Starting on Wednesday and running through Oct. 10, the city of Grand Rapids is turning itself into one huge urban art gallery. The concept is ArtPrize – an art competition open to anyone who wants to enter, at any location offered up as a venue, with a $250,000 top prize that’s awarded by people who actually visit the city and take the time to vote. Another $200,000 will be given out in smaller amounts, also based on votes.
It’s about as public as art can get.
The Chronicle has been covering Ann Arbor’s own public art initiatives, reporting on the monthly meetings of the Ann Arbor Public Art Commission, which oversees the city’s Percent for Art program, and tracking the saga of German artist Herbert Dreiseitl, who’s being commissioned – for over $700,000 – to make three art installations at the new municipal center. So the question of how another city in Michigan is promoting public art was a natural one to pursue.
That led The Chronicle to Grand Rapids last weekend.
Over two dozen Ann Arbor area artists are among the 1,200 or more who’ve entered the ArtPrize competition. We hoped to observe artists setting up their work prior to Wednesday’s opening, and to motivate others to make the two-hour trip up I-96 to check out what happens when a city opens itself quite dramatically to art. Here’s a sampling of what we encountered.
An Unlikely Venue: Biggby Coffee
ArtPrize organizers are serious when they say virtually any place can serve as a venue: Vacant buildings, hotels, bridges, restaurants and coffee shops. Artist Emir Alibasic, a University of Michigan fine arts student, is scheduled to exhibit his oil paintings at Biggby Coffee at 146 Monroe, but his work hadn’t been mounted when The Chronicle arrived on Saturday.
Still, even in that small shop we found the work of another artist with an Ann Arbor connection: John Harrison, whose “India in Color” series of photographs fill a corner of the room, noted in his artist’s statement that his wife Jen grew up in Ann Arbor.
Getting Rid of Handprints: A Guide
Walking north on Monroe, we passed the building that houses the Grand Rapids Press – part of the chain that owned the former Ann Arbor News – and saw about a half-dozen people tending to a large steel sculpture. One of them appeared to be … spraypainting? Yes, that was definitely spraypaint. The artist, Nicholas Sikma of Fenton, was getting a hand from his dad, Tim Sikma, who was standing on a ladder and applying black spraypaint to the welded steel. The aim was to cover up handprints made when they’d moved the sculpture into position on a grassy area next to the sidewalk.
By the looks of it, they would have needed to apply their hands firmly to heft the artwork – it took four men, including the artist, his father, his brother Zach and his brother-in-law, Jeff Altoft, simply to shift the piece and pull out the wooden two-by-fours that served as its temporary base. Later, Sikma was going to add a cast bronze disc to the welded steel sculpture.
The Grand Rapids Press building will also be the venue for Ann Arbor artist David Fischer, whose “5 Heads” sculpture is made from blue blown glass.
Chance Encounter with The Mayor
At least three artists with local ties – Josh McVety, Ashley Lieber and Aaron Griffith – are exhibiting at the Brass Works Building at 648 Monroe. But when The Chronicle arrived there on Saturday, the place was impenetrable, locked up on all fronts. At the park across the street, though, was a crowd of blue-T-shirted folks who looked purposeful, so we wandered over. Coincidentally, two TV crews arrived at about the same time, from the city’s Fox and CBS affiliates. The T-shirts and TV coverage indicated that we’d stumbled across the annual Mayor’s Grand River Clean Up Day, and as we chatted with a couple of volunteers, up walked the mayor himself, George Heartwell.
Heartwell said he was “geeked” about ArtPrize. “It’s about more than a big purse for art,” he told The Chronicle. “It’s about the whole community coming together about the Big Idea of art.” The event had spurred conversations throughout the community, he added, with people asking questions like “What role does art play?” and “Does art have to be beautiful?”
When we asked about his own artistic bent, Heartwell laughed – then revealed that he wrote poetry back in the day. He said he still has a thick file of rejection letters: “They said, ‘You’re a wonderful poet, but your poetry doesn’t sell.’”
But his main influence related to public art came from urban planning work he did in the 1990s with Edi Rama, now the mayor of Tirana, Albania. Heartwell said that Rama, Albania’s former minister of culture, helped him understand how art dignifies and challenges people, and how you begin to see yourself differently because of the art that’s around you.
On a practical level, Rama gets to choose the colors of all new buildings in Tirana, Heartwell reported. Referring to Ann Arbor’s mayor, Heartwell joked: “Me and Hieftje – we’d love that, wouldn’t we?!” [This link, which includes a brief bio of Rama, shows before-and-after photos of a building that's been painted according to Rama's color palette.]
“Where Can I Unload?”
Heading back south along a walkway that parallels the Grand River, we stopped before crossing Michigan Avenue, a major thoroughfare. A blue pickup, hauling a trailer with something that looked like a large, well-wrapped sculpture, was stopped in the middle of the road in front of us, next to the massive DeVos Place convention center. There was no stoplight there and it’s a fairly busy road, so it seemed clear that the driver was up to something. We hollered, “Are you with ArtPrize?” Rob Goodrich, sitting on the passenger side, hollered back in the affirmative – he was supposed to exhibit on the grounds of DeVos Place, but he didn’t know exactly where, and he was looking for a place to unload.
