From Hate to Hope: The Art of Resilience

A sign taped to the door of the entrance to the DePree Art Gallery warns viewers that what they are about to see is disturbing and horrific. What they are about to see is simply hate-filled and hateful.

But thankfully, that’s not all it is. What the viewer is about to see as they descend into the lower-level gallery is also hope-filled and hopeful. Hate will not have the final say in this space, the viewer will find, because Dr. Heidi Kraus will not let it.

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Dr. Heidi Kraus, assistant professor of art history, director of the DePree Art Gallery, and curator of Hateful Things|Resilience, stands in front of the 19th century quilts recoded in a contemporary way by African American artist, Sanford Biggers. Photo by Steve Nelson.

From these diametric opposites then, the first exhibit in DePree has opened the academic year at Hope with a continued and much-needed discussion about race in America. Hateful Things|Resilience provides visitors the opportunity to consider our country’s regrettable past and present in regard to race relations, and to move on to an expectant future. “And there is no better time than now to do so,” notes Kraus, referencing the racial tensions that imbued the nation over the past two years from Ferguson, MO, to NFL player Colin Kaepernick, to this year’s presidential election.

Hateful Things|Resilience is really two exhibits in one space: historical artifacts from the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University, curated by Dr. David Pilgrim, on one-side of the gallery and on the other, a contemporary, fine art response to that memorabilia curated by Kraus. The artistic change from one side of the gallery to the other is immense as upsetting 19th and 20th century ephemera gives way to the permanency of artistic optimism and a call for change.

After seeing artifacts from the Jim Crow Museum two years ago, Kraus, profoundly upset but educationally minded, “knew it was important that there be a contemporary fine arts response to hateful things,” she says. In knowing about a heart-breaking past as well as her own current privilege, Kraus had to respond — needed to respond — in an artful way. With an art historian’s skill set and an educational gallery at her disposal, Kraus worked to secure just the right resilient artworks by African American artists from Hope’s permanent collection to combat Hateful Things from FSU. She also was able to secure two quilts by Sanford Biggers, courtesy of Monique Meloche Gallery in Chicago. The curator won a huge coup for the exhibit.

“Artists look to the past to inform their work today. Every artist who created these works in Resilience is very well aware of what exists in the other space, in the Hateful Things space,” she says, gesturing past the physically and metaphorically broken partition that divides the gallery. “But they’ve gone beyond that. It’s informed who they are, and they show that hateful things do not have the last word.”

Biggers is a highly renowned interdisciplinary African American artist, and his works in DePree show the defiance of the Underground Railroad via the resilience of contemporary art today. Given to Biggers by descendants of slaves, his quilts were once used as a coded language. Slaves seeking freedom would know if a home was a safe space to stay depending on a quilt’s color and pattern, and in the way in which it was folded on a clothesline.

“And Sanford Biggers recoded those quilts by adding a layer on top of his own,” explains Kraus. “He is directly responding to the original historical context of these items, but he has done so in a deliberately contemporary way by his choice of material and subject matter.

“Artists look to the past to inform their work today. Every artist who created these works in Resilience is very well aware of what exists in the other space, in the Hateful Things space,” she says, gesturing past the physically and metaphorically broken partition that divides the gallery. “But they’ve gone beyond that. It’s informed who they are, and they show that hateful things do not have the last word.”

Kraus is quick to credit other Hope faculty who made Hateful Things|Resilience a team effort and collaborated with her in order to get the full message across with clarity as well as discomfort. Vanessa Greene, director of the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Dr. Lorna Jarvis Hernandez and Dr. Chuck Green from the psychology department, Dr. Dr. Jeanne Petit from the history department, and Dr. Deidre Johnston from the communication department all “walked alongside me in this, and I didn’t want to do them wrong. I wanted to be sure I had my ducks in a row and if we were going to do this at this school, we were going to do it right.”

‘Dr. Kraus, do you know why this means so much?… You are not just focusing on the downtrodden history of the African American but you are also focusing on their resilience.’ Thus the exhibition title.”

So far, the feedback has been nothing but positive. It’s a good reminder to Kraus that the difficult message she envisioned two years ago and worked to teach today was not meant to remain in her own mind and heart but rather it was meant to impact others. Especially Hope students.

“I had a lunch date with Curissa Sutherland-Smith, a junior psych major who is the president of the Black Student Union and just a beautiful soul,” remembers Kraus. “I was telling her how I was struggling with my privilege while putting this exhibit together and she stopped me and asked, ‘Dr. Kraus, do you know why this means so much?… You are not just focusing on the downtrodden history of the African American but you are also focusing on their resilience.’ Thus the exhibition title. She gave that to me, and so much more.”

