Don’t Be a Jerk: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Grand Rapids, Michigan

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(The only thing the DAAC left behind after being kicked out of their home for a decade was this decal.  Nuff said.)

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(An image of downtown Grand Rapids)

The Division Avenue Arts Collective (DAAC) is having a board meeting in the back of Have Company, a small retail store owned by Marlee Grace.  For ten years the DAAC and the building in which it was housed were one in the same.  On August 1, 2013, just three weeks shy of their ten year anniversary, the new owner terminated the DAAC’s month-to-month lease from its home at 115 S. Division.  A shockwave rippled through the artistic community of Grand Rapids and western Michigan.  In the past ten years the DAAC hosted thousands of community events, concerts, exhibitions, and performances.  Fueled by volunteers, the DAAC helped nourish a vibrant artistic community and gave life to Division Street, defined by a mix of boutique shops, work-live residencies, and homeless missions.

My connection to Grand Rapids is John Hanson—photographer, musician, and DAAC board member.  He introduces me to everyone on the board, consisting of twenty-something musicians and visual artists.  The meeting opens and quickly I see that they aren’t going to let the DAAC die but finding its next incarnation seems to be a significant challenge.  What will the collective become?  How will a collection of busy, young artists go forward and reshape the heart of the city’s creative community?  They need to find a new location.  They might need to spend a significant amount of money transforming a location into a legal music venue.  They might need a lawyer; they might need a CPA—both of whom cost money a not-for-profit venue can’t easily afford.  Most importantly, they might need someone who is willing to become the head of this operation—a challenge considering the schedules of most board members.

In 2011, I met Jon Hanson at a house show in Chicago.  That night his band, Photographers, stood out from the rest and I asked if they would do an interview for the Hiawatha Review, a website I started dedicated to Midwest music.  Over the years, we’ve kept in touch.  Along the way he’s introduced me to some of the talented people of Grand Rapids (something of an artistic colony in the heart of Michigan),The Soil and the Sun, Antrim Dells, and Pat Perry.  Unless you live there, these names most likely mean nothing to you.  Over my short time in the city I came to realize that Grand Rapids is pound-for-pound one of the most talented cities in the Midwest and maybe all of America.  From all the comments on Facebook, I could tell that this community was deeply affected by the loss of the DAAC and that this story could get to the essence of the community and explain what makes the city so unique.

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(Pat Perry’s Outlived I)

Pat Perry

The artist Pat Perry grew up in Comstock Park, Michigan, a small community just north of Grand Rapids.  He moved to the city to attend Kendall College of Art and Design but ended up dropping out after three years.  “Be careful what you take in,” he said before explaining that it seemed people at Kendall were trying to shift the focus away from why he got into art in the first place and were stifling those pure things he held dear.

From someone outside of the creative arts, a comment like that might sound soft or a bit paranoid—but I knew what he was trying to say while not providing specific detail, names, or incidents.  There are moments in art school when a teacher gives advice and the student listens and wonders if their teacher has either just finished smoking crack or is simply an idiot.

Let me try to explain moments like this.  As a writing student, I had an advisor tell me that I needed to do something about a plotline because it lacked tension and urgency—which it did—this instructor continued to pitch the plot line for I Know What You Did Last Summer.  I was paying thousands of dollars for the course and felt this advice was asinine.   This was graduate school and the advice felt appropriate for middle school.  While I wasn’t a great writer, I wasn’t an idiot.  Maybe he thought I was.  Either way, I stopped taking his advice and began to disconnect from him as a mentor.   I can only imagine the bad advice offered at undergraduate art programs, some of which can be intellectually challenging and amazing, most probably existing in a realm just above craft courses at summer camp.  Perry believed that the institution had dropped its standards as a result of boosting its enrollment, creating an environment that stopped challenging him.

“I was going to work just as hard in the arts as if I was in the medical field,” Perry said.  At some point during his third year, he didn’t feel the program offered him anything of value.  “I understood that everyone was in a different place as an artist.  It wasn’t about natural talent but about how bad someone wanted it.  I constantly pushed myself and ended up making more work outside of school than in school.  Many of my classmates weren’t putting in the same effort.”  America, to Perry, had tied the notion of success with attending college, resulting in millions of kids who hate reading and writing spending thousands of dollars a year to go to college (many who drop out and carry around debt like an albatross).  Perry noted that the status quo is backwards.  “Eighteen-year-olds don’t need a reason not to go to college.  They need a reason to go.  If anyone is going to pay all that money, it better be for a good reason.  Only when someone knows where they want to go can they take the first step in that direction.  College is too expensive for wandering.”

