A lively and varied sampling of art shines from the walls of Old Town’s MICA Gallery this month, like shells and stones deposited decades ago by the tide of time, still wet with life from the passionate hands that created them.
“Old Town Founding Artists,” on display through the end of September, offers a glimpse of Turner Street’s artistic life of 40 and 50 years ago, long before it morphed into a bustling boutique-and-restaurant district where cheap studio space for struggling artists has become a distant memory.
In the late 1970s, the energized 1980s and into the 1990s, a rotating cast of resident artists, free spirits and sympathetic instructors from Michigan State University and Lansing Community College carved garrets, studios and up to half a dozen galleries out of the crumbling brickwork, former cigar factories and rowdy bars of Lansing’s oldest district.
“It was pretty much a Wild West show in north Lansing back then,” artist Fred Engelgau recalled. “I traveled on the rim of that galaxy.”
Engelgau made his way to north Lansing in 1979, when the art scene was beginning to flower amid the ruins. A professional set designer and fine-arts graduate of Eastern Michigan University, he now works as a print-shop technician at Lansing Community College.
“You had the Mustang Bar, the strip club — all the hookers were there, bottles being broken over people’s heads all night long,” he recalled. “We were in our studio spaces while all this was happening, and it all added to the ambiance. A lot of inspiration came from that, and we all just flourished.”
Much of the art in the MICA exhibition comes from the collection of MICA founder and Old Town pioneer Terry Terry.
“You couldn’t walk down the street without running into another artist and talking about art,” Terry said. “It’s gentrified now, but back then, nobody was here, studio space was cheap, and artists could hang out and influence each other.”
About half the exhibit is devoted to the work of the late Barbara Morris, a free and talented spirit who explored many different mediums and was the subject of a fascinating full-career retrospective at Lansing’s Casa de Rosado gallery in June.
Morris, who died in 2020, was a co-founder of the now-defunct Two Doors Down gallery alongside the late Old Town pioneer Robert Busby, the late Lansing Community College instructor Dave Kleis and other artists. In the 1980s and 90s, she painted her artwork in a second-floor apartment in Old Town.
Morris and Engelgau were close friends.
“It was a great time,” Engelgau said. “I got into the theater scene and met Terry and Buzz (Busby) and Barb Morris and everybody. It was a swinging community, arts-wise, back then.”
Morris worked several jobs in the Lansing area, including at Dart Container, where she designed cups and other products, but she poured her heart into her art.
Her work focused on human faces and bodies, intensely observed and rendered in colorful and unexpected mediums and styles. It was always on the money, artistically and emotionally.
“She was a great artist, fluent and articulate,” Engelgau said. “Her art was vibrant, sometimes shocking and, most of the time, excellent.”
Morris, alongside Terry, also co-founded two now-defunct galleries on Turner Street: the 1984 Gallery, where MessageMakers resides, and the Otherwise Gallery.
A highlight of the exhibit is the eye-burning, drolly funny work of the late John Domanski, who had several studios in Old Town and died in 2008.
“His art was out there, like the Chicago artists of the period, and he was out there, too,” Engelgau said. “He was quite vocal and well respected.”
The yellow, rippling figure of a dog who looks as if he’s being electrocuted and a purple portrait of a corporate-looking Mr. Potato Head offer a vivid contrast to the pensive, realistic portraits of the late Robert Weil, a trailblazing African American art professor at MSU who worked to expand access to the arts in the 1970s and 1980s and was a driving force in the Old Town arts community. Weil died in 1997.
The exhibit also includes two moody photographs taken by the late Sam Mills, known mostly as a poet. Mills helped launch the “Burning Desires” poetry series, an annual afternoon of love poetry held around Valentine’s Day that’s still going strong in Old Town.
The nubbly stripes, color fields and zig-zag patterns of the late Bob Sealock’s art symbolically trace paths of memory and life experience. Steeped in a variety of artistic traditions from around the world, from ancient cave paintings to modernist abstraction, Sealock created images that recall the baskets, quilts and ceramics of Australian Aboriginal and Native American cultures.
A handful of canvases are glazed with the colorful, creamy, almost edible abstract icing of the late MSU art professor Clif McChesney. McChesney, who died in 2011, studied art at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. His work has been shown across the United States and is well known in Japan, but he was also an enthusiastic supporter of Old Town’s art scene.
A pair of bovine blobs occupies one of two nearby canvases by McChesney’s late wife, Jane, who taught at Lansing Community College and died in 2017.
Terry said he’s working with Busby’s daughter, Ena, to bring some of her father’s uniquely personal art to the exhibit as well. Busby owned Two Doors Down and its successor, the Creole Gallery, and he’s widely recognized as the guiding light of Old Town’s artistic renaissance. Busby painted, sculpted and created dioramas of found objects, including his own hair.
The MICA display is a tantalizing sample, but the halcyon heyday of Old Town art — the charged collision of trained MSU and LCC artists, alongside assorted free spirits, in a uniquely dystopian yet supportive and free space — cries out for a more in-depth, deeply researched retrospective. It would make a fascinating book-length study.
“That would be stunning, especially if the book were black and white,” Engelgau said. “It was highly emotional, a wild time. The artists there were just like the atmosphere. We had carte blanche to do what we wanted, and we felt like we fit in.”
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