Street life

By Lawrence Cosentino

'The Broad Without Walls' project installs art around East Lansing

Late Saturday afternoon, a van heaved itself over the curb of Grand River Avenue in front of Espresso Royale Café, on the busy commercial strip across from Michigan State University. A small crew rushed onto the sidewalk to unload crates labeled “CHILE” and “PERU.”

Passersby curious enough to look into the crates saw hundreds of bundled black-and-white photographs, all portraits of people who met violent death under repressive Latin American regimes. Within 15 minutes, the van was gone. A woman wearing a blood-red scarf sat quietly among the crates, sewing squares of fabric over the faces in the photographs.

Grand Rapids artist Mandy Cano Villalobos is one of seven Michigan artists commissioned by MSU’s Broad Art Museum to bring art to the streets of East Lansing, months in advance of the building’s tentatively scheduled September opening.

Her sorrowful work was part performance and part physical product (a growing pile of faceless photographs). She calls it “Ningún Nombre" (“No Name"), a phrase used in South America to mark the graves of unknown bodies.

Villalobos stayed only for an afternoon, but most of the “Broad Without Walls” exhibit will be visible through May 12.

Less than a block away from Villalobos, Ann Arbor artist Margaret Parker erected a monumental yet cheery row of pillars out of T-shirts in the alley behind the Michigan State Federal Credit Union.

Two young shoppers from East Lansing, Alena Hartsuff and her friend, Sydney Sodeman, stopped to look at the columns and take pictures of each other inside of it.

“It’s abstract, it’s different,” Hartsuff said. “I would definitely want this in my room.”

Just around the corner, at (SCENE) Metrospace, MSU fine arts grad Kate Lewis invited the public to help create a mural out of handmade bits of ceramics. By late afternoon, the first patches of mosaic already spoke volumes about the people who had worked on the wall. A neat matrix of dots seven feet above the floor screamed “tall control freak.” The word “art” was the trace of a literal mind; wobbly knee-high circles were clearly children´s work. One nonconformist glued several pieces on top of one another until they stuck a few inches out of the wall.

“I’m constantly surprised at how people come up with new things to do with the pieces,” Lewis said.

Lewis has done the experiment seven times in various Midwest galleries. She is neither tall nor a control freak.

“Usually we think of art as being done by one person,” she said, “but I think two minds are better than one and 10 minds are better than two.”

Broad Museum curator Alison Gass lives for this kind of blurry community intervention. Back in February, the Broad Museum sent out a call to Michigan-based artists. “We just got amazing submissions,” she said.

The art will generate a lot of double-takes, but isn’t a second look at life what art is about? “You don’t expect to walk down the street and encounter art,” Gass said.

It’s too bad a hidden camera won’t be around to catch public reaction to Ypsilanti’s Seth Ellis, who will be busy this week putting up phony historical makers on the MSU campus. Gass seems to relish this intervention most of all. “Maybe we can start some urban legends,” she said.

A jury of four, including Gass and Broad Museum director Michael Rush, picked the participating artists. If you hate to be surprised, the works are mapped out on the Broad Museum website: Maureen Nollette, a specialist in colorful ribbon art, will draw intricate patterns on the windows of the East Lansing Marriott Hotel with an oil stick; MSU art student Peter Lusch will build an abstract sculpture out of drywall at Fountain Square; Philip Brun Del Re, based in Kalamazoo, will decorate the white wall at the back of Ned’s Bookstore with colorful stencils; and MSU student Deborah Wheeler will create a gay-rights-themed variation on segregated drinking fountains of the pre-Civil-Rights era, using a real drinking fountain in the Kresge Art Gallery.

‘The Broad Without Walls’

Through May 12

Artworks by Seth Ellis, Mandy Cano Villalobos, Kate Lewis, Deborah Wheeler, Maureen Nollette, Margaret Parker, Peter Lusch and Philip Brun Del Re at locations throughout East Lansing