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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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The Transported Man at Broad Art Museum

Yesterday was a picturesque fall day, blue skies, brisk wind, warm and full sunshine. I was in East Lansing meeting a dear friend for lunch. Afterwards we decided to head to Broad Art Museum. If you've never been to the namesake museum of husband and wife contemporary collectors, Eli and Edythe Broad (rhymes with "road"), it's worth the effort. The exhibits are easily accessible and you can spend an afternoon or a few minutes taking in a gallery or two. We bypassed the basement galleries in the interest of time. The jutting lines of the museum are quite beautiful against the pomp and circumstance of MSU's classical buildings. 


We entered through the west side of the building where we were met with some full-on floor to ceiling trippy, Dada-esque imagery. The exhibit was titled TOILETPAPER.

Maurizio Cattelan, TOILETPAPER

Maurizio Cattelan, TOILETPAPER

The current main exhibit, The Transported Man, is group exhibition with a number of effective and jaw-dropping works. Inspired by the 1995 novel (and a movie that I will actually watch more than once), The Prestige, asks viewers to suspend their notion of what is reality and believe in the trickery in front of them. 

"The Transported Man exemplifies the three phases of a magic trick, wherein a magician appears onstage (the Pledge), disappears through a door (the Turn), and reappears immediately through another door (the Prestige)."

Ugo Rondinone,  Clockwork for Oracles I , 2008

Ugo Rondinone, Clockwork for Oracles I, 2008

I took a number of awful photos on my phone. Hence, the limited number of images. But I couldn't help but stop in my tracks when I saw Daniel Firman's elephant in the room. 

Daniel Firman,  Loxodont , 2017, resin 

Daniel Firman, Loxodont, 2017, resin 


I'm not typically one for "bigger is better" but this is one of those pieces you have to see to believe. Known for suspension and balance, Firman's work since 2008 has centered around life size elephants (at one time models of taxidermy) installed in precarious moments. Only after I had referred to the wall and saw that it was "resin", could I circle around the Goliath. I had a visceral response to not only the massiveness, but I was also holding on to the belief that at any moment, the grip of the trunk could be compromised and the 900 pound elephant would come crashing down. (The installation came in three pieces and barely fit through the freight elevator). 

You can feel the desperateness, a pull of falling yet holding on, that moment before the fibers give way, and the inevitable may happen. It's quite delightful and horrifying at the same time. 

There are some other delightful elements of the show, a rumbling intermittent "thunder" produced by instruments. And there's a sweet little Marcel Duchamp tucked upstairs. I also thoroughly enjoyed Ryan Gander's Nathaniel Knows, an installation piece in a quiet room of its own, drywall pulled away to reveal an otherworldly outdoors through a small opening in the floor. It's eerie effect is given even more power as my friend and I got down on our hands and knees and peered in. 

Robin Meier and André Gwerder's piece, Synchronicity, is an immersive experience led by a docent. We walked into a tent (and then another) and entered a world of red glowing outdoors. Inside you hear white noise, buzzing, you see dry brush, bushes, record players, a metronome-pendulum swinging. As the docent stops it, she explains there are crickets chirping as they've assimilated to the artificial noise created. There were lightning bugs glowing to the environmental lights but they sadly succumbed after an arduous trip from Thailand and then being on display for so long...

See a slideshow of some of the pieces mentioned here

The Transported Man is only showing through October 22nd, 2017. If you have an opportunity, I highly recommend a visit to give yourself a moment away from reality. 

Broad Art Museum | Michigan State University, 547 East Circle Drive | $10 suggested donation | Open Tuesday through Sunday, 12-7 pm



Murakami at MCA

We had the opportunity to stroll through the Takashi Murakami show at Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago recently and it was a treat. The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg, as its aptly called is just as queer as it is enchanting. I've been following his work since the onslaught of contemporary works took over in the early 2000s at auction. I consider Murakami in the same vein of notoriety as Jeff Koons, Ai Wei Wei, Yayoi Kusama, but even more commercial. His collaboration with Louis Vuitton and Kanye West covers prove that.

Because I love illustration and graphic novels, his anime and pop creatures have always spoken to my love of heavy linework and flat color. In his early work you can see undulating lines and texture forming a foundation for the heavily layered later canvases.


I particularly enjoyed the works around 2008 (above), where Murakami directed his works toward classical elements and figures. Japanese congi and motifs occupied much of the otherwise modern canvases. Demonic like monoliths were also a highlight with their larger-than-life presence, hovering over us like evil deities. Below, blacklights glowed a mystic light over long scroll paintings, reminiscent of Japanese decorative drawings.

