If you are walking down South Division in Downtown Grand Rapids, it isn’t hard to recognize that you are in the heart of a community that expresses itself through art. The street is encompassed by local galleries and shops, and best of all you can see murals and street art on every corner. And at the end of this month, you will be able to see a brand new mural being painted in the lot of 106 South Division between Cherry St. and Oakes St.
The mural is being designed by young artists from the Cook Arts Center on Grandville Avenue in collaboration with staff from the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) and the Avenue for the Arts program of Dwelling Place. The teens came to Heartside to meet with residents from all different backgrounds. Their goal was to gain a deeper understanding of where residents come from, and to portray the people of Heartside with a mural that reflects who they are.
It isn’t a secret that there are some negative assumptions about the people who reside along the corridor, but when Antonio J., 16, was asked what surprised him most about visiting South Division, he responded with a smile, “There are a lot of stereotypes about this neighborhood… but I like seeing all of the different cultures in one place. I was surprised how nice people are because of the stigma regarding homeless people.” The teens interacted with residents by visiting the Herkimer Apartments and Verne Barry Place with posters asking what types of visual aesthetics residents found appealing, and about their individual history and experiences living along South Division. They also attended a Heartside Neighborhood Association meeting where they presented rough draft design concepts and received direct feedback. It was easy to sense a feeling of exuberance coming from the young artists. Dulce L., 17, added “The more art that’s outside, [it] could help kill negative stereotypes in the neighborhood.” At a young age these artists are confident in knowing that what they are creating will be a lasting staple in the neighborhood that will be remembered.
The mural is also a piece of a larger collaboration involving the UICA and nationally renowned artist Seitu Jones.The mural design will be printed on a table runner that will stretch along a table set for 250 members of the community to sit down together for a meal, so that public servants, residents, artists, and others can have a conversation about food access, food justice, and urban agriculture. This meal is being curated by Seitu Jones, a visual artist who has created over 30 large-scale public artworks. One of his more notable pieces was creATE, a dinner designed to bring together 2000 people at a table a half mile long which took place in Minneapolis. He graciously admits “This is not a unique idea, this is an idea I stole, I stole it liberally. And stole it from my parents, from my grandparents, on and on for 83 generations we’ve been sitting down and having meals and breaking bread. And there have been other artists, along the way who have used food not just as a theme but have done meals in different ways. Artists have been working like this for a long time.”
Jones went on to explain, “…[in the past] I collaborated with different artists on different elements. And we’re going to be doing that here too. With creATE we commissioned 2 poets to write the before meal grace and another to write the benediction afterwards. So these were poems that were meant to inspire us, but also something we could say in unison. So we will be working with a local poet here, Kyd Kane, who will write this grace for before the meal.” Jones talks about how he worked with his neighbor who is a nationally recognized artist and papermaker; they foraged for burdock plant in their neighborhood and gathered enough to make paper plates for every person at the creATE dinner. “So what you all are doing by making this runner, is another part of this collaboration…. You all are my collaborators on this, so it is important to begin to localize [this project]. Therefore it is very important for the artists who are working on this to be seated at the table.” Also attending the dinner will be the teens from Cook Arts Center and the Heartside Garden Club members.
Dwelling Place Garden Clubs in the Heartside neighborhood are also contributing to the community meal. Paul Heitz, has been growing plants in the Verne Barry Place Community Garden for two summers. During a recent visit to the Garden Club, Heitz expressed that he is excited to, “be a part of something unique.” Heitz also shared that most often, “Other gardens share crops with the whole neighborhood, but we don’t. Our garden only benefits people participating. People only participate who like gardening.” But this year is different. Residents in four gardens are currently growing collard greens that will be a part of the community dinner curated by Jones. In fact, collards have been integral to Jones’ work and are inspiring his collard green shrine that will hang in the UICA’s Vertical Gallery, a 40 ft space for suspended work, during ArtPrize 2017.
As an artist, Seitu Jones has always blended art and nature together. When asked about how this meal can be viewed as a public art piece he was sparked by the challenge. He said, “This piece with the UICA, I am framing through an artist’s eyes. In a sense I’m curating this meal. But it is an artistic endeavor, it is an art piece, that’s the way I look at it…..I look at this performing a lot of different functions.” Jones went on to say, “ I hope to be able to plant a seed, literally and figuratively, about food access and food justice. In particular, here and Heartside, a community that doesn’t have close access to fruits and vegetables. A community that doesn’t have access to healthy eating. “ Jones’s philosophy about connecting people is essential to building the right kind of dinner conversation “With our public servants at the table we can begin a discussion on food policy and food privilege being a right to people. The reason that this should happen is because, just because it’s the right thing to do. And this is the right place and the right time to do it.”
Community members are invited to participate in the conversation by joining Cook Arts Center teens to help paint the mural on August 4th, during the Avenue for the Arts First Fridays event. Meet more residents like gardener Paul Heitz during the Tour of Hidden Downtown Gardens on August 4th, guests must RSVP to save their tour spot. Finally, UICA’shttp://www.artprize.org/66414 “> ArtPrize Nine exhibition ‘Cultivate’ which includes video documentation of the Heartside Community Meal as well as a site-specific installation by Jones, is on view Sept. 09 – December 10, 2017.’Cultivate’ at UICA is a curated group show that uses food as a lens to examine cultural history, social equity, and the effects of globalization on communities.
The Avenue for the Arts is a neighborhood title for the South Division commercial corridor. We are residential, commercial and nonprofit groups working together in a creative community. We are residents in Heartside, and active participants in shaping change in our neighborhood. In 2005, we choose the Avenue for the Arts as a title to represent our commercial corridor and the projects and events that we create. Because the Avenue is powered by volunteers guest writers create our Rapidian content. Special thanks to Shelby Orebaugh for her contribution of this piece. Shelby is a fine artist, an aspiring gallery and business owner , and she plans to one day be a stand up comedian and travel the world.
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