Sept. 23 2015 12:54 AM

Lansing artists compete in Michigan's premiere art competition

The search for Lansing’s ArtPrize participants takes you to coffee houses, art studios, galleries — and to a Tuffy service station in Frandor.

“I never intended for this to be art,” said Don Krauss, a 56-year-old mechanic and 2015 ArtPrize participant.

Krauss stands in the lobby of the service station, surrounded by a menagerie of metal animal sculptures. A moose and a giraffe greet customers who walk into the lobby. A brightly painted fish is tucked away in a corner, and a pig on a spit sits on a shelf above. All of the sculptures are composed of discarded car parts.

“Those are all cut from brake lines,” said Krauss, gesturing toward the quills of a porcupine statue in the corner.

Krauss started making sculptures a few years ago. His first attempt was a 4-foot-tall fisherman, complete with fishing rod. Jeff Neilson, owner of the service center, is an avid angler.

“I just wanted to make something fun to prop the door open with,” Krauss said.

At the urging of Neilson, Krauss created more sculptures. Some, like the fisherman, have become fixtures at the station. Others are for sale. Krauss pointed out one of his more popular creations, a turtle painted in MSU green and white.

“We call it a Spurtle,” Krauss said. “It’s a combination of Spartan and turtle.”

Krauss is bringing 13 of his metallic fauna to this year’s ArtPrize. He describes his entry, entitled “Group Therapy,” as “the animals coming together as we humans destroy, pollute and take over more of the earth.”

Krauss’ work is an apt metaphor for Art- Prize. The annual Grand Rapids art competition, which opens today at noon, is at the intersection of art and commerce. Downtown bars, restaurants and other establishments become short-term galleries, showcasing the competing works.

The friction between art and commerce has created controversy for the competition in the past. ArtPrize draws thousands of visitors — and their wallets — to downtown Grand Rapids, but controversial art can make business owners uneasy.

Henry Brimmer, professor of advertising and public relations at MSU, caused a stir last year by placing life-size silhouetted figures — some appearing to hold binoculars, others seemingly armed with sniper rifles — atop a Grand Rapids building. (Two of the figures have found a home on a rooftop in Lansing’s Old Town.)

Gurmej Singh, who works under the moniker SinGh, roiled owners of downtown entertainment venue the B.O.B. in 2012 when he unveiled an effigy of Saddam Hussein hanging from a noose outside the building. Greg Gilmore, owner of the B.O.B., removed the work from the premises before the competition began. Singh burned the work in protest. The artist would later be banned from the competition for his 2013 entry, a 2-mile-long painting that greatly exceeded the amount of space the venue had provided, running over streets and sidewalks and through private property. Police said it constituted a public safety hazard.

Ben Graham, a Lansing-based graphic designer, isn’t looking to ruffle any feathers with his 2015 ArtPrize entry, “Sign Language.”

“My message is a very positive, uplifting message,” said Graham.

Graham installed his entry, a series of reimagined road signs, in the parking lot next to the B.O.B. two weeks ago for a media preview. A reworked stop sign now instructs viewers to “smell the roses.” A “no parking” sign becomes a “no whining” sign, and yellow, diamond-shaped signs bring a message of “peace & love.”

Even before ArtPrize officially began, Graham noticed people stopping to check out his installation.

“It’s been received unbelievably well," Graham said. “People were stopping and taking selfies with the signs. It made them happy.”

Other than the new text, the signs were created to the same specifications as public road signs, from the reflective surface to the posts they are mounted on. The only nonstandard addition is a screen-printed signature on the back of each piece.

“Every sign is signed,” said Graham.

Working with road signs is an idea that had been percolating in Graham’s head for a few years. It began in the late '90s with a Christmas card he designed that digitally added a spray-painted red dot onto a deer crossing sign, evoking a certain red-nosed reindeer.

“Road signs are the most successful communication device the government ever created,” said Graham. “I started toying with the idea of communicating beyond what the sign was saying.

While much of Graham’s day-to-day work is done on computers, Graham found the physical work of creating the signs refreshing.

“I was 15 years into my career before the digital age hit,” said Graham, who earned a degree in graphic design from Northern Michigan University in 1974. “I love the digital technology, but now everyone has the same software. Everything is starting to look the same. I try to get the mouse out of my hand as much as possible.”

