In April 2016 I moved out of a gallery space in downtown grand rapids, MI. The gallery was an intimate 300ish square foot white-cube space with polished wood floors, big store front windows, and a living space in the back. A grad student's dream! I managed exhibitions in that space, affectionately called Craft House, for three years.
Now, without the constraints of a physical location, the need for regular open hours (I never was very good at that), or the cash to pay rent each month I can continue to recognize, celebrate and engage with local artists and visual art projects. I'm looking at painters, drawers, sculptors, assemblagists, ceramicists, printmakers, photographers, street artists, fiber artists, visual arts organizers, curators, and more. I'm most interested in artists and projects working outside the institution, though I still love a well-curated museum exhibition. And I especially want to support those visual artists making significant contributions to the conversation who aren't getting enough recognition.
Invite me to your show! Share your work. I might share it too.
It’s true, Sofía Ramírez Hernández draws every day. Since 2013 she has filled more than 70 handmade sketchbooks in the dimensions of a small paperback but with fewer pages. She works in reverse, cutting sheets of paper, drawing on them, and then after a few weeks of shuffling around on her desk she binds them into books. Sofía is small and brown with a close-cut bob of dark hair and big bright eyes that look out from sheared straight bangs. She’s cool and quick with a joke. When she’s not drawing she’s biking or running or swimming, having recently gotten hooked on endurance sports. She describes her commitment to drawing everyday as “non-negotiable,” and talks about it as if it were as important as breathing--long laborious breaths that exhaust and nourish simultaneously. To look at a collection of 100 or so of her daily drawings feels a bit like peeking into someone’s diary. You can see a crap-ton of them on view at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts through August 12, 2016. Each drawing is approximately 3.5 x 5.5 inches and every one is different; self-portraits as cute, fuzzy animals are butted up next to emotionally raw text/image illustrations and each one is contained in a thick raw pine wood frame. At SCA they are displayed in a dense grid format, equal parts overwhelming and magnetic.
I first met Sofía as a scrappy undergraduate printmaking student at Kendall College of Art & Design in 2012. She was drawing septuple-layer burgers and printing these incredibly intricate etchings that were a visual hybrid of diary entries and dreamscapes. I remember being impressed at how well she could write backward, with a tiny metal stylus, on copper. A few weeks ago I met up with her at Saugatuck Brewing Company after she spent the day painting, sharing stories, and generally hanging out with 150 kids between kindergarten and 8th grade as part of her residency with Growing Young Artists--a residency program of the SCA focused on supporting migrant workers’ children. More about that in a minute.
Sofía graduated from KCAD in May 2014 and in the fall of her senior year, 2013, started making at least one drawing everyday. Initially, it was a way to avoid the post-art-school slump but soon the act of drawing everyday took on a cathartic quality; it became not just an outlet but an endurance sport and a way to combat self-destructive behaviors. The day we sat down at SBC was day number 1,045 and Sofía confidently acknowledged that she’d only missed one day, maybe two, in the last three years. She drew through a series of not-so-rewarding service industry jobs, the struggle to find creative work, and a particularly bad breakup. Drawing everyday was a way to connect with others by sharing her most vulnerable moments and finding that other people had similar experiences. Some days a successful drawing was a simple pen mark on a blank page, other days she produced detailed illustrations of significant and painful moments, like the self-portrait from day 156 where bold block letters across her face spell out “Relapse one day get promoted the next.” She’d share these images online and the responses were usually robust. She could gage which drawings were the most successful on days that the comments section of her most personal posts built to a crescendo of consternacious encouragement and so she continued to draw, and share.
To say that the #sofiadrawseveryday project has lead the artist to a greater understanding of her own abilities is an understatement. As we sat at the bar in Saugatuck our conversation shifted from my questions about her creative practice to her childhood feelings of ‘otherness’ and her initial resentment of Frida Kahlo (and eventual adoration) to her current interest in a diverse range of media, narrative, and social justice projects. She looks at artists like Wayne White who prizes humor in expression and WIlliam Kentridge who is never satisfied with just one artform and fluidly moves from animation to opera to drawing and back again. Drawing everyday opened a portal for Sofía into a world of shared narratives and vulnerability that ultimately pointed her in a new direction, toward artmaking that matters, artmaking that helps other people. Sofía calls this her “art and…” and recognizes that when she graduated from KCAD in 2013 she wasn’t completely sure what her “and” was going to be. What motivated her to make art? How could she sustain a comfortable lifestyle making art and still feel intrinsically satisfied? For Sofia it’s art and social justice.
