While Robert Indiana moved around a lot during his childhood, he attended only one high school, the historic and now 100-year-old Arsenal Tech High School, whose campus is centered around Indianapolis’ Civil War era arsenal. When he attended the school (1942 – 46) it was generally considered one of the best and largest high schools in the state offering a wide variety of classes and programs that drew students from around the city.
Attending “Tech” meant that Indiana had to leave his mother’s rural home in Mooresville and move in with his father and his new wife (his parents Carmen and Earl Clark had divorced when he was in 5th or 6th grade). This was no small task as the young Indiana had to earn his keep while living with his father, stepmother, and step sister. Working after school Indiana delivered Western Union Telegrams around downtown on his bike and worked as an advertising copy boy for the Indianapolis Star.
“I made a personal sacrifice to attend this school, [...] I moved from a sympathetic home, which was my mother’s and stepfather’s to an unsympathetic home, which was my father’s and stepmother’s home.”
It’s clear that Indiana was determined to be an independent and self-made man from an early age. And although he first set out to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an Indianapolis businessman (his father worked for oil companies, including Phillips 66), Indiana ended up taking nearly all art classes during his junior and senior years. Tech’s impressive arts program was anchored by two well-known artists, Frederick Polley and Sara Bard.
By the time Indiana finished high school he had amassed an impressive list of accomplishments. Out of a graduating class of over 500 he finished second in his class, was the captain of the prestigious “Tech Legion,” won the James Whitcomb Riley Medal for excellence in English, the Latin Medal or his accomplishments in studying latin for all four years, held his first one man art show, and sold his first artwork. He also worked on the school newspaper, The Arsenal Cannon, contributing stories, poetry, and drawings and was the photo editor for his senior yearbook. He won a scholarship to attend Indianapolis’ John Herron Art Institute (it used to be both a museum and a school).
Indiana was in fact such a good student and promising artist, that his art teacher, Sara Bard, suggested that he not attend Herron, but instead aim higher and attend the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s not surprising that Indiana had a plan to attend the Art Institute, but it wouldn’t be easy because he would have to pay his own way.
“I wanted to get away from home and I wanted to enlist in the Air Force, which I did, and become eligible for the GI Bill of Rights, which gave me five years of free schooling.”
His success at Arsenal Tech is not only a testament to his determination, drive, and love of art but also a great story of success for public schools in Indianapolis. Many have told stories about Arsenal Tech, and how it was in many ways a better education than what was offered at small colleges. It’s clear that Indiana still loves Tech.
In 1968, when Indiana had his first one man touring art exhibition, “Robert Indiana,” which made a stop at the John Herron Art Institute (now called the Indianapolis Museum of Art), Indiana stopped by to give a number of signed artworks and posters to the school. Today, three of these are on view in the principal’s office.