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In the Neighborhood: Arts & Culture in Washtenaw County


Over the summer I was contacted by Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation and my friend Decky Alexander, Director of Engage at EMU to participate as a Navigator for In the Neighborhood, a new initiative to gather answers from residents about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. My role was to identify two artists who would facilitate an event, culling answers from ten attendees while creating art in tandem with conversation. Priority was given to getting to the root of what our neighborhoods feel like, how they do or don't function, who was making art, who was being heard and who wasn't. It was a tall order to fill. 


A while back Nick and I had worked on this idea to bring students and professionals to prepare and share meals together. The idea was not funded but I thought this was an opportunity to build a "safe" environment while enjoying in food. It was also a chance to build an ephemeral art happening where we had no clue what the outcome would be. 

The first artist I called upon was Marisa Dluge. As a performer with a effervescent presence, I knew she would be phenomenal at harnessing the energy of a group. She came up with the brilliant idea to include Elize Jekabson, chef and sculptor. As we started brainstorming, it was evident Elize's contribution would be key to the art building process and reflection aspect of the project. One of our planning meetings took place at Hyperion Coffee. It wasn't until I counted the chairs at the beautiful wood surface that I realized there were 10 chairs.  We were sitting at the surface our evening would take place at. Eric Mullins, one of the proprietors (and dinner guests) was generous in his time and effort and quickly agreed to let us hold the dinner there. Nick documented the evening, of course. 


We invited guests based on who we thought would have a valuable voice but may not have the platform to share these ideas regularly. The group included artists, a musician, belly dancer, event planner, and three high school students very involved in The Learning Studio

We centered our courses around key questions the AAACF was seeking responses to. We pared them down to five courses. 


Course 1: Building | Salad: How do you define your neighborhood? 

Course 2: Drawing | Sauces: What does the arts and cultural landscape look like? Feel like in your neighborhood?

Course 3: Deconstruction | Rice Rolls: What's missing from your neighborhood?

Course 4: Dialogue | Lasagna

Course 5: Closing | Ice cream



Over the course of the evening we realized our goal to serve, document, and capture five courses was a bit lofty. (In the interest of time, we skipped the Deconstruction course. By then everyone was hungry after an hour of conversation and building). The conversation between strangers was flowing and organic, unearthing more pondering. It's difficult to convey how rich the conversation was but a few key lines resonated with me. 

What builds your neighborhood isn’t just your neighbors…it could be the way the air smells. 

It has potential but it’s just not used. The people there can be something or someone but they choose to involve themselves in the streets. There’s a lot of athletes where I live but they involve themselves in the wrong crowd, messing them over. 

I’m an outcast, I’ve been in Ypsi for the last 10 years or so. Now I live in College Heights and there’s me driving down the road in a rusty ass truck. And they’re all with their kids and strollers and I’m like “never”. 

I don’t interact with my neighbors too much. We live in an apartment complex. I recognize a good chunk of you from being around Ypsi. It’s an abstract idea, but I know a group of people around Ypsi I have things in common with. 

So maybe neighborhood is more in the people you know. 


After building the first course:

We were trying to create the Water Tower - something that everyone identifies with as a landmark. My north star. 

This is the best representation of a neighborhood because we all did our own thing. We blended. We didn’t discuss but we worked well together and that shows how a neighborhood works. 

There’s a lot of connections and overlaps in pockets of art. I think it’s organic. 

Classes around neighborhoods. Upper class is sitting on green, they have a lot of “cheese”. This is some hurdles to jump over in order to move up. We were looking at different lines of watermelon. Some are rich, clean, better off than the ones down here…the ones are chewed up, spit out. 

The streets are messed up with a lot of construction. I used balsamic to show the streets are messed up. 

There’s a real class divided in the way arts and culture lives here. 

I disagree that there are a lot of places to play music. 


After the second drawing course:

Isolation, I drew an art community, isolated because people usually don’t see the actual value of art. People who see art can acknowledge what’s happening but others see it as another painting, it’s isolated to the world of the artists, whether it’s photography or painting. 