At the intersection of art and social justice are projects like the Saugatuck Center for the Arts’ Growing Young Artists initiative. Sofía was recommended as this year’s artist-in-residence for the GYA initiative by last year’s artist-in-residence Salvador Jimenez Flores. Sofía proposed an ambitious project for the multi-week residency; she would collaborate with the two groups of students, one in Fennville and the other in South Haven, on a puppet-show-style performance. The narrative would be an original story told by Sofía and acted out by the students using large-scale characters constructed from cardboard, paint, paper and whatever else they could find. When her proposal got the green-light in the spring of 2016 she was ecstatic. This would be her first paid residency experience and it would include housing for the duration of the project. When we met to chat she was in the middle of the residency, she’d led the students through sketchbook making activities, landscape drawing lessons, improvisation experiments, and they were finally starting on the construction of the puppets. The kids, as we referred to her students, were hesitant with her at first, shy and nervous about getting to know this new artist. The kids are children of migrant workers, some of which travel with the seasons to find work, others stay in West Michigan year-round with their families but live in less than ideal conditions. All of them share Sofía’s brown skin and dark hair and she felt buoyed by the little faces that mirrored hers. Soon they opened up, chatted comfortably and would leave her with hugs at the end of each day. When Sofía’s residency concludes they will all perform the puppet-show for their families and share the story they built together.
So what’s next for Sofía? How can she make her “art and…” a regular part of her work life? Well, she’s still figuring that out but the opportunities have continued to find her. After her GYA residency she’ll spend a week at Ox-Bow Artist Residency where she also received a scholarship to attend a printmaking class. Then she’ll look for commission work, likely in sign painting (you can see her handiwork on Bartertown’s windows on Jefferson St. in downtown GR) or related graphic design or illustration work. She recently illustrated the real-life story of how a couple first met, as a commission for a friend, likely the most unique gift that significant other will ever receive. Whatever comes next for Sofía it’ll likely be big, bold, sort of quirky and definitely heart-felt. Like her artistic influences; Frida Kahlo, William Kentridge, and Wayne White (if you don’t know these artists stop reading now and look them up) she’ll continue to pursue a diverse array of media and tackle tough issues with humor and humility. She’s currently working on a bio-documentary with Tomás Calvo, Adam Bird, Anjalika Lobo, and Lauren Milligan that focuses on her daily drawings. I know I’ll be following her journey, hope you will too!
Just south of the Cook Art Center, on Grandville Ave, is a an old warehouse and fenced-in vacant lot. There are a handful of similar spaces along the Grandville corridor south of downtown, but this one is special. Among the weeds and crumbling pavement is a brand new, ultra colorful mural of flags, symbols of peace and learning, and rays of light that celebrate the surrounding community. The mural, completed at the end of June, was designed and painted by three artists with ties to GR and roots across the country; Ricardo Gonzalez, Raquel Silva, and David Frison, with help from area high school students. Ricardo is a recent MFA grad from Kendall College of Art & Design, originally from Blue Island, IL, he recently moved back to the Chicago area to continue his career as a painter, teacher, and arts advocate. Raquel is a current KCAD undergraduate student studying drawing, she's originally from Puerto Rico and is spending the later half of the summer there with family and friends before she makes another big move to Chicago. David, from Detroit, is also studying at KCAD in the graphic design program. The Cook Art Center and the Hispanic Center of West Michigan teamed up to support this project that began in late 2015 as a series of community consultation meetings. Local residents made suggestions and requests for content of the mural and the artists responded with a design that features cultural icons, and symbols of peace, unity and education. The flags of Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Costa Rica form the base of the mural. Behind them, arms of many skin-tones are raised in signs of peace (or victory). And finally, figures of students studying perch atop the boarded up windows near the roofline. The final product is impressive both as a new neighborhood icon and also as a solid piece of public art.
I first heard about this project from Ricardo. I'm always interested in how artists balance their practice between professional and personal projects and Ricardo's involvement in this mural seemed like both. Ricardo's personal work focuses on depictions of Mexican-American identity in the United States. He plays with pop-culture icons, stereotypes, and traditional images in equal measure. His work can sometimes feel fun and playful and other times it can grab you by the eye-balls shake apart your expectations of personal and public art. Now in a public, family-friendly forum Ricardo is balancing those interests with public needs. He says, "This was a massive project with much research, public forums, and many people being involved... Many people in the neighborhood really loved stopping by to chat and share memories of their childhood or the past. This mural has brought many positive words from community folks who feel they are truly being reflected in the mural."
