Doug DeLind leans into social justice in first ArtPrize exhibition


When Doug DeLind graduated from Michigan State University in 1976, he was one of 16 students with a bachelor’s of fine arts in ceramics. As he looked around for job postings, he found exactly two.

“I’ve spent my career doing art fairs and galleries,” DeLind told me at his home studio in Mason. After 50 years of professional work, his first submission to the ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, titled “Genesis Revisited,” is on view through Sunday (Oct. 1) at Fountain Street Church.

Barefoot in his studio on a beautiful end-of-summer day, DeLind told me that he’s actually two people. He’s the artist, and he’s the person who sells the art. Although art fairs are a delight for him — “Someone always discovers my work for the first time, and it’s wonderful,” he said — the COVID-19 lockdowns allowed him to delve further into his artistic side.

In his artist statement for “Genesis Revisited,” he writes that during COVID, “My muse fell asleep.” He decided to revisit one of his original inspirations from his youth, the Genesis section of the Bible.

In Day Two of “Genesis Revisited,” God is represented as a transgender youth who is creating the dome above the Earth.
In Day Two of “Genesis Revisited,” God is represented as a transgender youth who is creating the dome above the Earth.

“I approached the idea of revisiting Genesis with social justice in mind and came up with the idea of presenting God as one of us in order to illustrate how important we all are to the fabric of society,” he writes. In the resulting large-scale work, “The creator is embodied through different races, genders and sexual orientations.”

In Day One, “Let There Be Light,” God is represented as a biracial woman who is releasing the power of light. In Day Two, “Let There Be a Firmament and Let It Divide the Waters,” God is represented as a transgender youth who is creating the dome above the Earth. Day Three, “Let the Dry Land Appear,” shows an African American woman separating land from water with the fingers on her right hand. Day Four, “Let There Be Lights in the Heaven to Divide the Day From the Night,” depicts an African woman creating the sun, moon and stars. Day Five, “Let the Waters Bring Forth Abundantly the Moving Creature That Hath Life,” shows a Tlingit woman marveling at the creature she has just created. For Day Six, “Let the Earth Bring Forth Living Creatures,” DeLind created a totemic image of God, who has just created the first horse. The series ends with Day Seven, “And God Saw It Was Good and She Rested.”

DeLind writes, “I mean no disrespect when I represent God as the people we know, love and see every day. Rather, I am trying to show that we are all important, and each of us has the gift of creation to share.”

Somewhat surprisingly for a work of this magnitude, DeLind himself isn’t religious. But he’s made religious art for a few local churches over the course of his career.

“If someone asks me, I say OK,” he said.

He created what he calls a “nontraditional Christ figure” for All Saints Episcopal Church at its request. He’s also made pieces for Peckham and the Residential College of Arts and Humanities at MSU. He likes teaching, too, and has taught various workshops over the years. About college students, he said, “I like kids. I like their views and ideas and their way of … not listening.”

During our interview, I brought up an artist friend of mine from the Residential College of Arts and Humanities, and he remembered them and their work immediately.

For “Genesis Revisted,” DeLind cites the 14th-century Italian painter Giotto as inspiration. Revered by art historians as the father of European painting, DeLind describes Giotto’s works as “emotive” and dealing with “specific values.” Much of Giotto’s life remains a mystery, but he’s believed to have decorated chapels in the Italian cities of Rome, Florence, Naples and beyond. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Giotto’s scenes are “revolutionary in their expression of reality and humanity … the inner reality of human emotion is intensified through crucial gestures and glances.”

DeLind writes that he created his “Genesis Revisited” series to “illuminate the many faces of God in the act of creation.” He spent about a year and a half on these works. His ArtPrize exhibition brings all seven pieces together in the same space for the first time. The display at Fountain Street Church is on view in a panorama from right to left, like the Hebrew language is written. Each piece is composed of 32 raku-fired tiles and a sculpture. Although varying in size, each piece weighs about 75 pounds.

As reported by the Grand Rapids TV station WZZM, this year’s ArtPrize looks a little different than years past. Last fall, Board Chairman Rick DeVos, son of former U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, decided to step away from the festival after 12 years of leadership. The resulting ArtPrize 2.0 is being managed by a group of partners, including the city of Grand Rapids, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. and Ferris State University’s Kendall College of Art and Design. The name change is reported to reflect a new chapter in the competition. 

Though DeLind’s exhibition is out of the running, this year the public-vote grand prize is set at $125,000. In addition, the five juried category winners will claim $100,000, the second-place winners will get $50,000, and the third-place winners and honorable mentions will get $25,000. Awards of up to $20,000 will also be granted to 51 artists based on scores in specific categories, and MillerKnoll will give out visibility prizes of $75,000 each. These will be awarded to pieces or artists that recognize underrepresented communities and demographics.

As reported, 74% of the 928 artists are based in Michigan. Outside of Michigan, 31 states and 12 countries are represented. Since the first event in 2009, ArtPrize has awarded more than $6 million through public votes, juried awards and grants. ArtPrize annually awards $450,000 directly to artists.

DeLind said his aim with the exhibition is to “let art lead us a little bit.”

“God isn’t necessarily an old, white male,” he said.


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