From the mind and heart of a Hope student to the mind, heart and hands of a Hope professor, the necessary lessons to be learned by Hateful Things|Resilience will remain on display in the DePree Art Gallery until Friday, October 7.

Flint Water Crisis in the Round

This past Monday night in Maas Auditorium, 13 bottles of water sat on a long table, each provided for one of the 13 people preparing to speak on an interdisciplinary panel about the Flint water crisis. One container of water, though, was not being consumed, nor would it be. Displayed at the center of the dais, a mason jar filled with water from Flint, Michigan, looking as benign and similar as the water in the other 13 bottles, was about to be examined from political, sociological, psychological, historical, scientific, artistic, ethical, and personal perspectives. Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

Though the water in the jar appeared clear, the water crisis and its fallout and solution can seem anything but that.

IMG_2537Organized and implemented by Dr. Julie Kipp’s women’s and gender studies keystone class, the event gave an opportunity for a large audience to consider what has happened in Flint as well as providing a challenge for all to get involved and do something appropriate within their discipline or interest. The panel, made up of one student, 11 professors, and one president, discussed the very tragic, sometimes complex, and always upsetting issues revolving around the high levels of lead in Flint water and those who drank that water for over a year. Delivering their expertise from their various points of view within a five-minute time limit each, the panel continued to cast light upon light upon light onto a problem that has fallen out of the nation’s glare… for the time being anyway. This communal time of reflection also gave hope for understanding next steps in Flint.

“When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

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Katlyn Koegel, far left, speaks as part of the 13-member Flint Water Crisis panel.

Speaking from personal experience, sophomore Katlyn Koegel, a Flint native, shared several stories about people she knows from home who are struggling and afraid—a small, thirsty boy who asked for bottled water from her last summer, a woman who may lose her business due negative media attention that has driven customers away, and a pastor who paid a $900 bill for water he was not even using. “What has been most heartbreaking for me is this dichotomy between breaking news and broken structures,” said Koegel. “A lot of facts and individual stories have gone down a chasm between the two.”

Historically speaking, Dr. Fred Johnson, declared that Flint has its proud roots in Native American origins and the founding of a General Motors plant there in 1908. “And many of you may know, it was the site of the 1936-37 GM sit-down strike which basically brought the UAW (United Auto Workers) to prominence, making it a major instrument in the labor movement.” Now, the city’s heritage is  being viewed only through a microscope created by this recent history.

“All politics are local.”

Politically speaking, Dr. Annie Dandavati, reminded the audience that “it’s important for all of us to be educated voters. Even though we sometimes feel that our voices are falling on deaf ears, it’s important to know about issues no matter where they originate—in the state capitol, nationally or globally. All politics are local.”

Sociologically speaking, Dr. Aaron Franken and Dr. Debra Swanson showed that race and socio-economic status are key to making sense of what is happening in Flint. “When looking at kids in Flint, here’s some points that are important and highlight social processes for health: One, if socio-economic status is linked to health, and two, decreased educational attainment is a key link to lower socio-economic status, and three, lead poisoning manifests itself in behavioral changes and in cognitive ability changes and thus a link to decreased educational attainment, and, four, sizable portions of residents (in Flint) don’t leave the area – so residential non-migration – then we’re going to have a potential geographic health issue with a very long memory in Flint,” said Franzen.

“This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention.”

In 2013, the median household income in Flint was about half of that than in the rest of the state. The state median income is $43,000; in Flint it is about $23,000. Approximately 22% have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Forty-one percent of those living in Flint are below the poverty line, 56% of the population is black, and 75% of the households are single-parent homes. “This is a demographic of poor, black moms with kids who get no political attention,” says Swanson. And yet those women have organized protests at the state capitol in Lansing as well as a movement with Lead Safe America Foundation, bringing attention to the crisis on Twitter with over three million tweets in two hours on February 4, using the hashtag, #StandWithFlint.

Psychologically speaking, Dr. Carrie Bredow offered one good news/bad news scenario: “We know that certain things can ameliorate some of the effects of lead poisoning (such as behavioral and cognitive disorders) though it’s not reversible. But based on the research, through things like good nutrition, having high-quality early childhood education and intervention, and consistent medical care, the level of its effects can be influenced. But these are the same things that children in Flint don’t have access to. So this is something that needs to be poured into in terms of how we stop this from affecting people in Flint inter-generationally.”

