If I invited you to come with me to the "most attended public art event on the planet," where do you suppose we'd go? Paris, perhaps? New York? Some quaint California town?
What if I told you that the event takes place here in West Michigan? It's called ArtPrize, and it draws some 400,000 visitors to Grand Rapids over a nineteen-day period in early autumn.
Unless you've experienced ArtPrize first-hand, grasping its scope, scale and concept can be mind-warping. When I try explaining it to out-of-towners who've never attended, they grope for comparisons.
"So it's a big art fair, like Ann Arbor's," they venture.
No, it's not like that.
"So it's some kind of festival of the arts, with performances, exhibits and activities?"
No, Grand Rapids has one of those in the spring, but that's not ArtPrize.
Maybe this will help. In a recent conversation, some of my hiking friends were comparing notes on their visits to this year's ArtPrize. Peg, still euphoric over her day-long excursion, said, "There are no carnival rides, there's nothing to buy, yet it feels like a festival."
Anita added in an almost reverent tone: "And all these people come, just to look at art!"
Still not getting it? Let's try some facts and figures. ArtPrize is an international art exhibit and competition that takes place in 170 locations—from museums and galleries to bars, bridges, laundromats and auto body shops—over a three square mile downtown area. The event is free to the public, who can vote for their favorites using mobile devices and the ArtPrize web page. Cash prizes, half of which are decided by public vote and half by a jury of art experts, total $500,000.
Any artist can enter, and any space in the district can be a venue.
"It’s unorthodox, highly disruptive, and undeniably intriguing to the art world and the public alike," the ArtPrize web site asserts.
What intrigues me most are the stated objectives of celebrating artists who take risks and promoting "examination of opinions, values and beliefs, encouraging all participants to step outside of their comfort zones."
As Ray and I toured this year's ArtPrize--the eighth annual--with our friend Emily, we encountered works that made us stop and stare and others that made us stop and think. Some brought us close to tears; some were just plain fun.
One moving display featured life-sized masks made by people with brain injuries, along with each artist's personal story.
Just down that hall from that collection was "The Butterfly Effect," an installation of 1,234 handmade bronze Monarch butterflies. Artists Bryce Pettit and Allison Leigh Smith created the work to call attention to the plight of Monarchs, whose numbers have dropped dramatically over the past 20 years.
After wandering outside and crossing a bridge to the other side of the Grand River (encountering a hula-hooping guitar player on the way), we came upon an assortment of sculptures that looked whimsical at first glance. But the creatures artist Justin La Doux crafted from recycled materials peered at us from cages, making a statement about the cruelties of the illegal pet trade.
In another area, we found a crowd gathered around Loren Naji's "Emoh" sculpture/time capsule and temporary home. Constructed from debris salvaged from abandoned Michigan and Ohio homes, Emoh (Home, spelled backwards) represents wastefulness and the irony of homelessness in cities riddled with vacant houses. During ArtPrize, Naji lived in the eight-foot-diameter orb. Afterward, he planned to embark on a multi-city tour, collecting letters and discarded items from visitors at each stop. At the end of the tour, Emoh will become a time capsule, with those collected objects and writings stored inside for ten years until the capsule is opened on Earth Day 2026.
Another ambitious—but more light-hearted—undertaking was showcased down the street from Emoh. Grand Haven illustrator Aaron Zenz and his six children collected 1000 rocks in different shapes and sizes and painted faces (or facial features) on each one. The rocks were painted in matching pairs, with one member of each pair displayed outside the Grand Rapids Children's Museum, where we saw them, and the other 500 hidden around town for people to find, photograph and post on social media. (Read more about the Zenz family's project, "Rock Around" in this MLive article.)
We didn't look for rocks, but we did go on our own treasure hunt, searching for work by Newaygo-area artists we know.
Eric LeMire's "Hexagonaria Percarinata" was easy to spot in the vestibule of a downtown pub. Eric used multiple layers of acrylic and poly resin to simulate the patterns of Michigan's state rock, the Petoskey stone, on a seated figure, a piece he hopes will stimulate interest in Michigan's "unique and rather exotic geological history and our human relationship with it"
And we found Kim Froese's "Bee the Queen" holding court in First Congregational Church. Kim uses bald-faced hornets' nests in her art, and this piece celebrates the role of females (insect and human) in home and family.
Kim's not the only artist who makes use of unconventional materials. This year we saw works of art created with aluminum foil, sand, duct tape and other surprising media.
ArtPrize is over now, but we still have plenty of reminders of the place of art in our lives One upcoming event, in particular, highlights the impact artists can have on the community. "Leaving a Legacy of Art: The Jansma Collection," celebrates the lives of longtime Fremont residents Ray and Phyllis Jansma, who had a profound influence on Newaygo County's cultural scene. Phyllis was a musician and music teacher, Ray an architectural designer and artist who painted, sculpted and carved wood.
As a tribute to Ray and Phyllis, their family is offering some of Ray's artwork for sale, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit Newaygo County Council for the Arts-Artsplace. The sale takes place Saturday, October 29 from 10 am to 1 p.m. at the Dogwood Center Black Box, 4734 S. Campus Court, Fremont. Admission is free, and light refreshments will be served. Entertainment will be provided by members of the Newaygo County Piano Teachers Association, of which Phyllis was a member for years.
I'm looking forward to the event, and I'll tell you all about it in a future post.
But for now, tell me something. Where do you go to see art that inspires, elevates and even challenges you to step outside your comfort zone?
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.