ArtPrize has gained national prominence for the sheer scale of the event. The competition awards over $500,000 in prize money, including top prizes of $200,000 awarded to the winners in two categories: popular vote and juried prize. The big money, coupled with the event’s spirit of inclusivity, draws over 1,500 artists to the competition, with works on display at over 160 venues. Numbers provided by ArtPrize estimate that over 440,000 people visited last year’s competition.

While Graham isn’t holding out hope for the big cash prizes, the opportunity to connect with a huge number of people motivated him to jump into this year’s competition.

“Over 400,000 people are going to see ‘Sign Language’ over 19 days,” Graham said. “It’s phenomenal.”

Those sentiments are echoed by Lansing-based artist Rick Cunningham.

“It’s nice to be where people appreciate art,” he said. “It’s nice to meet other artists and hang out with my peers.”

The 66-year-old artist holds degrees in fine art and commercial art, and he has worked since 1990 as a freelance commercial artist and illustrator. His 2015 entry, a 7-by-3-and-a-half-foot acrylic painting of a lakeside beach, will hang in downtown Grand Rapids coffee shop West Coast Coffee.

“I like to dip my hand in fine art once in a while,” Cunningham said. “ArtPrize is a nice way to do that.”

This is Cunningham’s third year exhibiting at ArtPrize, and while he enjoys the camaraderie of the event, he has all but given up on the competitive side of it.

“I don’t really compete anymore. It’s a daunting task,” Cunningham said. “These are some of the major leaguers. It’s like me golfing against Jordan Speith.”

Brian Whitfield, a graphic designer for Michigan’s Department of Transportation, also enjoys the chance to get away from commercial art.

“At heart, I’m really a painter and an artist,” said Whitfield.

The 52-year-old Lansing native has exhibited at ArtPrize every year since its 2009 inception. This year his work will be on display at the Devos Place convention center, but in the past he has always exhibited at Monroe Community Church. He said that the church has become “like family” through his ArtPrize experience.

“The church is really progressive. It’s a really artistic group,” he said. “They made it a personal, tight-knit group (of artists).”

Whitfield’s other work includes designing Michigan license plates — including the award-winning Mackinaw Bridge design — and he designed the posters for last year’s Lansing JazzFest and BluesFest. He was also tapped to create murals for the Under the Bridge project to beautify the US 127 underpass on Michigan Avenue.

While Whitfield usually creates a new piece for ArtPrize, this year he dipped into his archives to present “First Sunday,” a 20-by-36 inch graphite-on-paper drawing depicting three elderly African American women taking communion. The women, who have since died, were members at Whitfield’s church, Trinity AME Church. Trinity, Lansing’s oldest African American church, will celebrate its 150th anniversary next year.

The decision to use an older piece was mostly a practical matter. Whitfield didn’t have time to create something new, but couldn’t bear the thought of missing Art- Prize.

“This year has been so busy, but I didn’t want to break my streak,” Whitfield said.

Alisa Lincoln has attended ArtPrize almost every year but is exhibiting for the first time this year.

“I’ve been to every year except one,” she said. “It finally worked out (to exhibit). The season felt right.”

Lincoln, who has a home studio in northwest Lansing, said the community aspect of ArtPrize brings her back year after year.

“I love the atmosphere, the energy it brings,” she said. “It’s the synergy of everyone coming together.”

Lincoln’s 2015 Art- Prize piece, “Midnight Garden” will hang in downtown Grand Rapid’s popular tapas bistro, San Chez. The work is a 6-by-3-foot acrylic and charcoal abstract painting.

Lincoln grew up in an artistic family but didn’t plan on making a career out of art.

“I didn’t always embrace that part of myself,” she said. “I almost walked away from art.”

Eventually, Lincoln graduated from Western Michigan University with a degree in graphic design, hoping to find a steady job that allowed her to be creative. But she never found fulfillment in graphic design.

“I never liked it,” Lincoln said. “After I graduated, I realized I was a fine artist.”

Lincoln has already set to work on her next endeavor, an ambitious series of paintings she calls the “Affirmation” project. Her goal is to hang 22 6-foot-by-3- foot paintings around Lansing. Each painting will have a different positive affirmation, like “beautiful” or “creative.”

“We’re inundated with negative messages in the media,” Lincoln said. “What if we had a different conversation?”

Lincoln believes in the power of art to change lives and help people to see the world in a different way. She sees ArtPrize as an example of what is possible when a community embraces art and artists.

“I appreciate that Grand Rapids values art like that,” Lincoln said. “I’m excited to be part of that vibe."


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