And indeed it was a sculpture on the trailer, the 900-pound “Eartha, a.k.a. Mother Earth,” sculpted from FossilCrete. Given the circumstances, there was no chance to chat with Goodrich, who’s from Watervliet, Michigan. But we did wish him luck – his work can be found, somewhere, outside DeVos Place.
Mention of DeVos Place is perhaps an appropriate time to note that the DeVos family is underwriting ArtPrize through the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation. Their son Rick DeVos is leading the effort. The family is best known as owners of Amway, which is based on the outskirts of Grand Rapids and was founded by Rick DeVos’ grandfather.
Look, It’s a Tree!
On our way to find the Open Concept Gallery, where Ann Arbor artists Margaret Wyngaard and Kristin Hermanson are exhibiting, we encountered two men – one wielding a welding torch. And in a bit of serendipity that seemed to charm our entire visit, it turned out that the one with the torch was Matt Kelsey, who lives on Ann Arbor’s west side.
Kelsey is the leader of a collaborative ArtPrize effort that involves 30 to 40 art teachers from Grand Rapids. Their artwork – The Grand Rapids Family Tree – is a 10-foot-tall stylistic sculpture of a tree, cut from panels of quarter-inch steel and anchored in a concrete base. Thin rings encircle the branches, and from those will hang braided steel cables with silk ribbons attached. The ribbons – about 3,500 of them – have been signed by people from Grand Rapids, Kelsey said.
The idea was to make a participatory piece that connects people in the community – if they win, all the proceeds will be donated to the Grand Rapids Public Schools. During ArtPrize, there’ll be an interactive component as well: Someone will be stationed next to the tree with extra ribbons, so that passers-by can add their names – as long as they’re from Grand Rapids. You can find this piece at 45 Ottawa Ave., on the east side of a vacant building at Ottawa and Louis Street, which is also an ArtPrize venue.
Post-ArtPrize, Kelsey said he’d love to see the tree find a permanent home in one of the city’s parks. He described it as a “transitory memorial” – the ribbons could be changed to reflect different causes, like pink ribbons for breast cancer awareness and red, white and blue ribbons for Memorial Day.
Immediately behind the Grand Rapids Family Tree we noticed what appeared to be bales of trash. It wasn’t absolutely clear that this was an art project – we knew it was Grand River Cleanup Day, for example – so we didn’t check it out. Later in the day, however, in one of the many encounters we had with others who were meandering around downtown looking for ArtPrize installations, someone mentioned that they’d seen the bales being hoisted into place by a crane. That, we had to see.
By the time we returned, we’d missed the crane but saw the end result of its work: More than 100 bales had been stacked to form an enclosure reminiscent of a fort, if that fort had been built by a giant kid living in a dump. Each bale is made of compressed plastic bottles, not yet recycled but clearly on their way. And because many of the bottles had contained detergent or fabric softener, the enclosure – titled “Recyclable Container for Humans” – smells distinctly like a laundry room.
In a work statement posted online, Lisa Yarost, a Grand Rapids artist, explains the piece this way:
Every day we purchase, consume, and dispose of more items than we ever realize, without considering the resources and energy required to manufacture, distribute, and the dispose of the items upon which our lifestyle of disposability is constructed.
What if it all came back?
Recycling of a different sort was a theme in another ArtPrize installation in the courtyard of St. Andrews Cathedral. We ventured there not because Charlie Brouwer was an Ann Arbor artist, but because several people we encountered on our walk around downtown had recommended his project, “Rise Up Grand Rapids.” Brouwer was using old ladders – including some he was borrowing from the city’s residents – to build a dome about 25 feet high and 50 feet wide.
In his artist’s statement, Brouwer describes the use of ladders as a metaphor for hope: “We depend on each other – trust is needed in borrowing, lending & returning – the ladders in my structures need each other to stand. Like people they can only transcend and achieve with the help of others.”
He told The Chronicle that as he estimated how long it would take him to complete the installation, he factored in the amount of time he’d probably spend talking to people who passed by – that was part of the project, too. We witnessed just such an occurrence. A woman and her two daughters approached Brouwer – the woman had seen a write-up about his project in the Grand Rapids Press, and had recognized him as her former art teacher. She stopped by to say hello.
Local Artists at ArtPrize
We’d encourage you to stop by and say hello to the local artists who’ll be competing in ArtPrize – or at least, check out their work. Here’s a list of Washtenaw County artists compiled for The Chronicle by Michael Flynn. Links go to their ArtPrize information, laying out exactly where in Grand Rapids you can find their art.
Rick De Troyer
Nawal and Karim Motawi
Kirsten Neelands and Stephen B. Proctor
Joshua Ray Smith