On the opening day of the art show Forth From Its Hinges, the people putting on the show experienced what Steve Hall, one of the main organizers, called “a nightmare.”
The third annual Forth show, like the previous two, was set to take place in a warehouse on Plaza Drive, just off Ellsworth Road in Pittsfield Township. Hall explained that the organizers held it there with the permission of Jacob Haas, described in the show’s program as their “beloved landlord.”
Hall said they also routinely give the police a call to let them know the show is going on.
“Somehow, this year, word got to the building department and the fire department,” Hall said.
The good news: The show opened as scheduled – it runs through Sunday, July 26. But the saga of those hours prior to its opening is a nail-biter.
“Shocked and Dumbfounded”
Lori Saginaw, mother of Hall’s fellow organizer Ben Saginaw, explained in an email what happened on the afternoon of July 23.
Al D’Agostino, deputy director of fire services for Pittsfield Township, showed up at the warehouse at around 3 p.m. asking to speak to Hall. Since Hall wasn’t around, D’Agostino had a talk with Ben Saginaw and his brother Zach Saginaw outside the building.
“Ben and Zach were told that what they were doing was completely illegal, that it couldn’t happen, that [D’Agostino] was shutting it down and if they opened, he would fine them,” Lori Saginaw wrote. “Zach and Ben were pretty shocked and dumbfounded by the news.”
Lori Saginaw said her sons explained it wasn’t the first year of the show, that they had the landlord’s permission and that they had informed the police. They invited D’Agostino to come inside the warehouse and see what they were doing, but he declined the invitation and left.
After her son called her and explained the situation, Lori Saginaw said she and another of the event’s supporters, Lisa Dengiz, drove to the Pittsfield Township headquarters and met with the several officials: Matt Harshberger, director of public safety; Gordy Schick, deputy director of police services; Al D’Agostino, deputy director of fire services; Kurt Weiland, building official; Barb Fuller, deputy supervisor; Alan Israel, clerk; Ed Swope, ordinance officer; Paul Montagno, senior planner; and Kelly Koss, planning assistant.
“They began by explaining that they had gotten the message about the event taking place that evening and it was described as ‘warehouse, party and music,’” Lori Saginaw wrote. “Those combined elements generated a sense that this event might be ‘rave-like’ in nature.”
She also stressed that the township officials were extremely helpful and civil, stating that “it was clear that they were not against these young people or the show but had concerns about the lack of process that had been followed and ultimately, the safety of those who attended.”
The organizers hadn’t obtained a special-use permit for the event, the industrial park wasn’t zoned for that type of activity, and the number of proper exits hadn’t been determined, among other things. Lori Saginaw wrote that based on these factors, the township’s concern was “understandable.”
After some discussion, some of the officials in attendance agreed to go to the warehouse and take a look around. Harshberger, Schick, D’Agostino, Weiland and Fuller walked through the space along with Lori Saginaw, Doug Mulkoff, a local attorney, and Pete Jensen, a licensed contractor, who had volunteered his professional services to the show. Lori Saginaw said Mulkoff took notes on the township’s requests, which included asking that there be six fire extinguishers available along with three emergency flashlights, and that all exits be marked and open.
“The bottom line is that this generous group of officials sanctioned the opening of the show and entrusted the young artists to host guests in this temporary space responsibly and for the purposes intended,” Lori Saginaw wrote. “For these young people, their understanding of zoning, permits and governance is forever transformed. They must believe that the structures and systems in place in their community truly do exist for their benefit.”
Zach Saginaw wrote in an email that the decision the township officials came to gave him “hope for humanity.”
“I think they really understood what the show was about once they saw it,” Zach Saginaw said.
The Show Goes On
At 9 p.m. on Thursday – the same day that all of this happened – Hall stood behind the warehouse: The show was underway, with wailing saxophones and pounding drums emanating from a door propped open with a cinderblock nearby. On the hill behind him, groups of people sat talking, perched on the treads of whitewashed tractor tires lying on the grass. To Hall’s left, two people worked a similarly white wooden teeter totter up and down with gusto, laughing as they alternately jerked up into the air and thudded back to the ground, legs bent.
