March 19 2014 12:00 AM

Kathy Holcomb takes statewide stage to promote ‘handmade in Michigan’

Few people know better than Kathy Holcomb how creative Michigan hands can be, but the owner of Lansing’s Absolute Gallery wants it known across the state — and beyond.

Fortunately, the receding glaciers of the last Ice Age gave her a head start. She donned a pair of Michigan-made oven mitts shaped like the upper and lower peninsulas and grinned.

“See? The state is even made of two giant hands,” she said.

No wonder she’s moving into arts promotion. Last week, Holcomb made it to the final five contestants vying for a $5,000 startup grant from the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Traverse City. She didn’t win, but she made a lot of allies and she’s going ahead with an ambitious plan to tout made-in-Michigan handiwork and draw more tourists to the state.

Holcomb wants to weave a statewide database of artists and crafters, as other states have done, and organize big events celebrating Michigan-made art and crafts.

It’s hard to think of anyone better suited for the job. Holcomb is an expansive, generous spirit with no taste for the eternal wrangling over what is fine art and what is craft.

“It’s a sticky topic,” she said. “I like the idea of not being exclusive.”

Her gallery is a wild clutter of handmade things, from abstract paintings to fine jewelry, elegant ceramic tiles and weird little monsters, all made by Michigan hands.

“Craft is something that is not highfalutin, not snobby,” Holcomb said. “It includes anything from the little old lady who makes those scrubbies (dish scrubbers) they sell at church bazaars, all the way up to fine art sculptures and two-dimensional pieces that hang in museums.”

Holcomb said she met a lot of people whose interest was piqued by her three-minute presentation and wanted to explore the idea further.

A delegation from Port Sanilac told her they have been thinking about a project similar to hers. They plan to pool time and resources to put together the database.

Holcomb even had a part in the winning entry. Her friend, Mara MacKay of Ironwood, won the competition. MacKay’s proposal, HistoryPrize, is a three-week festival of history-themed displays and events, planned for 2016, modeled in part after Grand Rapids’ ArtPrize competition. The Michigan Lodging and Tourism Association footed the $5,000 award.

The prize is a nice carrot, but the conference really exists to foment fruitful networking, and Holcomb’s experience bore that out. At last year’s Pure Michigan tourism competition, she and MacKay worked together on an earlier version of MacKay’s winning proposal. The two women found that they share a passion for handmade objects and the stories behind them. MacKay’s children’s book, “Haylee’s Treasure,” delves into the story behind a Munising bowl, a type of wooden bowl made in Munising, a small U.P. town east of Marquette.

Holcomb hosted MacKay for a book signing at Absolute Gallery.

“Handmade items, especially historical ones, embody stories that grab people’s interest,” Holcomb said.

The encounter with MacKay confirmed Holcomb’s idea that the appeal of handmade objects, old and new, is an under-exploited vein of promotion for tourism in Michigan.

Without the kick-start of $5,000, Holcomb plans a multi-pronged, grassroots approach, beginning with a database of “everybody who makes things in Michigan.”

“Indiana has an Indiana Artisan Program,” Holcomb said. “Kentucky has Kentucky Crafted. So many states have programs like this.”

Five years ago, eight gallery owners across the country started American Craft Week in October. Dozens of towns and regions in 40 states have successfully tied into the event, including a statewide promotion in Vermont. Holcomb wants to bring Michigan into the movement.

Eventually, she envisions an art and crafts fair that would follow the U.S. 127-Interstate 75 corridor from Lansing up the backbone of Michigan, across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula. At the Traverse City conference, she met people in the tourism industry who agreed to create a mobile phone app that would help people navigate such a fair by automobile. She also met advocates of Michigan’s growing rails-to-trails system who were interested in creating a bikes-and-crafts megatour.

It’s a daunting job, but Holcomb is already calling upon her many connections in the art world, and more friends she made at the conference, for help. She’s also rolling up her sleeves and writing grants for a promotional budget.

“I don’t want to be like a cheerleader, but you come back feeling like you’re all inspired,” she said.

Over 1,000 people attended the Traverse City conference, Holcomb’s first foray into statewide stage. She loved it.

“Three minutes is not very long,” Holcomb said. “There was so much I didn’t have a chance to say, but people came up and wanted more information. And they clapped. What more could you ask for?”