Some of us enjoyed the show more than others.

Some of us enjoyed the show more than others.


Murakami's latest works were gigantic genre paintings, capturing everyday imagery of life but hyper stylized to capture the advent of technological advances in paint, layering, digital illustration. They were a bit raucous, like Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights on LSD. The application of paint was overwrought for me but the video of the process and the sheer manpower it takes to produce his ideas is staggering. Not to mention the plethora of paint and the spectrum in his palette. It's quite impressive. 

The Octopus Eats Its Own Leg is runs through September 11th and is included with regular admission. Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave., Chicago. 





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. 




Last Friday was our first venture into art experiences rather than exhibits. While showing regional work for retail sale was important, it didn't feel fulfilling as a community contribution. When Nick started talking about doing a camera obscura a while back, we though it was the perfect opportunity to show our visitors that programming can be affordable, but highly enriching. 

We had two waves of people come through with free tickets, ready to experience the inside of the camera obscura, which translates to "dark room". If you make a box or in this case, a room, completely dark and only let in a pinhole of light, light fills the space with the exterior image, inverse and upside down. I still can't explain the physics of it but this is what happens inside our eyes, inside a camera, inside a pinhole camera. It's really quite extraordinary. 

The first experience yielded fairly good representation of the street and particularly the farmers' market building across the way. We learned that late morning light gave us the best image in terms of sharpness and vibrancy but people were in awe all the same. The second wave was not as strong as this time, the sun had moved lower in the sky (around 6:30 pm) and we were getting less of an image. But when people and cars went by, it was quite thrilling. And although we were the ones in the "box", it felt quite voyeuristic as people didn't know we were seeing them. Upside down. 

Here's a short visual story on the process. We want to thank everyone that took the time to come out and get locked in the studio with us. It was a wonderful learning and social experiment. Lots more to come! 




Pop•X: panel discussion and coverage

Image: Current Magazine

Image: Current Magazine

Now that Nick's installation is in place at Pop•X, he can breathe a little easier. The photographs and sculpture came together without too much ado so that was a relief. The festival has been received warmly and we're grateful to Omari Rush and all the artists and organizers for their ardent efforts.

Below are a few places you can read and see photos of the festival if you can't make it. And I'll be moderating the Art for Innovators talk on Workspace Design tomorrow, Monday, Oct 19th. Should be a great time, see you there!

Detroit News

Current Magazine  

Current Mag Facebook page  

MLive  | MLive video





Exhibiting, jurying and moderating at Pop•X

Our friend Omari Rush has been really busy over the last year. He's the Curator of Public Programs at the Ann Arbor Art Center and has been producing Pop•X, an arts festival of ten pop-up pavilions in Liberty Plaza. The public square is located at the corner of Division and Liberty Streets in downtown Ann Arbor and will be transformed starting next week, into a ephemeral playground of installations and happenings. 

We were lucky enough to take part on a few different levels. During the planning stages of the festival, I got to sit in on some preliminary meetings and then jury the exhibitors. And as it turns out, Nick is one of them. I won't give too much away, but his work will speak directly to the usual inhabitants of Liberty Plaza, a group of citizens that are often marginalized for various reasons, who will be displaced during the festival. You can see his pavilion and work on opening day, October 15th through October 24th. 

I'll moderate a talk, Workspace Design, on Monday, October 19th at the Ann Arbor District Library. I'm excited to sit down and talk to a group of innovative business owners in the area including Sava Lelcaj Farah: CEO, Savco Hospitality; Shane Pliska: CEO, Planterra; and Dug Song: CEO, Duo Security. It's a free event and fascinating topic so I'm certain this will draw a crowd. 

We hope to see you there! 



Natural Selection opening with Megan Williamson

This past Friday I got to see my dear friend and talented artist Megan Williamson. We're showing her exhibit Natural Selection, fifteen recent works,  through June 30th. She and her son Gavin drove in from Chicago for the opening to talk about a variety of landscapes, still lifes and floral paintings. (There were also two drawings done in her signature sumi ink on Claycoat paper and an abstract oil of a storm, aptly titled Storm). 

I first met Megan through a friend of a friend and was immediately taken with her aesthetic. I showed her work back in 2009 and it's a pleasure to champion her work which belongs in over 100 private and public collections throughout the world. She's been featured on Design*Sponge and has limited editions on Artfully Walls.  Her work is beautiful and immersive. 