Hall gave a shorter version of Lori Saginaw’s story about the township officials.
“It all worked out,” he said. “So, thank you, Pittsfield.”
Hall, who says he’s been involved with Forth since its genesis, said Saginaw and his fellow organizer Sam Haddix came up with the idea for Forth From Its Hinges in summer 2007. Both Haddix and Saginaw are artists and wanted somewhere to showcase their own work. They also knew a lot of other creative filmmakers, artists and musicians who weren’t getting exposure.
“We knew that there was a big community of unseen talent,” Hall said.
Private donations comprise the funding for Forth, although the show has a “really small” budget according to Hall. This year, it cost somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000 to put on, he said. The show’s program includes thanks to the Zingerman’s community of businesses (Saginaw’s father, Paul Saginaw, is a co-founder of Zingerman’s), IB Jensen & Sons, VG Kids printing, and Eat Catering for their support.
Additionally, they hold a big fundraising event on the first night of Forth. A flyer for this year’s show advertised prices for tickets for the launch party on July 23 as the attendee’s choice of $25, $40 or $100.
The organizers decide on the artists who participate in the show through open submissions, Hall explained. They’ve gotten somewhat more selective over the years.
“The first two years were more like, ‘Hey, we know you, you’re an artist, c’mon in,’” Hall said.
Now, they look for artists who they think will work well together. Hall said they also want people who will help put together the show.
“We try to look at it more as an event than a gallery,” Hall said.
On the program, Forth declares that it “focuses on the collaborative and creative curation of the area’s most expressive emerging artists.” Hall said the show looks to display the work of those unknowns who, for example, don’t have a booth at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs.
“It’s really more of our mission to the core that we really want to present something new,” Hall said.
Lea Bult, who creates photo collages and had her work displayed in the show, said she’s also been involved with Forth since its beginnings. She described it as “friends coming together” and said the event has gotten better since they’ve made more connections in the community over the years.
“I feel like I’ve learned so much more in doing this than I did in art school,” Bult said.
For example, she said she’s learned the right way to make a professional impression.
“I think it’s hard for young people to get that confidence,” Bult said.
Inside the warehouse, the music blared loud enough that you felt it vibrating the marrow of your bones and had to communicate with the person next to you by putting your mouth right to their ear and shouting. The white cinderblock walls displayed a variety of art – ink and paper drawings, silk-screening, and one painting incorporating actual twigs.
Cardboard partitions divided the space in some places; in one room, an enormous structure made of what looked like many collapsed cardboard boxes pieced together stood suspended from the high ceiling with rope. Inside, two small TV sets sat on shelves just above eye level, sometimes displaying static, sometimes numbers.
At around 10:30 p.m., they started showing short films by local artists. Seated on planks of plywood supported by plastic crates, attendees watched black and white clips showing a young girl skipping school and talking to a blind man on the street, and viewed stills of people sitting in the branches of a tree, wearing masks so they looked like foxes or wolves.
Before and during the film showings, people wandered slowly throughout the various areas of the warehouse, drinks in hand, gazing at the canvases on the walls. Connie Huang, a film major at the University of Michigan, and her fellow UM student Emily Riley said they came because they heard about the event through friends and Facebook.
“It looks pretty cool,” Huang said.
As for the idea of giving exposure to new talent, both Huang and Riley supported the idea.
“I’m a design student as well, and we’re always looking to showcase our work,” Huang said.
Ian Ogden, a self-described “impoverished graduate” of the UM College of Architecture and Urban Design, said he came to see some local art.
“I enjoy the warehouse environment,” Ogden said. “It’s very non-obtrusive, and I like that. It’s very much a blank slate for them to work with.”
Forth From Its Hinges is open Saturday from noon to 2 a.m. and continues through Sunday, July 26, from noon to 6 p.m.
About the author: Helen Nevius, a student at Eastern Michigan University, is an intern with The Ann Arbor Chronicle.