Scientifically speaking, Dr. Joanne Stewart and Dr. Graham Peaslee explained how lead got into the Flint water supply in the first place. “When they switched from (using) Lake Huron water to Flint River water (to save the city money), they had no corrosion plan in place (to keep the pipes from leeching lead into the water). That was one of the real shocking things that happened,” said Stewart. “It depends on which house you’re in (when looking at lead levels),” added Peaslee. “Some people have PVC pipes and no lead, others have lead and more lead in their pipes. It depends house to house what the effect was.”

“It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Morally speaking, Dr. Heidi Giannini enlightened with this: “One thing I think the Flint water crisis illustrates and what our response to it should bear in mind is that it is very hard to be good. However, that is no excuse for failing. The crisis in Flint illustrates at least one way it is hard to be good: we form bad habits (like laziness or self-interest) because most of the time they seem like they are not that big of a deal. When we foster these ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad habits, we foster the opportunity for great evil. We like to think that there is extraordinary vice underlying the horrible moral wrongs of what happened in Flint. It’s comforting to suppose only terrifically terrible or malicious people can be responsible for these things but often it is only ordinary, everyday vice that leads to great evil.”

Dr. Charles Green addressed environmental racism, citing evidence that shows more middle-class black families live in polluted areas than poor white families do. “Let me be clear: race is a real factor here… Black kids are three times more likely than white kids to have asthma (due to living in areas with poor air quality) and four times more likely to die from it. The environmental problems that we have addressed in this country over the last 30-40 years have largely benefitting the white population, and the environmental problems we have not addressed have largely impacted people of color.”

“We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.”

From an artistic standpoint, Rob Kenagy and Dr. Katherine Sullivan revealed how art and activism is giving people a news lens through which to view Flint. “The slam poetry coming out of Flint is hot…It’s important to remember that that art is made by real people,” said Kenagy, “and it’s just not something you can click past. There is a real voice behind it. We as readers have a responsibility (to hear it and see it), especially those of us from privileged spaces. We have to actually accept the trauma and invite it into our lives. We have to listen. We have to let our neighbors (in Flint) know that we’re here, not to own or claim the crisis as our own but rather to try to understand it.” Poetry and art is yet another way to do just that.

Finally, President John Knapp summed up the event this way: “Big problems don’t lend themselves to simple, small solutions. What I’ve really appreciated about this evening as I’ve listened to my colleagues here is that we’ve not only examined this problem from the perspective of art, philosophy, poetry, but also sociology, history, and political science. We’ve talked about biological and medical concerns; we’ve talked about psychological matters and even got into chemistry. Every one of those is important, and more, to really understand the nature of the problem. And what I’ve described is what we are about in the liberal arts at Hope. When you think about what a liberal arts college does best, it is learning how to think systemically and critically about complex things where the problems simply can’t be understood through a single lens. It requires us to think in the round.”

Breaks Away: Billy Mayer

sabbatical (n): a break from customary work to acquire new skills or knowledge, traditionally occurring every seventh year

Breaks Away: Sabbatical Stories of Hope
Each academic year, a number of Hope faculty take sabbatical leaves away from the college, submersing themselves for extended periods of time into their favored fields of inquiry. If viewed from above and all together, those fields would look like a calico landscape, so varied and colorful is the topography of their collective research, writing, and creative pursuits. Offering restoration and adventure both, sabbaticals are a bit like information and imagination transfusions. These breaks away from normal classroom and committee work give Hope academicians a boost to reinforce and revitalize their teaching and scholarship.

In foam and clay and metal, from memory and history and spontaneity, the new artworks created by Hope art professor and sculptor Billy Mayer can be best described as pieces of funereal whimsy. Come January 2016, when his one-man show, “440,” opens in the DePree Art Gallery, it will be easy to see why.

Two Billy Mayers in his DePree Art Center studio
Professor Billy Mayer in his DePree Art Center studio with a sculpture for his upcoming  one-man exhibition (and a black-white photo behind him of young Billy)

During his sabbatical leave to San Marcos, Texas, on the campus of Texas State University – where his wife, Michel Conroy, is also a professor of art – Mayer went to work to “riff on” subjects mostly from his youth. His love of rock-and-roll, fascination with the early NASA lunar missions and pull to Michigan’s automotive history are topics for his sculpture, broached in lightness but with somber undertones.

“I believe I agree with (former Hope colleague) Pinckney Benedict who said much of his creative work, and my creative work too, conveys memories and feelings from the first 10 years of life,” Mayer explains. “It was a time when few filters – either from self or society – were imposed on us. We played non-judgmentally. We were untainted sponges. John Glenn was as important to me then as was my guitar. And that has stayed beautifully lodged in my brain.”