An Ypsi Mandala. It represents myself in the middle. This represents the growth I’ve experienced since I’ve moved here. Lines of connection, it is in who you know. 

My art world is so cool…and no one judges me for it. 

I’m a white dude, it’s easy for me to have access to all that stuff. I come from a family with means…not everybody can do that. I’m not always sure what to do about that. 

There’s still a need for spaces that are not downtown or in Depot Town. 


As I was listening to the conversation I heard yearning for inclusion, more spaces for performative work (including spoken word, theater, music) and a general wish to have high quality programs that are affordable or free. Ypsilanti is chock full of talent and opportunity, it's a matter of converging resources and distributing information so it reaches everyone. 

Access was also a factor which could prohibit students and adults from consuming arts and culture in the county. Whether it's transportation, social familiarity or cultural access, there are barriers which keep people from enjoying an event. The students came up with especially thoughtful points on how one person's art could be mean something else altogether to someone else. We were the first of the In the Neighborhood events produced, there will one more in Ypsilanti and another in Ann Arbor soon. I'm hopeful for the outcome of these productions and what will be created as a result of these meaningful conversations. I'll end with my favorite quote of the evening. 

I feel like art can connect all of us. 



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Visual Notes: Graphic Recording Fall 2017

The last few weeks I've been pretty busy with graphic recording, the process of real time illustration and note capturing for a few clients. I had the chance to capture discussion for a prominent company at Grand Circus in Detroit, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a fascinating discussion hosted by Engage as part of Steve Case's Rise of the Rest nationwide tour. 

Graphic recording at the Antheneum in Detroit

Graphic recording at the Antheneum in Detroit


I'm currently in the planning stages of an illustration for ypsiGLOW, a phenomenal street event on October 27th celebrating performance, music, art making and luminaries in downtown Ypsilanti. My glowing chalk drawing is going to be done on vinyl, backwards, so I can install it on glass at the Ypsi Real office/Convention Visitors Bureau on Michigan Avenue. It will be.a large three panel piece circling ypsiGLOW's goals of inclusivity, being an "Ypsi made" event and promoting cultural and economic development in downtown Ypsi. Look out for that starting on the 19th! 

Unfortunately, I'll miss the ypsiGLOW festivities this year because I'll be flying back from a graphic recording gig in Memphis. I've never been and I'm so excited to hear the music, taste the BBQ and visit some incredible museums including the Civil Rights Museum and Lorraine Motel. The conference I'll be covering over three days is about access to food and innovations being made in urban areas. I can't wait to share some inspired illustrations with you later this month!  



Graphic Recording: Service in Two Sectors

Over the last few weeks I had the opportunity to record at two very different kinds of organizations. But they both had one thing in common: service. 

The first was the well known Domino's Pizza. Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, they have been a ubiquitous choice for pizza delivery my whole life. At their gathering of brilliant tech minds at Go Where Meetings Matter, I learned how much they put into their customer service and technology arms, especially my favorite part about ordering with them...the Pizza Tracker! Seriously, you can see when your pizza's being made, when it went into the oven, when it's out for delivery — do satisfying! Here are a few illustrations from that day. 


The other event was the Third Annual Ideas to Action Conference hosted by the 21st Century Community Learning Centers, the talented folks that run Bright Futures, the after school enrichment program out of Eastern Michigan University. This is my third year covering this event and I always learn something personally and professionally. It's an engaging day of educators and innovators in the field doing phenomenal work. This time around they were focusing on Social Emotional Learning. Speakers included professional storytellers, educators and students. It was moving and phenomenal content to capture. 

Graphic recording at Go Where Meetings Matter in Ann Arbor

Graphic recording at Go Where Meetings Matter in Ann Arbor

Graphic recording for Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti

Graphic recording for Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti

This also turned out to be my longest, single themed drawing coming in at 10 feet long. The photo above also includes a breakout session graphic.

Although both organizations are serving different "customers", it's evident that great interpersonal service among colleagues and clients is key in success. Nothing can replace the sound of a person's voice or friendliness conveyed through face to face interaction. 

If you're interested in graphic recording and learning about the process for your event, please contact me here. Thanks for exploring! 



