of these musicians,” Nesbit said. “This just came to me.”

Nearby, Quincy Owens and Luke Crawley of Indianapolis design firm Owens + Crowley were working on their own holes. Crawley spearheaded a piece called “Back Home Again,” referencing the famous song “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.”

Owens’ project was implementing Willie the Whale, a piece of the city’s nostalgic history, into a hole.

“It’s such an iconic sculptural item from our past that I was lucky enough to have the ability to use,” Owens said. “It’s fun to have here.”

The idea to create a mini-golf course at the museum came from Stulen, who had encountered a similar project at his previous job at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While at the Walker, he helped create three different courses designed by artists.

When he came to Indianapolis in 2014, he decided to use that idea to help celebrate the state’s bicentennial, as well as the museum’s “19 Stars” exhibition this summer.

“We wanted to do something running concurrent with those that could be a little more interactive for audiences — a playful, outdoor activity for the summer,” Stulen said.

Stulen worked with Robin Schwatzman and Tom Loftus, Minnesota-based mini-golf experts and authors of the blog “A Couple of Putts.” Their first date was to a mini-golf course, and the pair have played and reviewed hundreds of mini-golf courses around the world.

They provided their expertise on what artist submissions would make the best holes. Stulen had worked with them in Minnesota on the Walker Art Center courses and brought them to Indiana to help here.

“For me, my interest is in themed environments and leisure culture, roadside attractions and kitsch,” Schwartzman said. “It’s about these environments that transport you. There are all these nooks and crannies and oversized obstacles. While you as a player can’t physically travel with the ball, you live vicariously through it and travel mentally through it.”

The call-out for artist submissions generated 52 ideas.

Ray, a mixed media artist, had just decided to steer his career toward art full time late last year. He was on the lookout for projects that matched well with his creativity, and when he saw the call-out for the mini-golf course, he wanted to be involved.

“I was kind of up to the challenge in fabricating something. My background is in fabrication and design, and I felt like this was the time to do it for myself,” he said.

The biggest challenge was coming up with a design. Ray knew the concept had to revolve around the state’s bicentennial, but thought to himself, “What did that really mean?”

“Thinking of Indiana — there’s corn, there’s basketball. I drew a couple of designs, and nothing was clicking,” he said.

Finally, Ray came up with the idea of a cardinal, created in a graphic way and made like a totem.

“It’s fun and different. It’s a more interactive experience,” he said. “What I really like about it is there are so many local artists. If you go to the museum, you see the Picasso or a Robert Indiana or a Van Gogh. It’s good to be connected to that, but what’s also good about this is the public is getting connected to artists who work here in town.”

With all of the submissions in, museum officials picked the 16 best for the course. They also worked with Herron School of Art and Design, which recently conducted its own Herron Open mini-golf design project, for the final two holes.

“All of them had to riff off the concept of Indiana history, landscape or landmark,” Stulen said. “They all have a different take on that.”

Holes reference the former Wonderland amusement park in Indianapolis, President Benjamin Harrison and Indiana’s connection to Dungeons & Dragons.

One of the most unique pieces of history was unearthed by designers Chad and Beth Eby. His creation, “Shadow-Tailed Scourge,” references a plague of squirrels that decimated crops in 1822.

A design called “Back Home Again” is bordered entirely by large steel windchimes. When players hit the chimes in order, it plays the tune to “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” the famous song by James Hanley and Ballard McDonald.

“What I like about this is artists didn’t take the prompt and go for the most obvious stuff. There’s not a basketball hole, there’s no ‘LOVE’ sculpture, there’s not the same tropes over and over again,” Stulen said. “There’s a lot more obscure takes.”

Museum officials are treating it like a regular sculpture exhibition, with placards explaining the design of the hole and the artist who created it. Information will be given on par, course layout and strategy.

“The only difference is, in this exhibition, the sculptures have to be playable,” Stulen said. “They have to be artistically interesting, but they also have to function as a mini golf hole.”

The course is located in the museum’s sculpture park, an outdoor space on the northside of the building. People can access it through the contemporary art wing, and is included with general admission to the museum.

In addition, it will be open before the museum’s Summer Nights film series, where members can golf for free and non-members pay $8 per round.

A clubhouse will offer King David hotdogs, ice cream and other treats Thursday through Sunday, while Sun King serves beer.

The course will be up for the next two summers, though some holes may be changed to keep it fresh, Stulen said.