And now into clay and other media, too. Those memories and their resulting emotions will be on display in his art exhibition entitled “440,” chosen by Mayer as a nod to his 440 ceramic, mini-skulls with various, odd objects attached  (200 new and 240 from other Mayer shows) as well as the short-wave frequency to which all music is tuned.

One of the works in his new show conjures up surrealist Rene Magritte’s “Time Transfixed” and displays Mayer’s playful focus on music and youth. With a carved wooden train emerging from the glittery weave of a sculpted foam guitar amplifier, the piece harkens back to Mayer’s teen years and his love of model trains, and that guitar again, while also pointing to his sense of present place. He is neighborly, after all, with trains running the tracks just outside his DePree Center studio.

“Clay is like a child. You can’t walk away from it for too long. It moves; it cracks. You have to constantly tend to it.” — Billy Mayer

Other artwork – like “The Second Assassination of Chief Pontiac” and “Revelation 9:17” – unveil an artist who creates in ways that simultaneously display the mutability of language and the malleability of clay. Through word and material play, Mayer’s eloquence reveals itself, for in “440,” the gallery-goer will find sculpted works that “riff” some more and speak to ISIS, John Boehner and medical marijuana as well.

Revelation 9:17 by Billy Mayer
Revelation 9:17 by Billy Mayer

“The English language is organic,” Mayer says. “I love etymology and how one word can morph into multiple meanings, one phrase can mean much… As for clay, it is like a child. You can’t walk away from it for too long. It moves; it cracks. You have to constantly tend to it.”

While in Texas, Mayer also visited Marfa, a west Texas desert town noted for its unique art filling fields and streets and home to the Donald Judd Foundation. Trips to the National Council on Education in the Ceramic Arts in Providence, Rhode Island, and museums and galleries in Washington, DC, were all part of his itinerary and provided space for refreshment and inspiration.

“What I appreciate most about sabbaticals is the ability to focus on my own work uninterrupted,” Mayer concludes.

Because when he does, it turns out he has a lot to do and say. Well, at least in 440 ways.

Billy Mayer is a professor in the  Art and Art History Department at Hope College.

Hope Shares Talent at ArtPrize

Four Hope College faculty and staff members — two musicians, a dancer, and a Lego artist — plus numerous Hope student viewers, some of whom attend as part of their social work course, will be among the many participating in ArtPrize, the “radically open, independently organized, international art competition” held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, annually.

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Dr. Charles Cusack’s entry: Latin Squared Square. Photo credit: Steve Nelson, Hope College Art and Art History Department

ArtPrize opened its 2015 collection of more than 1,500 works yesterday. Now in its seventh year, the competition offers its artists and viewers an unconventional and intriguing way to discuss what art is and why it matters. The highly communal artworks, which are voted on by judges and the public alike, will remain on display throughout the downtown Grand Rapids area until Sunday, Oct. 11.

Dr. Charles Cusack, associate professor of computer science, has been a Lego enthusiast since he was a young boy. Now he’s putting that enthusiasm on display with Latin Squared Square, a 38” x 38” piece of two different types of combinatorial objects constructed with Legos. Located in the B.O.B, Cusack’s work is a simple, perfect square that has been squared. A Latin square is a grid in which every cell is a certain color (or shape or number) and every row and every column contains each color exactly once (like Sudoku). Cusack says the work took him over a year-and-a-half to conceive and create as he wrote computer algorithms to achieve his desired Latin square effect and spent much time shopping online to track down the Lego pieces he needed. “It’s harder to find pieces of specific Lego than you would think,” says Cusack, who admits he never thought of himself as an artist but has toyed with the idea of an ArtPrize submission for years. “Lego has to be one of the most expensive mediums, too,” he says, especially when those pieces are carefully and colorfully selected and arranged in a specialized, mathematical way.

Professor Angie Yetzke, assistant professor of dance, and Bruce Benedict, chaplain of worship music in Campus Ministries, along with Pj Maske of Urban Garden Performing Arts, are uniting their talents to present a collaborative production entitled “The Blind Ambition of Miss Columbia.” The piece is a hybrid work of movement-based theatre and live music. “The Blind Ambition of Miss Columbia” is a critique of the historical American notion of Manifest Destiny, which asks “questions about collective cultural identity and memory,” explains Maske. “When popular art and culture blindly romanticize the past, how do we own the truth of a (troubling) history?” It will be performed at the Amway Grand Plaza‘s outdoor patio on the northwest corner, on Saturday, Sept 26 and Saturday, Oct. 3 at 1:30, 2:00, 3:00 and 3:30 pm.