Thinking out loud: What's the next art piece?

Last summer Nick and I produced an event called Sticks and Stones that has continued to make us question the focus of our work, perception of our community, what to do for our next social art piece. Now that the state of my community (like many others) has been "woke", there's been a lot of connecting and rallying. There was the worldwide women's march, a local peace march on MLK Day, Immigrants' March, gatherings, heart to heart talks, forums, blogs, media, all seemingly moving toward the goal of protecting ourselves and one another, our liberties, rights, privileges, examining injustices, exploration of next steps...not to mention the upcoming International Women's Day / Day Without a Woman this Wednesday, March 8th. 

I had even considered the importance of holding a mothers event (and really not just moms but those that support women and families) on Mothers' Day at Edith C. Hefley Park, a small tot lot just north of Recreation Park in the Normal Park neighborhood. I had heard it was underutilized and had some attention on Ypsi Proud Day (the day formerly known as Ypsi P.R.I.D.E Day) but could use some activity. I found this tidbit from the Ypsilanti Gleanings archive: "Ypsilanti Peace Fellowship dedicated the park in 1987 as the Edith C. Hefley Peace Park after the name of a Vietnam Peace Activist who lived in the neighborhood of the park. Since the dedication, the Peace Fellowship has met on Mother's Day to set out plants and to picnic in the park." (author Doris Milliman)

I had envisioned children and adults coming together to meet someone they didn't know before and share in a lesson, teach one another something they're really good at, whether it's a recipe or how they tie their shoes. That made me ponder:

• How will I make sure that everyone finds out about it from all parts of the city?

• Even if we alert the neighbors, will it be disruptive?

• Am I being too presumptuous to think that everyone wants to learn something?

• Will it be impactful enough that this experience will resonate and build more experiences beyond this day?

• Will everyone feel "welcome?"

And that's my biggest quandary. Marches and gatherings are about taking a common space in a public realm. But what does it feel like when you go to a community event very close to other peoples' homes, say a neighborhood tot park, when your street doesn't look or feel the same way, doesn't have the same amenities or privileges (maybe yours has more, maybe yours has less) or cultural practices? When I was out taking photos the other day, the neighbor across the street came out of his house to walk the dogs and was kind enough to tell me that the park is actively used by parents and had even had some additions made to it late in the season which he thinks will bring out even more people this spring. It no longer seemed like the unactivated space I thought it was. Plus, I don't live in Normal Park so that was another consideration for inserting myself into the neighborhood or staking a space. Back to the drawing board.

For all the history and nuanced magic of Ypsilanti, the city is still very divided by history and newness, race, experience, even former school districts (Ypsilanti and Willow Run) and its district lines. I've met many exceptional folks in Ypsi, ready to dive in to social, cultural, educational circles to reach out, help, share. But many of those circles do not intersect broadly beyond age and race, civic versus citizen, privileged versus underserved. And it's no one's fault. How do we step back and see the big picture, all at once?

Because of this, I've given myself a new assignment.

The aim of my next project is to produce a work accessible to as many of the nearly 20,000 citizens of Ypsilanti as possible, affect them in a manner that is positive and create domino opportunities of action from it. 



Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Peace March

Nick and I had the pleasure of being a part of the silent peace march that Ypsilanti Community High School art teacher Lynne Settles assembled this morning. We pulled up to the Ypsilanti Water Tower a few minutes before 9 am and wondered how many people would participate with the dreary gray, cold weather. By five after, the small patch of green at the foot of the tower was filled with parents, community members and students. We were 200 strong as we silently walked down Washtenaw to Michigan Avenue. Ypsilanti Police escorted us as we carefully made our way through the intersection during green lights. Leading the march was Rhea McCauley, niece of Rosa Parks and Ypsilanti resident!