Megan Williamson talks about her latest landscapes with Executive Director of Riverside Art Center, Will Hathaway.

Megan Williamson talks about her latest landscapes with Executive Director of Riverside Art Center, Will Hathaway.

We had enthusiastic crowds throughout the evening and lots of activity on the street – another successful First Fridays Ypsilanti!

We urge you to stop in and see this exhibit. Megan is truly a master of color, line and form and this is a show not to be missed. This is our last exhibit of the spring season and we'll highlight previous artists for upcoming FFY nights (with an art sale on July 10th and August 7th). Thanks to everyone that has been a patron the first four months of our exhibition history. It's been a blast!




Recap: First Fridays Ypsi with Jessica Krcmarik

This past Friday we opened Feast: A Visual Spread, a collection of illustrations from Detroit artist Jessica Krcmarik. We got to show off her new series of everyday objects and delicious foods. Titles include What He Likes (which was sold that evening) and What Kids Like. Cute, eh? We were also lucky enough to have her live drawing the entire night as people watched in awe of her handiwork. 

Our artist info sheet and price list. To receive one of your own,  please email us.

Our artist info sheet and price list. To receive one of your own, please email us.

Moments before opening, the studio flooded with light.

Moments before opening, the studio flooded with light.

We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful evening. 

We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful evening. 

Delicious cookies from Terry Bakery

Delicious cookies from Terry Bakery

Jessica got right to work on a still life set up as people looked on curiously. 

Jessica got right to work on a still life set up as people looked on curiously. 

If you're interested in acquiring one of Jessica's illustrated gems, feel free to give us a call at 734-929-2498 or email us to see photos. Stay tuned for details on our June artist, Megan Williamson, before we take our summer break from art openings. 



Dear Artist...

Over the last two months we've received a mound of submissions to exhibit in our humble space. Being the competitive process that it is, I've had to send more "no"s than "yes"es. And yet everyone has been gracious with the feedback regardless of outcome. What I've learned is that artists are itching not only for a place to show, but a place to be seen and possibly sell. I don't claim to be an "expert" at anything, I simply have a platform in which to sell the work. But I'll delve into that later.

I was compelled to write this post because of an email I received over the weekend. After teetering on a photographer whose work I thought was captivating and technically sound, I passed on the opportunity to show her work because she was enjoying editorial success. In her enthusiastic response, she shared that she was recovering from a recent stroke. She had lost some of the peripheral vision in her left eye but was still continuing to "get out there everyday with my little camera!" That truly touched me and made me remember my own anticipation when I was on the other side of the vetting process, how nerve wracking it was, the hope you hold to find out if your work will be seen.

Every one of you has a circumstance that I know nothing about and all I get is a small snippet of your life experience in a digital folder. For that, I am incredibly grateful. "Thank you" to each and every one of you that submitted.

I'm really humbled by this experience and feel I can lend some advice and hopefully help some of you to gain some understanding on how to continue the path. I'd also like to shed some light on how I make the decisions I do and what you should look for in a gallery and dealer. 

Dain Mergenthaler

Dain Mergenthaler

Traditionally, galleries sustained artists with a stipend so they could live and create art until the opening of a show and beyond. There are still a handful of high-caliber galleries that practice this model but most simply don't have the capability to function at this level. We certainly don't. I do not represent artists in an ongoing manner, but I do publicize, market, advocate for, live, breathe, sleep that artist's work during the months leading up to the event and the entirety of the exhibit. (And we do have contracts which allow for us to keep and sell work past the exhibit but relinquish upon the artist's request).  

From my understanding, the few galleries serving this immediate area have shuttered their exhibition programming or moved on. And there are even fewer chances to be highlighted as a solo artist. We are a small operation but we've had big experiences in the past. I've worked with contemporary artists like Julian Stanczak and Jerome Witkin and curated traveling museum exhibitions. I understand the practices to get work seen and I'd like to apply that to this market.

I look for thematic confidence. Meaning, how well do the pieces look together? After all, hanging a retail exhibit is very much about merchandising. For our Virtuous show, Jermaine Dickerson produced new graphite drawings, mixed media paintings and charcoal sketches, but all on the same topic - modern day media coverage and the state of sexism, racism and injustice - based around the comic book genre.