Education itself has become about people simply following directions. “But if you’re studying art, why go someplace where you are just following directions?” Perry asked.  He pointed out that the passive, receptive philosophy most art schools practice doesn’t teach students to think for themselves, to have the courage to act, nor to become intellectual leaders.  For Perry, the act of dropping out was somewhat of a courageous act because in the back of his mind he knew graduating was the socially acceptable thing to do, and that it wouldn’t be difficult to coast through his final year.  But after leaving school he was able to read more books, talk with insightful people, travel to different parts of the world, and learn important lessons about life—something college didn’t seem to offer.

I asked him to describe living in Grand Rapids as an artist.  “I don’t hang out with a lot of artists.  Two of my friends work at a powder coating factory, another is a truck driver.”  He explained that he doesn’t want to surround himself with only artists but admits to being motivated by other artists in the area.  On a pragmatic level, his cohort of artists share physical tools, allowing them to experiment with different materials and techniques while avoiding expensive studio space.  Socially, the city offers him that balance to be able to slide in and out of the creative community.  “Getting too caught up in just the art scene is something I’m mindful of.  To me art seems to be romanticized as making something pretty.  I’m lusty for good craftsmanship and beautiful style, but when it’s just pretty—it’s empty.  It has to be truthful.”

Perry’s work possesses a steak of experimental style, and I wanted to know how he is able to be truthful while working outside of realism.  “I never considered myself a surrealist with regards to escapism.  It’s more of an interpretation or dissection of real life.”  Perry explained how he lets real life experience influence him and his art work becomes an expression of his understanding of that moment, like a prism taking white light and breaking it down into R.O.Y.G.B.I.V.  He told me that he worries about the metaphor getting convoluted, resulting in a loss of meaning, becoming escapist art.

“Art is what I have to do in order to communicate,” he said.  “This is where you can pull art down from the clouds as some big, high thing and instead see it as a tool, as something practical.”  Perry talked about how most of the time humans communicate through language but that people can communicate feelings in unwritten and unspoken ways.  That art allows certain people a way to express what it means to be human.

One way to think about this is how humans express love.  I can tell you, “I love you.”  We can make love.  Think about the word ‘intercourse’—communication or communion between individuals.  But there are subtler ways to show love.  I can cook you dinner.  I can buy you a great gift, not necessarily expensive but thoughtful.  Basically, these are all ways to express love. Except humans have many more emotions than just love.  The arts help humans to record what it is like for one person to be human.

“I’m communicating with an audience.  To me it is very much about the audience.”  Perry explained that he enjoys the process of making art but doesn’t think of himself as the intended audience.  “A lot of art I like isn’t representational, but it’s advantageous to make art somewhat representational because then there is a hierarchical level of accessibility.”  He went on to explain that his uncle, a mechanic at Ford without any artistic training, can look at his work and get something from it and appreciate it.  But then, on a different level, there are other things that a critic or an artist will see.  The challenge for Perry is to thread the needle in a way so both groups can access the work.  “I struggle with this.  It’s something that I haven’t perfected.”

Two examples of works that show how Perry blends surreal and representational styles can be seen in “Outlived I” and “Outlived II.”  While Perry loves the old guard of American Landscape painters, like Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper, he acknowledges that landscapes without people might be too simple, quiet, and subtle for audiences that are used to looking at hundreds of images a day online.  “So how do I make a landscape not quiet?  I reverse the figure and the foreground.  At the bottom of each of his paintings are the shoulders of a figure, hinting at a traditional portrait, but heads seem to be covered in some sort of liquid, which can be noted if one looks at the noses and mouths.  Whatever covers their heads opens up to a landscape of an abandoned scene set in rural America—trailers, electric lines, bricks, broken wooden walls, trees with a sparse amount of leaves, and a broken tractor.  These landscapes don’t exist neatly in a rectangle frame, but Perry consciously leaves white space on the canvas.