Our ending point was the intersection of Washington Street and Michigan Avenue. The building at the corner (which houses Mix Clothing and Ypsilanti Experimental Space, aka YES) is the site where Frederick Douglass spoke 150 years ago to the day. I had no idea what to expect.  Artist Mark Tucker from YES had been working with Lynne's students for months and the result blew my mind. I've seen really good video installation done at art fairs before but Frederick Douglass was all at once quirky and historical and right in front of me

With Mark and Lynne's expertise, the students created a sculpture of Frederick Douglass. Then they had Herb Francois, a teacher at the high school, dress up like Mr. Douglass and read the speech “The Perils of the Republic” which filmmaker Donald Harrison captured. This was projected on the sculpture with the sound of the students taking turns reading the speech. It was transportive and eerily cool. As the light of the projection wrapped around the sculpture, you could then see it wasn't a perfect alignment but that only added to the richness of the viewing. For a moment, you feel as if you're watching footage of the real thing, but then you're snapped back into present day. It was, by far, one of the most memorable pieces of art I have seen in a while. 

Next door neighbor and owner of Go! Ice Cream, Rob Hess and his team, made an incredible donation of time and goodies on a day the parlor is normally closed.  Everyone had their share of hot chocolate and coffee (some of us had to have their delicious ice cream treats too) and students got to see their work hung in the new Go education/event space. Nick collaborated with all the students in concept, production and research of the projects. 

From what I witnessed, the day's festivities highlighted multiple mediums including photography, writing, film making, sculpture (and armature building), costume, make up, styling, performance art, video installation, and art activism. 

The march and exhibit highlighted the spirit of diversity and love that exists in Ypsilanti. It was a magical event in a magical place. Thank you, students, teachers and everyone involved. This day has imbued an even stronger sense of what this community is about and I'm so proud to be a part of it. 



Sticks & Stones: A Social Art Happening

After months of planning and rallying (and anxiety on my part), Sticks & Stones took place last night. The social art happening consisted of people, standing in the street as silent "statues" holding posters of comments collected from MLive articles over the last year. The sentiments from these comments were largely about Ypsilanti, its inhabitants, youth and activity here, many of them stereotypes, hateful and hurtful in nature. 

For the first 30 minutes, participants stood in line at MarketPlace Square* and didn't speak to pedestrians. Viewers started to gather and read the posters, one by one. A number of people came up to me visibly moved and upset by the comments. They couldn't believe they were real. The combined impact of seeing them all together brought tears to people's eyes. 

Following the silent portion of the event, we asked people to answer 3 questions: 

1. What is your first memory of being discriminated against?

2. Have you ever been the perpetrator of intolerance/hate and how do you feel about it now?

3. What real action can you take from this point to drive positive change?

People took to social media, standing with one another, taking photos, streaming video, meeting new friends. Using the hashtag #sticksandstones, we shared content which will be collected and shown at our studio next month during First Fridays Ypsi, September 2nd. It was positive and wonderful and powerful. (You can continue to use the hashtag #sticksandstones and be part of the show too!) 

As we look back on the event and view these photos, we see the diverse support we had last night, in race, ethnicity, age, experience, and we are moved by their belief in our vision to stand up to hate.

Ironically, the media attention we received drove even more hateful commentary, which we find amusing and helpful. The same people who hated on the event and called us "mershmallow soft" (their spelling, not mine), cited Clint Eastwood's phrase to "get over it", also took the time to listen to the radio interview, find social media comments and cite them when writing more comments, and read the article which resulted in online arguments. What I've come to realize is that while I try to listen to political figures who I will not vote for, or read comments from those I don't agree with, our event hit a nerve. (At the time of publishing this blog post, there were 154 comments on the MLive article). 

Here are facts as I know them:

• When Clint Eastwood was growing up, there was no internet. Kids and adults didn't cyber-bully and humiliate one another publicly, resulting in deaths and suicides.

• Words have power. They are the seed of dialogue, conflict, resolve, debate, argument. Its visibility and ease of consumption on social media is a root for sensationalizing violence in our country. 

• From a little online research, the commenters from our piece have likely not dealt with the racist, classist, elitist, discriminatory words they're doling out. And lastly, most of them would not make those comments in a public forum. 

• The joke is funny until it's about you. 

Ypsilanti is a rich community. It is filled with some of the most talented and generous people I have ever met. The educators, business owners, parents, children, senior citizens, and civic leaders I've spoken to over the last couple years have given us confidence that we are on the right path. I owned and lived in a home in Ypsilanti 15 years ago and witnessing the continued evolution of this city is phenomenal. 