People can play the course through October, when it will be stored for the winter.

“This will be attractive to an audience who has never been to the (museum). People can take part in this, and then be exposed to something they didn’t even know we had,” Stulen said. “So much of the challenge is getting people through the front door the first time.”

At a glance

Course guide

Burnside’s Sideburns

Artist: Alan Goffinski

About: Honors the legacy of Ambrose Burnside, a Civil War era colonel from Indiana who was known for his unusual facial hair, which came to be known as “sideburns.”

Dick the Bruiser (Right in the Teeth)

Artists: Jim Walker and Brent Lehker

About: Recognizes Hoosier wrestling legend William Fritz Afflis, otherwise known as Dick the Bruiser.

Welcome to Wonderland

Artists: Brandon Schaaf and Megan Hart

About: Pays homage to the former Indianapolis amusement park, Wonderland, which burned down in 1911.

Vonnegut Doodles

Artists: Brian McCutcheon and Athletics NYC

About: Plays off Indianapolis author Kurt Vonnegut, with his illustrations as the sculptural landscape, putters are invited to sit at Vonnegut’s writing chair and table to play.

The Dungeon Masters

Artists: Josh DeBonis and Nikita Mikros

About: Pays tribute to Dungeons & Dragons and Gary Gygax, one of the original creators of the game who started Gen Con, an annual gaming convention in Indianapolis.

Shadow-Tailed Scourge

Artists: Chad and Beth Eby

About: Highlights the “Great Squirrel Invasion” of 1822 when a westward migration of squirrels across Indiana decimated crops.

The Bruce Where-Are-They-Nauman? Monument to the Sons of Indiana (Metal Gods)

Artist: Colin Nesbit

About: Reimagines Hoosier-born artist Bruce Nauman’s seminal 1970 work, “Green Light Corridor,” and immortalizes four of Indiana’s famous heavy metal musicians: Mötley Crüe’s Mick Mars, Van Halen’s David Lee Roth, and Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin.

Poplar Mechanics

Artist: Gautam Rao

About: Inspired by Indiana’s woodlands and celebrates the state tree, tulip poplar and the verdant forests of Brown County.

Back Home Again

Artists: Quincy Owens and Luke Crawley

About: Challenges players to move their balls past chimes tuned to the melody of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” by James Hanley and Ballard McDonald.

Benjamin Harrison

Artist: Martin Kunz

About: Honors the Indianapolis hometown hero and former president of the United States.

Willie the Whale

Artists: Quincy Owens and Luke Crawley

About: Brings back the beloved landmark from the Indianapolis Zoo’s former location on East 30th Street.

The Grid

Artists: Quinn Kummer, David Corns and John Stroughton

About: Celebrates the state’s longstanding emphasis on agriculture and recent commitment to renewable energy.

Covered Bridges of Indiana

Artist: Scott Shoemaker

About: Spotlights Indiana’s heritage of covered bridges.

Lil Golf

Artists: Tom Loftus and Robin Schwartzman

About: Takes golfers on a magical journey with Indiana’s international celebrity feline sensation, Lil BUB.

Cardinal 200

Artist: William Denton Ray

About: Features a totem-like cardinal — Indiana’s state bird — with a corn crown sitting on top of a model Indy Car.


Artists: Hannah Barnes and Suzanne Dittenber

About: Honors The New York Times crossword puzzle editor and Indiana native, Will Shortz.


Artists: Senior students from the visual communication design program at Herron School of Art and Design

About: Makes familiar Indianapolis landmarks — such as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Monument Circle — into obstacles.

Hoosier Woodworker

Artists: Students and faculty from the furniture design program at Herron School of Art and Design

About: References furniture-making, covered bridges and other aspects of woodworking heritage in Indiana.

If you go

Mini Golf at the IMA

What: An 18-hole miniature golf course designed by local and national artists.

Where: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road

When: Through Oct. 30

Hours: The course is open during regular admission hours, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It is also open as pre-show entertainment during the museum’s Summer Nights film series, at 6 p.m. Fridays starting June 3.

How to play: Check in at the course to get your tee time. Mini golf is available on a first come basis and no refunds are given for inclement weather.

Cost: Free to members, included in the museum admission cost of $18 for adults and $10 for youth ages 6 to 17. During Summer Nights events, the cost is free to members with a ticket to that night’s movie, and $8 for non-members.


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