March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Meet three of the artists at this weekend's East Lansing Art Festival

"Liberation" by Satpreet Kahlon. Courtesy Photo

Thursday, May 19 — A college semester in Kenya brought East Lansing artist Dana Bustamante’s pen to life — along with her watercolors, oils and anything else that was lying around.%u2028One of seven Emerging Artists in the 2011 East Lansing Art Festival, Bustamante found the subject of everyday life in Kenya more important than the medium.

She experimented with many media, including oils, watercolors, pen and ink and recycled surfaces, like cupboard doors and windows.

“They recycle everything there,” she said. “I was inspired by that.”

The pace of life in Kenya fascinated her.

“There’s a feeling of community, comfort and interaction between people that is a little bit lacking here,” she said. “People would just sit around, talk to each other, basically just hang out together.”

The most spectacular product of her trip is “Swahili Old Town,” a mixed media, 4-by-17-foot panorama. It doesn’t look crowded, but it’s filled with more than 50 figures, caught in the midst of ordinary bustle.

But most of her sketches are small vignettes.

If her pen-and-ink style recalls the rustic etchings of Rembrandt, it’s no coincidence. She has a print of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of a Fat Man” hanging at home.

“That’s definitely something that’s influenced me,” she said. “I lean toward that when I’m doing sketches of people.”

A native of East Lansing, she knows the art festival well. The Emerging Artists program sets aside booths for artists who have never exhibited at a juried show.

“I’ve been going to the festival my entire life, and it’s really fun now that I’m going to be a part of it,” she said.

Give some people a trout and they’ll reach for a knife, a fork and a lemon wedge.

When East Lansing painter Becca Schlaff saw a brown trout and a rainbow trout for the first time, her life changed.

“I never realized how beautiful these fish were,” Schlaff said. “This is real? I was blown away.”

Schlaff’s expansive, semi-abstract riffs on the colors and forms of fish landed her a return invitation to the East Lansing Art Festival this year after being named an Emerging Artist in 2010.

Schlaff grew up in rural Pinckney, on the Huron River. She was fascinated by animals, and started sketching horses as a young girl.

“I’ve always been an artist, but was pushed in different directions,” she said. “I went to Michigan State University in pre-vet, bounced around, did business for a year, just trying to figure it out.”

She did pet portraits, including horses, but found the work unsatisfying.

“I would spend hours on them,” she said. “I could capture what I was looking at, but there was no emotion to the work.”

Two years ago, Brian Bielecki, owner of Nomad Anglers in Okemos, showed Schlaff the fateful fish. Bielecki is a fly fisherman and college friend of Schlaff’s.

All at once, a more expressive, open-ended way of painting from nature opened up. Schlaff was deeply moved by the colors and textures in the skin and scales. Perhaps just as importantly, she didn’t know why. Mysteries almost always kick art up a notch.

“As an artist, it’s great to have a question for yourself,” she said. “Why do I react that way? From that first picture to now, I still see pictures now and gasp and get excited.”

Her first painting, for Bielecki’s shop, was the brown trout.

“It zoomed in on the skin, the colors and spots,” she said. “It was pretty abstract.”

People began to notice.

“I would get phone calls from fishermen,” she said.

Anglers appreciated her accuracy, but Schlaff got a bigger kick out of showing her work to “normal” people and waiting for the “a-ha” moment.

“It makes somebody stop and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m looking at a fish,’” she said.

For Schlaff, the reaction is a lot more fun than hearing “wow, it looks just like a photograph” for the umpteenth time.

“It’s important to take that step back and think, ‘Wow, this is in our world, and it’s important that we recognize this beauty,’” Schlaff said.

In addition to the Finnish painters, German abstract expressionist Gerhard Richter is an inspiration.

“His paintings kill me – squeezy bands of paint, drips,”

Schlaff said. “Maybe it’s me, but I see the river, water, and that drippy effect.”

Now that Schlaff’s fish fantasia are in demand, she doesn’t miss the pet and horse portraits at all.

“I can draw photo-realistic images, but when it comes to the topic of nature, I feel so passionate about it,” she said. “Through the abstract mechanism of painting, that emotion comes out.”

In fact, the abstract-fish theme seems to weave together every strand in Schlaff’s life, from her river-loving youth in Pinckney to her love of drawing and painting and even her degree from MSU in apparel and textile design.

“It’s the trifecta of awesomeness!” she said. “We all get where we’re supposed to be somehow.”

There’s only one catch: big passions require big canvases.

“I paint pretty big,” she said. “I have one that’s 3 feet by 5 feet, and one that’s 4 feet by 4 feet. But I live in East Lansing, so it’s nice that I can do a couple of trips.”

A red veil swept across a blue sky, making an incision of beauty in the air that healed in half a second.

Satpreet Kahlon, one of the Emerging
Artists of this year’s East Lansing Art Festival, calls digital
photography “instant nostalgia.”

For Kahlon, 21, the never-ending hustle to freeze the past can be sad, funny, beautiful and liberating.

“With digital cameras, you take a picture
and show it to your friends,” Kahlon said. “‘Oh, you were so funny when
you were doing that.’ That was about two seconds ago!”

Born in India, Kahlon grew up in the
suburbs of Chicago with strict parents that didn’t think much of art as a
vocation, and still don’t.

“They came here for a better life, not for their kids to play with paint,” Kahlon said.

When she was 10, her family moved to
Lansing for two years. Then came high school in Muskegon and a
scholarship to MSU for journalism and political science.

“I’ve always lived a creative life, but I
didn’t recognize it,” she said. “I was so excited to be chosen as an
Emerging Artist, but my parents just don’t get it.”

Kahlon’s photographs exude a gauzy, elusive melancholy, even when they are brightly colored and sharply focused.

“I tend to take more depressing pictures
than happy pictures,” Kahlon said. “I’m inherently prone to becoming
depressed — very contemplative and nostalgic. It drives me crazy

“Liberation,” the photograph with the red veil, shows how a momentary impulse can reveal a lifetime of emotions.

“Before I took that picture, my aunt, who was the only one in my family who understood my art, committed suicide,” Kahlon said.

Although her aunt was not Indian, she was
deeply interested in Indian spirituality. Kahlon, who was raised in
America, looked on Indian culture as an outsider.

When taking the photo, Kahlon said, she tried to think like her aunt.

“To her, death seemed like a beautiful
option, an option to be free. So I was thinking about liberation — I
don’t know. I try not to think about my photographs.”

While growing up, Kahlon often started impossible projects, inspired by a book called “How Things Work.”

Following the diagrams, she tried to build a pay phone and a slot machine out of cardboard.

“I tried the pay phone over and over,”
she said. “It made things work in my world. The act of creating makes me
feel like a useful human being.”

When Kahlon was in eighth grade, her
family went to Florida. “Everyone threw their cameras at me and said,
‘OK, you document,’” she recalled. “At first I hated it, but then I
discovered I really like taking pictures of things.”

The key word here is “things.” When the
pictures came back, Kahlon’s parents weren’t thrilled. “They were
pictures of people’s feet, trees, hardly any pictures of the family,”
she said.

She is just as happy under the curtain of
an old-fashioned large-format film camera, spending 10 minutes
composing a shot, as she is shooting digital, from the hip.

Settling down doesn’t seem to be in the
cards for her. She has degrees in art education and fine arts, studies
ceramics, does sculpture and loves to write. In August, she will go to
the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina, where she will learn to
make her own books.

“I’m interested in everything,” she said. “It’s impossible
not to be. My ceramics have helped me in some way to become a better
photographer. My photography helps me to be a better ceramicist.
Everything’s related.”