Skeptics can scoff at the seeming bandwagon attitude of East Lansing’s recent rebranding as “the City of the Arts,” but the moniker is actually the capping of a long, slow march toward citywide art appreciation. And it was fueled in part by Linda and Tom Dufelmeier, who, in 1990, helped organize the first First Sunday Gallery Walk. That was the same year they opened Mackerel Sky, their fine craft gallery in downtown East Lansing, which this month celebrates 25 years of business.
The Dufelmeiers had been buyers for Brother Gambit, a now defunct leather goods shop that also dealt in furniture, when they decided to strike out on their own.
“At the time, there was nobody in town selling ceramics, glass or jewelry,” said Linda Dufelmeier. “So we started to focus on crafts. The only rules were: Only things made in America and no leather goods or furniture. We didn’t want to appear to be in competition.”
The name Mackerel Sky is a nod to the change of working for themselves. In the 1985 movie “Plenty,” Meryl Streep looks up and remarks on the “lovely mackerel sky.” Tom Dufelmeier said he’d never heard that phrase before. When he looked it up, he learned that it was a term for patterns in the sky that happen when higher clouds interact with lower clouds, producing a scaled texture.
“It seemed fitting,” he says. “Mackerel skies are transitional cloud formations, and we were transitioning to owning our own space. And we liked the way it sounded.”
The Dufelmeiers, both 66, met in 1967 when they both arrived at MSU’s McDonel Hall from different parts of the state — he’s from Flint, she’s from Detroit. She was studying speech and theater, he was studying pre-law. Two years later, they got married. They formed a singing duo — aptly named Tom and Linda — and lived and worked in downtown East Lansing.
“It was a real town then,” she said. “There was a hardware store, there were two pharmacies. One had a pharmacist who would give you Coke syrup if you had a hangover. We bought our first piece of furniture from the antique store owned by (longtime East Lansing resident and former City Councilwoman) Beverly Baten. I remember carrying that cupboard like a coffin down Grand River Avenue. You don’t see that anymore.”
In the ‘80s, the Dufelmeiers became partners with Brother Gambit. When that situation “fell apart,” they opened the first incarnation of Mackerel Sky in the former Hicks Building in the Ann Street Plaza. (Mackerel Sky moved to its present location in 2010, after the Hicks Building was razed to make way for the St. Anne Lofts.)
“At the time, the American-made (craft business) was just a twinkle in the eye,” Linda Dufelmeier said. “Most things were imported. But we saw this community of people emerging. Fine boxes and beautiful ceramics weren’t mainstream at all.”
“Like they are now,” Tom Dufelmeier added sardonically, and they shared a chuckle.
“Over the years, we’ve become acutely aware of what the community is interested in,” she said. “It’s a matter of survival. Trying to sell a leather purse during a recession is like trying to sell a refrigerator. You can’t have things people aren’t buying. Well, you can if you’re a museum, but we’re not a museum. We don’t charge admission and we don’t sell beer — these are the constraints of good quality and creativity.”
She said it was important from the get-go to dedicate two-month exhibition space for featured artists, a timeframe that allowed enough time for the community to take it in. Over the years, Mackerel Sky has featured 150 exhibits, including shows by breakout local artists Mark Chatterley (sculptor), Kim Kauffman (photographer), and Craig Mitchell Smith (fused glass).
“Craig actually did one of his first exhibits with us,” she said. “Shortly after (we featured him), he made a gigantic glass leaf and then he really took off. He’s in Sri Lanka right now. Kim recently had an exhibit in China. I keep telling Mark he needs to get famous so we can retire off what we own of his.”
Looking ahead, Dufelmeier says she and her husband haven’t made any decisions past 2019, which is when their lease ends.
“I don’t think I want to keep doing this forever,” she said.
“For us to still be in business is astounding. But I’m always learning. And we’re dedicated to the community. We love this city, and we love what I do. Then again, maybe we’re stuck in a rut.”
Mackerel Sky 211 M.A.C. Ave., East Lansing 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Saturday; noon-4 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday (517) 351-2211, mackerelsky.com