On my second visit to the mural site a few student volunteers where on hand, helping spray paint the shadow detail on one of the hands and generally hanging out. It was clear that they had developed a positive rapport with the artists. Raquel points out that, "Communicating, relating to other people and developing a network with the Hispanic community is constantly a reminder of unity." And it shows in the finished product.
All three artists have worked on large-scale public art or done guerrilla-style street art in the past, but this experience helped to legitimized their practice and find value outside of the often self-serving, unrewarding process of creating street art. I think David put it best, "I was always influenced by public street artist like Shepard Fairey but never gave public art much consideration. I now find making public art can have more effect when is in a public space than on social media."
But beyond the intrinsic rewards of building a positive community environment, getting paid to paint and adding another line to their resumes Ricardo, Raquel and David also found this to be a professional development opportunity.
Ricardo; "these experiences always help me refine and discover best practices of working on a team and explaining or teaching a skill or process. I feel it is always helpful to work in these group murals as it helps myself and others practice communication skills."
David: "My biggest take away is discovering how art can influence people to do things and if you half ass it, you'll be responsible for what does not happen and you art would be inauthentic."
Raquel; "Networking has been always one of my challenges. This project opened new possibilities to other opportunities and the only way that was possible it was through making new friends... I never experienced myself making so many valuable connections... I know they will always be in touch."
You can also find some wheat paste bombs around town that David and Raquel installed while painting the mural. Follow David on Instagram and see if you can spot them.
FRENCH FOR 'BEETLE LICKER.'
ENGLISH FOR 'THAT WEIRD ART THING THAT HAPPENS ON THE INTERNET.'
On Monday night, June 27th, in a basement on Madison St. in the Heritage Hill area of Grand Rapids something weird happened. Steve (the husband) invited me to something he affectionately calls Beetle Licker. It was an art show, officially Briseur Coleoptere Gallery’s #BASEMENT exhibition. A one-night-only, mostly-experienced-online art show, technically open to the public, if you could find it.
The featured artists included Case Michielsen, Cory VanderZwaag, Nicholas Szymanski, and Steven Rainey; four fine-art-educated, late 20 / early 30 something white dudes from Michigan. So what was different about this show? Why did it matter? For starters, it was awesome, considering the work was installed in a basement over the course of only a few hours and was made only from found / salvaged materials, the results were both beautiful and thought provoking. Other than that, everything about it was different than the traditional gallery and museum events I typically see in Grand Rapids. Instead of promoting a white-cube style exhibition months in advance, exhibiting a body of work rooted in conceptual dogma that is also a triumph of technical achievement, or elevating the artists as genius-types the Beetle Licker guys posted the date / time of the exhibition only a few weeks out, they were intentionally vague about the content of the event, and then they plastered their Instagram and Facebook accounts with photographs, videos, time-lapses, and visual interpretations (think glitches or extreme close-up photos) of the work during a two-hour window. You could come if you knew where to find the event, but you'd better have been willing to join in the post-a-palooza.
Entering the space was like being in your friend's creepy basement to feed their cats while they're on vacation. I noticed the humid, chilly air, the ancient smells, and layers of dust over everything but I was also experiencing the space as an outsider with no restrictions on my curiosity. What's in this pile over here? Is that a street sign nailed to the wall? I felt comfortable enough to get up close and poke around. When I did I found a few really interesting pieces past the initial piles of storage boxes and the laundry machine, the artists had established a "gallery space" by clearing the natural basement-debris away and clipping lights to the rafters to illuminate each piece. About 12 artworks were nestled in corners, arranged on makeshift pedestals, or nailed to the support beams, one even hung from (and around) the HVAC ducts. The standout pieces included the HVAC installation made of thick orange and blue translucent vinyl wound around and hanging loosely from the air ducts; a wall-mounted sculpture of spray foam, safety-orange plastic, fabric (although it might have been toilet paper) and a few plaster-casted fingers; and a piece that sat directly on the concrete floor, a large copper plate topped with a pile of dirt, salt, and at one point, ice cubes, and next to the dirt pile on the copper plate was a piece of window-cut mat board and loose pieces of wood. The last one stood out to me as the most intentional arrangement in the whole space as the geometric elements where lined up with the edges of the copper and the dirt pile was contained to one half of the area.