I ask him if there were specific places.  “Lowell, Michigan.”  We talk about the trend among artists who choose to celebrate America’s abandoned buildings, Detroit being a hotbed of such activity.  Perry makes a point that traditional portraits were made for rich people—they were the only ones who could afford to pay a painter.  So what does it mean to put someone poor in a painting?  What does it mean to show abandoned sites throughout America?  I think about how Classical art celebrates beauty and symmetry; how Romantic art celebrates the common man; now there seems to be an emphasis in art that points to how contemporary culture has allowed opulent architecture (Michigan Central Station) to go to waste.  While I don’t know what Perry thinks about this, I personally am disappointed and disgusted with the people who’ve let Detroit’s once beautiful Amtrak station fall into such disrepair, as I am with those who destroyed the old Pennsylvania Station in New York.  The drive for progress has been destructive, and those doing the driving are often blind ideologues, apathetic megalomaniacs, or both— Robert Moses.

I can’t help but feel the human presence in both “Outlived” pieces.  Were they intentionally abandoned or left because of hard times?  They are human-less in the sense that you will not find a person but are full of human relics.  The thumbprint of man is everywhere.  When I share my thoughts with Perry, he looks at me and says, “I don’t want to have to talk about this stuff.”  I understand.  The moment he starts sharing his opinion on his work it will become dogmatic.  It’s better to keep things unsaid.

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(Perry’s Nerd Herder)

Perry talks about how some of his work, for example Nerd Herder, is a “fun and nifty picture that doesn’t say much.”  That work allowed him to find a certain artistic vocabulary.  I asked him about whether or not he does sketches before starting a piece.  “I’m shameless about making a plan.”  But he then explained how he did a wall in Berlin without a plan at all.

“There is more urgency in me now.”  Perry explained how over the past couple years he has matured as a person and is more concerned with how the effects of globalization and class war are hurting people.  “I’m optimistic but not full of false hope.  Do I continue making art or do I move hay to save the flooding town?  Can I do both?”  Perry recognized that being an artist can’t change everything but that a small section of what he’s doing does make a difference.

So often in news or in a film, antagonism takes the form of some absolute evil—Taliban, greedy businesspeople, corrupt politicians—but for most people antagonism is subtle.  In the daily grind of life, people are more likely to hear discouraging words.  No one will physically stop you from doing anything, but many people will whisper comments under their breath “stop being so serious.”  Perry pointed out that art has been one thing that has allowed him to swim against the flow of dominant culture with which he disagrees.  “It’s not the big battle, but the fifty small compromises we make every day.”  Making good choices can be radical, like dropping out of school for Perry.  In popular discourse going against the grain seems to be about being rebellious for the sake of rebellion.   For Perry it’s about living a moral life.

In 2013 Perry traveled to Barcelona to present at OFFF, Let’s Feed The Future, celebrating art at design, as a featured artist.  The three-day event had over twenty speakers, many commercial artists, most talking about their portfolios.  They seemed focused on answering ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions.  But before Perry left for Europe a friend asked him the all-important question: what would you say if you had one chance to say something that you thought was important to a lot of people?  He spoke to the audience about living in Grand Rapids and creating outside of the world of commercial art and pop culture.  “I don’t like being around a lot of money.  I’ve never been impressed with wealth.  I never thought people were cool because of that stuff.”  Perry acknowledged that complaining about money is cliché but wanted to emphasize that we live in a consumer culture that defines value along the lines of money.  Instead, he believed that people should shift towards activities that have intrinsic rewards.  “Most people have horrible or monotonous jobs.  If I have been granted amnesty from a job that serves the common good in a tangible and practical way, then I must fill that empty space, and fill it aggressively with studying, listening, and making useful cultural work that sprays some truth and beauty.”

His speech focused on the need for a shift in values surrounding hoarding of goods and instead emphasized using them—studying the world, listening to music, making art.  “This art is me.”  On his website Perry has shared images from his sketchbook.  There are images of his home state, to share with the people he’d met in Europe, as well as images created during his time in Barcelona, Zurich, and Germany.  There are photos he’s taken; words he’s written.  “The more you see of me, the more complete of a picture you have of me and my work.”  Perry’s work tells a story, even if it is only a sliver of time.  But Perry is searching for a larger understanding of the human experience and wonders how he can tell that story while being a young, white kid from western Michigan?  “I guess I should talk to some people.”

A friend of Perry’s told him, “If you’re privileged and you see that, you have two things to do.  First, fucking enjoy it—you’ve won the lottery.  Second, try to help others who don’t have access to that.”  It seems that Perry is successfully threading these together through art.

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(Perry’s Outlived II)

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(Pat Perry working in Berlin)

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