Nick and I have different stances on seeing the obliteration of comments on articles. While they make me ill to read sometimes, I don't think they need to be removed. I recognize it's the same commenters over and over again, who are unable to find the silver lining in anything that is not serving their own needs.

These events which cost money and time and energy to produce are more meaningful than any comment they could ever make from the security of their couch. We create the news, they just consume it. 

*We applied and were approved for a street closure with the City. (Our production of this event also required additional insurance coverage, fee and deposit).  Although the barricades didn't show up until later than we anticipated, our artist participants were generous with their time and posed for photos in the street beyond the first 30 minutes. For this, we are so grateful to each and every one of you. A very special "thank you" goes to Mayor Amanda Edmonds for her swift response and the Ypsilanti Police Department for their service and smile. 


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Coming up: March 2016

The spring exhibition season is kicking off with an incredible show and I'm excited to announce it today. I met (paper) artist Laura Makar just a few months ago when she submitted her pieces for consideration. I emailed her immediately. 

Sure-Lock , 2015, 29 x 42 inches, cut paper

Sure-Lock, 2015, 29 x 42 inches, cut paper

Her work isn't just about cut paper. Laura understands the broader sense of creating a moment, a composition larger than where the edges of the paper restrain our experience. The lines undulate in magically growing ways, but if you look really closely, you can see it's human-made. Incredible. 

The opening is on Friday, March 4th and we're making it an early evening so we can hop across the street to celebrate the new season at First Fridays Ypsilanti Gala, where I'll be the keynote speaker for the evening. So mark your calendars and wish us lots of luck for a beautiful night, celebrating visual arts, culture and friends in Ypsilanti. 


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826 on Washington Street

Over the weekend we had the chance to host a pretty awesome shindig. Our friends at 826michigan had a jam-packed weekend of programming including a pajama part at Literati Bookstore and big things for 826 going on in Detroit...

The volunteers of 826, the ones that tutor, listen, travel, edit, and work with kids are the muscle of this organization we love so much. We hosted a small breakfast gathering Saturday morning and we got to meet founder of McSweeney's (original publisher of 826 Valencia) and writer, Dave Eggers. 

It's a good-looking bunch, don't you think? 

The end of the year is always vitally important to the health of organizations like 826michigan so won't you please consider supporting all the work these beautiful people do through volunteering or donation? Thanks so much :) 



Opening night of Lacuna: Life through Death

Last night was the first time Nick missed an opening but we had our trusty new intern Ashanti to help out and take photos, which was fantastic after a long day. (Nick had just wrapped a product shoot for It's American Press, this incredible new product which is going to launch a crowdfunding campaign this fall). 

Our September show, Lacuna: Life through Death is a series of mixed media, wood, metal and found object pieces by Jessica Tenbusch. Her creative identity is succinct and masterful, with pieces that seem to grow from nature themselves.

We had a really great turn out and the artist's talk gave viewers (and myself) a better understanding of how she views death as not necessarily the end of a cycle, but a resource for other living things in nature. 

As she puts it, "Lacuna is an unknown or unfilled space or interval. The distance between life and death is immeasurable, a lacuna, because they exists simultaneously as a whole. Life and death are placed into a false binary in our culture. In reality they move fluidly between one another and their surfaces come into contact and intersect at all points of space and time. People are taught to shy away from death and to think of it as “unnatural”. It is a way we culturally divide ourselves from other non-human animal species. For life to exist, death must happen. "


If you'd like to see the show or request a price list, send us an email to make an appointment. The show is up through September 30th and is an absolute must-see. 



Front Street: Celebrating Student Photographers

Last night Nick and I opened what we felt was the most successful (and most fun) opening thus far. Front Street featured 24 photographs by three Ypsilanti Community School students: Berek Clouse of Estabrook Elementary School, Sydney Johnson of Washtenaw International Middle Academy, and Martell Johnson, a recent graduate of Ypsilanti Community High School. The theme was left open to interpretation of each student photographer and while we saw certain elements of Ypsilanti — the river, train tracks, buildings — composition and weight of importance differed greatly. 