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Stephen Talaga, adjunct assistant professor of music, has entered “New Hope” in 2015 ArtPrize. Photo credit: Juan Daniel Castro

Professor Stephen Talaga, adjunct assistant professor of music, has entered an electronic keyboard improvisation piece in ArtPrize. “New Hope” was first commissioned by Julia Randel of the Hope College Music Department for the opening of the new Jack H. Miller Center for Musical Arts on campus this fall. Talaga says he created the celebratory work “on my home computer by layering successive tracks until I ended up with a result I liked.” Randel likes it too. “What I especially enjoy about the piece is that it evokes so many different sounds and styles, so it suggests the broad range of what we do in the music department,” she explains. “Being an electronic piece, it has ‘newness,’ but it also connects with multiple traditions coming together in our building.” The eight-minute piece is accessible to listen to through the ArtPrize website and via listening stations at St. Cecilia Music Center.

Students in Dr. Deb Sturtevant’s Social Interventions III class attend ArtPrize as a vital component of their coursework. In the gallery that is three-square miles of downtown Grand Rapids, senior-level social work students witness how art can revitalize organizations and communities, especially in lower-income neighborhoods. Sturtevant, professor of social work, has used ArtPrize since its inception as a vehicle to convey that the macro-practices of social work are “not just about soup kitchens.” Her students attend ArtPrize each year to see how art, especially in the Heartside Ministries and Avenue of the Arts neighborhoods of Grand Rapids, is created and viewed by those who might be homeless, for instance. “Some of my students go back to ArtPrize repeatedly,” she says. “Many are especially drawn to art with a strong social message.” Her students must talk with the artists and viewers as well as simply observe. And while paper-writing and vote-casting are required, Sturtevant’s students come away from ArtPrize with an even greater realization that art provides value to communities beyond its beauty on a wall or in a park. They find art and ArtPrize informs and transforms artists and observers, neighborhoods and friends.

“Some of my students go back to ArtPrize repeatedly. Many are especially drawn to art with a strong social message.” — Dr. Deb Sturtevant

If you’re heading to ArtPrize over the next few weeks, be sure to check out the entries created by members of the Hope community!

Kruizenga Art Museum: A Tool for Teaching

The Kruizenga Art Museum at night

If you’ve noticed a little electricity in the air on campus lately, it may be the excitement around the opening of Hope’s Kruizenga Art Museum. Our new museum enhances the role of the college’s permanent collection as a teaching tool. Designed by architect and Hope alumnus Matthew Vander Borgh ’84 of C Concept Design, the building provides space and resources to conduct scholarship using artwork from around the world.

The latest issue of News from Hope College included the article “Global Scope, Lasting Impact,” which describes the academic mission of the the Kruizenga Art Museum.

From the article:

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Vase with Eight Daoist Immortals; Chinese, 19th century; porcelain, enamels; Gift of David Kamansky and Gerald Wheaton

[Margaret Feldmann Kruizenga Curator of the Kruizenga Art Museum Charles] Mason is eager to see the museum connect with departments in every academic division — not only the arts, but also the humanities, natural and applied sciences, and social sciences — to find ways that the objects, their history and their context can enrich the experience of students campus-wide. One themed exhibition, for example, might include a concert featuring music from the tradition represented. Another might compare and contrast Tibetan and European monastic traditions.

“Our goal for the first year is to show the breadth and overall quality of the collection, to give people a sense of the range of material that we have in the collection and how it could potentially be used to support a wide range of academic disciplines,” Mason said. “So it’s to some extent going to be a kind of ‘greatest hits’ of the Permanent Collection, but with an eye toward having pieces out that we can use to begin conversations with faculty and students from different academic departments across campus about ways that we could integrate the museum into teaching and learning.

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Abuna Gebre Manfes Qeddus; Gabra Sellase Abadi Walda Maryam (Ethiopian, ?-early 1980s), c. 1971-72; paper (cardboard), pigment, ribbon, thread; Gift of Neal Sobania ’68

Though it was created with students and scholars in mind, the museum is open to all. Come visit! In the meantime, check out this recent media coverage about the Kruizenga Art Museum:

Museum director Charles Mason talks about the new Kruizenga Art Museum at Hope College (mLive.com, Aug. 31, 2015)

Art seldom seen opens at Hope College’s Kruizenga Art Museum (mLive.com, Sept. 11, 2015)

See how Hope College’s new, $5M art museum makes a statement (mLive.com, Sept. 7, 2015)

So you want to start a college art museum… (Hyperallergic.com, Sept. 10, 2015)

Project Gallery: Kruizenga Art Museum (Architect Magazine, Sept. 15, 2015 )