I'm a stickler for presentation so even if your work is on extravagant paper or your sculptures stand seven feet high, I have to consider how that translates in our space — a storefront with a track hanging system and approximately 11 foot ceilings. It is unlikely, but not impossible, for me to hang works on paper with metal clips and nailed to the wall. I don't think this looks professional nor inspires confidence in a buyer, no matter how exceptional a work is. You may think this is snobbery, but I'm trying to strike a balance between the museum guidelines I once adhered to, the gallery presentation of American works I'm used to and the early 20th century architecture of our building with a combination of cement, plaster and drywall surfaces.

We only show solo exhibits right now and that's what I intend indefinitely. Could you imagine an album that only had one or two songs from each artist? This type of compilation dilutes the aesthetic vision of the artist and understanding the intent and curating a good show takes time and exposure to a theme. My father, who is also an artist, once told me that a good painting means you can imagine the whole world in the style of the work, like you opened the front door one day and everything was saturated Gaughin. Since we're familiar with big names like Van Gogh and Picasso, we know what to expect. But with an unknown or contemporary artist, we need time to cleanse the palette, recalibrate and adjust to their vision. I believe solo shows are the only way to do this.

We enter into a contract where I have responsibilities to publicize and market you in the best light, in a way that's honest to your product. There are certain costs I will cover including print materials and signage supporting the opening, food and drink costs and occasionally supplies and/or framing depending on the deal. A dealer should always be able to disclose what pieces have sold and for what amount during the duration of a contract. They should also be able to relinquish your pieces when you request them, if, this was part of your contract as well. 

As the artist you also have responsibilities to deliver the caliber and number of works discussed, on time. They can't be owned by anyone else, unless they're on loan for a show with explicit understanding by all parties. Requests (whether it be for supplies, framing, extensions, what ever it may be) should be asked for in advance when possible. 

In terms of the submission process itself, following directions is of utmost importance. We (curators, dealers, gallerists) sift through dozens of submissions weekly and standardizing the process makes us able to consume images and keep track more easily. I recommend hiring or swapping with a photographer to take the best lit photographs possible against blank, unfussy backgrounds. I've received CVs and resumes in Word, text and jpeg formats but PDF ensures things don't get scrambled and look how you intended them to when you sent them off. 

And as you may have guessed, salability is keyBecause our exhibiting venture is still in its budding stages (our first show and panel discussion was only two weeks ago, selling five out of nine works), we're testing the waters to see what people will buy and whether sales will come via online and phone. But we're hopeful our expertise will drive people to buy in-person over what the internet has offered the last couple decades, much like the craft beer movement is sweeping big grocery store staples. There's nothing like seeing a piece in person (which is why I schedule studio visits when I can), so I'm hoping to capture the group that would normally purchase on Etsy or a reproduction from a site. 

Dennis Jones

Dennis Jones

I'm also keeping in mind what's easily consumable for a first time art buyer, a corporate collection, a longtime collector. Each show will test out a different price point as I'd like most people that enjoy art to be able to add something to their collection while seasoned buyers will be challenged with contemporary art that's not just "decorative" but authentic and well-executed

Finally, it's true. It does come down to what I like — what I find interesting, engaging, challenging. When I look at a submission, I have to believe there is a journey of longevity and collaboration. I'm a proponent for the arts and therefore, a fighter for the artist. 

Even though the submission season has ended, please don't hesitate to ask if you ever have a question.  The images in this post are a few of the artist submissions I've accumulated over the last two months. Enjoy. 




Art, Lately

After the winter hibernation, spring is one of my favorite times of year for art-seeing. There's revived energy, excitement and the exhibition season is taking off with high expectations with our first event tomorrow night. 

This past week has been a packed schedule of artist visits and just some cool pieces along the way. 

A detail of a painting by Molly Diana, our November 2015 artist.

A detail of a painting by Molly Diana, our November 2015 artist.

Screenprinted fabrics at Stamps School of Art & Design

Screenprinted fabrics at Stamps School of Art & Design

A piece from the MFA at Stamps

A piece from the MFA at Stamps

Another piece from the MFA show

Another piece from the MFA show

A few of the pieces from Margaret Hitch's 24 piece series. See it in its entirety this October.

A few of the pieces from Margaret Hitch's 24 piece series. See it in its entirety this October.

A piece from the Graduate show at Ford Gallery at EMU

A piece from the Graduate show at Ford Gallery at EMU

John Murrel at Ford Gallery at EMU

John Murrel at Ford Gallery at EMU

Get out there. See some art. Be inspired.