Including the artists only eight people attended this event.
Imagine attending the most exclusively posh and conceptually challenging art opening ever, then put that idea in a small dark box, throw out the dress code, add some dirt and moth balls and shake it really hard. That’s what Briseur Coleoptere Gallery felt like—slightly disorienting, dirty, and the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time.
I feel like the best way to really explain this experience is with a paired down transcription of that night's conversation, here we go…
Amanda Carmer Rainey: What is this thing? What is Briseur Coleoptere Gallery?
Case Michielsen: It's a resume booster.
Nick Szymanski: Suspense... dirty...
Steven Rainey: Subterranean.
CM: It's an internet-based exhibition that allows artwork to be more free--the gallery doesn't even need to be a real place. Beetle Licker is more about the event than the artwork and that way we don't have to get hung up on concept.
ACR: So why is this important? Why have a show like this?
[Collectively they all exhale and purse their lips.]
Cory VanderZwaag: Power...
CV: I never thought that.
SR: Like exercise.
CV: But practice is sub-par to perfection and this is perfection.
[At this point we all pause to recognize the awesomeness of this statement and a lot of side conversations follow. Later we come back around to the "Why?" question, why do this kind of show? Further, what is it really about if the artists / organizers are making it so hard to see in-person?]
CM: This whole thing started because Cory and me where bullshitting (also known as conversing in a spirited manner)--building off each other’s nonsense and decided to have a show in my bedroom. We put a ped(estal) on my mattress, no one was invited, we just posted photos online. We just did it. Most of the time when we talk about shit like that we don't do it.
ACR: Was that right after you’d graduated from art school? Was it in response to that experience?
CV: (Yes.) And personally, being surrounded by a clean museum environment. (Cory works as a preparator at the Broad Museum in East Lansing and has worked for the GRAM for many years.)
CM: Yeah, I guess it was a response to a formal conceptual training in art. It was sort of stupid, meant to be a joke, but we're also incredibly serious. (Case works for Icon Signs and gets to play with large, industrial art making machines for commercial purposes.)
NS: I really like the formalist element... and the happenstance quality.
SR: It’s liberating.
We discussed the basic elements of the show, the grittiness of it, the absolute DIY element, and attributed value to each of those elements. I was still curious about where the motivation to do this sort of show came from.
ACR: What other artists or events are you looking at?
CV: Fluxus. I got Fluxus in me.
CM: Other types of happenings… performance work… exhibitions in untraditional spaces. (After some research; Yves Klein's La spécialisation de la sensibilité à l'état matière première en sensibilité picturale stabilisée: Le Vide (The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility: The Void) and Robert Barry's Closed Gallery Piece. Read this for more info on the history of these types of performances.)
CM: We're also interested in social media… people use social media to make things that aren’t that interesting seem really interesting.
SR: A simulation of a good time.
CM: It’s also about doing something without waiting for a reason to do something. There is a lot of fear around starting projects.
CV: Here we just imply layers of time that are really restraints everywhere else.
CM: I mean, in the end the actual works of art are not the art, the event is the art and the rest is just process. The art itself is relatively unimportant.
We continued to talk through this idea of the ‘event as art’ and the art making, installing, and documentation as part of a process toward a finished product. The finished product then is any evidence of the event itself—social media posts, photos, video, even conversations with friends and colleagues who weren’t at the event. This was a distinguishing feature that set the event apart from my understanding of traditional gallery and museum receptions. But that wasn’t my biggest take-away, the one aspect of this event that I continue to dwell on is the fact that in response to traditional museum shows, these artists have chosen to break down and rearrange the very structure of how exhibitions are presented and accessed. They have chosen a different location for each event (previous events have been held in bedrooms, bathrooms, and kitchens), they didn’t invite many people, none of the work was labeled or priced, and there was no didactic information. Only a handful of social media posts and word-of-mouth served to promote the event.
I do hope the Beetle Licker guys can refine their promotional strategy and provide an alternative structure to their events, without compromising the core of their antiestablishment goals, because the impact of this kind of show and these ideas has room to grow. In the end, I realized that I spent more time looking at the artwork at this event than I have at most traditional shows lately, even if it was on my phone.
You can still access all the posts and comments from Briseur Coleoptere Gallery’s #BASEMENT event on Facebook and Instagram but the thrill of being there is unmatched.