Water, colors

By Stefanie Pohl

Lansing hot tub vendor adds eclectic art angle to business

Art integrates itself in many places around town, from Martin Eichinger’s “Windlord” at Adado Riverfront Park to the poetry benches lining Grand River Avenue and Turner Street in Old Town. In Lansing, art isn’t confined to local galleries and museums — almost every line of sight ends in it. Pablo Picasso said, “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.” So maybe we should consider ourselves lucky for each unexpected splash of art we come across in a day.

Which is why the idea of a Lansing-based hot tub retailer expanding its showroom to accommodate a performance space and artist venue isn’t as farfetched as it might seem.

Walking into Hotwater Works, 2116 E. Michigan Ave. on Lansing’s east side, you’ll find a selection of traditional hot tub models spread around the store, as well as some custom-made, jet-less Japanese-style tubs. You’ll also see large painted canvases hanging throughout the showroom and in the store’s front-facing windows. Each one is the work of business owner James McFarland, 65, who stumbled upon his career in the hot tub industry and his love of painting in a similar, unintentional way.

In 1971, McFarland graduated from Michigan State University with a degree in multi-disciplinary social science; soon afterward, he earned a license in psychotherapy. After traveling and working around the country, McFarland returned to East Lansing to pursue his master’s degree in social work. He met Bob Weil, a professor of sculpture at MSU, and a strong friendship was forged.

Weil introduced McFarland to the Japanese-style soaking tub at his home in 1978. With Weil’s persuasion, McFarland stripped down and gave it a try. Although he couldn’t grasp the benefits of sitting in still, 108-degree water at first, it took only a few moments for the tension in his body to ease away — and his life to change course.

“I said, ‘I’m going to tell everyone about this,’” McFarland said. “If there’s any way that I could go into the business to do this, I wanted to do it.”

McFarland went home, cut a hole in his floor and built a cement tub; that planted the seed for his business, which was launched out of his home that same year. He said he found immediate success selling molds to build the tubs across the U.S., and opened a location in Frandor a few years later. He trademarked the name Furo for the tubs, which means “bath” in Japanese.

Weil, who died in 1997 at the age of 65, was also the catalyst for McFarland’s venture into the world of art.

“I basically hung out with Bob for 18 years or so, and he taught me everything he knew about art,” McFarland said. “He taught me to think in terms of design. I started playing with paint 25 years ago, but I never considered myself to be an artist.”

Encouraged by his artist friend Julian Van Dyke to paint more often. McFarland did, and as his venture into art grew, so did his business.

“We started to expand, but I didn’t know much about business,” McFarland said. “I almost went bankrupt when portable tubs came out (but) I started selling spas.”

In 1996, he purchased the Michigan Avenue building, formerly Delphi Stained Glass. His various styles of tubs share the salesroom space with walls of McFarland’s original paintings; in the back of the building is his art studio.

Hotwater Works isn’t the only local business mixing art and commerce. Across the street, Colleen Kelley, owner of The Avenue Café, has set her business apart from other local bars. More than a place to get a beer, it’s a community center, a study haven, a meeting place, a café and an art gallery rolled into one eclectic space.

Kelley sees the multi-use functionality of her business space as something that benefits and supports the local community.

“The art adds a lot to the ambience, (and it’s) been selling pretty well,” she said. “It’s a good model to have local artists be able to exhibit.”

Kelley said she thinks the art increases traffic through her business. And if it sells? All the better.

“I think that everything that promotes community is really important,” Kelley said.

Kathy Holcomb, owner of Absolute Gallery in Old Town. said she thinks showcasing art in atypical settings has benefits.

“I think it’s less intimidating for people to go into a business space with art rather than just into something that’s entitled a gallery,” she said. “Unless you’re familiar with art, ‘gallery’ can be a very intimidating word. This is a good introduction to let them know that art comes in any shape or form, and can be anywhere. It can be a daily part of your life.”

Gallery 1212 Old Town partner Mike Scieszka agrees. “I think the more venues for art, the better,” he said. “Whether they’re for profit, not-for-profit, groups, clubs — we just love to see art blossoming.”

McFarland said he hopes that Lansing’s Eastside neighborhood will soon have its own personality like Old Town.

Although Old Town does have an established art-heavy vibe, Holcomb says it hasn’t always been that way.

“The first couple years I was in Old Town, there weren’t any retail businesses on Grand River,” Holcomb said. “Everybody was on Turner. You had to work hard to let people know something else was going on around the corner.”

With dedication and patience Holcomb thinks that McFarland can succeed in his hopes of making Eastside a destination.

“James is good at having events,” she said. “If he keeps doing it, people are going to pay attention. If that happens, other businesses will be involved and opportunities will happen all around him.”

One event in particular that McFarland hopes to cultivate is an Eastside Jazz Fest; the Jazz Association of Mid-Michigan already holds its monthly meetings on the sales floor and uses the stage inside for jam sessions.

When entering Weil´s tub for the first time, McFarland said Weil told him to get in “Zen slow” to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the heat of the water. But in order to wash off that dust of daily life, whether in art or business, sometimes you’ve got to make a splash.