Each student had worked with Nick previously and were chosen based on their affinity to the medium and potential. We talked to them about what to photograph and then spent collective hours curating each artist's eight photos, out of over 1,400 images. After titling and setting on a price, each was framed and installed.

Last night students presented their work and even "worked the room" a bit, interpreting and selling their works, moving half of the show out the door! 100% of sales went directly to the photographers. 

This entire project was made possible by Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs and facilitated by Russ Olwell, Director of Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Communities at Eastern Michigan University. We want to thank all the families and friends which participated in this process and supported the students last night. They are truly exceptional and we see wonderful things happening for each budding photographer. Congratulations, Berek, Sydney and Martell!



Our intern extraordinaire: Ashanti

We are really happy to introduce you to Ashanti Johnson, our new intern at Chin-Azzaro! 

A couple months ago, I was making the rounds during our opening and I met a student that had ventured out on her own for the night. Ashanti struck me immediately with her knowledge, confidence (and compliments, who doesn't love hearing those?) Nick and I had coincidentally started talking about taking on an intern to learn the ropes of the studio: marketing, publicity, project timeline planning, general administrative tasks, areas we needed support as our business grew. 

After five minutes of conversation, I hired her on the spot. And to top it off, I found out she and Nick attended the same high school. It was meant to be!

Here's a short and sweet Q&A but please stop in and meet Ashanti during our next opening (which is NOT on a First Friday but rather Thursday, Sept 10th at 6 pm. Jessica Tenbusch and I will have an artist's conversation at 7 pm about her show Lacuna: Life Through Death).

CA: Who are your favorite artists, figures that inspire you? 

AJ: One of my biggest inspirations and favorite artists since I was very young has been Jean- Michel Basquiat. The themes of his art and how they inspire the viewer to see the deep truths of our society when it comes to race, class and knowledge through abstract figures and graffiti really influences a lot of my art. Some of my other favorite artist and inspirations include Frida Kahlo, Kehinde Wiley, Cree Summer and Kara Walker.

CA: What’s your major/minor and favorite classes? 

AJ: I major in graphic design and my favorite classes so far have been my 3D art classes. Although I work mostly in 2D, the classes have helped me see art in a whole new light, now I see art in literally everything.

CA: What do you do to de-stress?

AJ: Write, I've always enjoyed writing poems and short stories it helps me forget about all the stress and worries.

CA: What are your favorite things to do in Ypsi?

AJ: I love going to The Ugly Mug to grab a cup of coffee and visiting the local venues during First Fridays.

CA: What will the name of your gallery be? 

AJ: Artists On The Rise Gallery and Studios.... Or at least something like that , a place for aspiring artists to get mentored and display their art.

CA: The last word?

AJ: s an avid learner I'm so excited to intern with Chin-Azzaro and learn more things about the art world! I am so thankful to be apart of Ypsi's unique and rising art scene and I hope to make my own mark and someday help aspiring artists like myself. :)






DIYpsi is such a fun, momentous event for artists and patrons in Ypsi. It was this weekend and we got to make a quick run through it Saturday morning. (I think I appeased our son with ice cream for breakfast...brunch?) It was at Corner Brewery again with indoor and outdoor spaces as well as some awesome live music. Check out some of the highlights.

Save the date...

Save the date...

Our friend Cre Fuller and his Angry Tin Men.

Our friend Cre Fuller and his Angry Tin Men.

Getting some beauty goods with Shevaughn at ANEL, A Naturally Empowered Life. 

Getting some beauty goods with Shevaughn at ANEL, A Naturally Empowered Life. 

Beautiful hand dyed bags at Moonbeam. 

Beautiful hand dyed bags at Moonbeam. 

Handmade products at humble. 

Handmade products at humble. 

Curated goods at Friend's Closet.

Curated goods at Friend's Closet.

Go! Ice Cream. Yum. 

Go! Ice Cream. Yum. 

Our buddies at Hyperion Coffee.

Our buddies at Hyperion Coffee.

Hooray for First Fridays!

Hooray for First Fridays!