It’s interesting how something can rile up so many feelings in yourself and others. I had posted elsewhere a status that I had tired of holding my tongue on the state of Flint’s ‘art scene’. It ended up getting a bit of response, some pro my thought and some con, but it made me realize that maybe this isn’t a topic I am done speaking about.
Or thinking about.
When I was a kid I loved to draw. I was never really very good but I was imaginative. For the release of my novel I collected all of old drawings, from around ten years old to now, in one binder, and I was shocked at how much I had kept and even more shocked to see patterns.
I went through a space battle phase, a cartoon phase, a zombie phase, a parody phase, a monster and death phase, and then there is a long dead period of about ten or more years (I think more) where I didn’t actively do anything, then it’s into the modern era where I just do weird and silly characters. Lately I paint more than draw but occasionally I will sketch something out, just because I still love it. Even though I am no good at it. Oh, I can sorta draw and sorta paint but on both I am self-taught and it shows.
Which may be why I love both so much.
I stopped doing art after a commercial art instructor told me I was no artist.
I had gotten into his class in a way he didn’t like – you were to be allowed in via your portfolio, I got in because I was in Special Ed., fair, no, but why get an attitude with me about it, not the most mature thing to do but, hey, that’s an aside – and he never felt I belonged there. And ya know, maybe I didn’t. But the thing is, I took the class seriously, and I did the assignments, and I did the best I could and honestly, the stuff wasn’t bad. I was leagues away from the best artists in there but it was commercial art, so it was about message and content, not how pretty your lines were. But when the class was ending he told me as part of my evaluation that I was no artist and his words stung me for a long, long time.
It was one thing not to have people fall all over themselves and your art, that’s just life, but to have someone actively tell you that essentially you’re no good is so much more, and at that point in my life it was like a dagger.
So I stopped drawing and focused on writing. So maybe what he did was set me on the path I needed to be on, though he didn’t do it on purpose, but I gave up art, save for random sketches here and there, for a very long time.
It was fifteen years after high school that I got back involved in the arts and fell in love with them all over again. A friend had joined a small arts organization called the Creative Alliance that had begun as a way for musicians to network and work together on shows and became, member by member, a group that embraced all the arts in Flint, and with my friend joining he wanted me to take a look at joining too. I was reluctant, quiet, and hung to the back but as more people came, and as the group grew, and as we worked together on events I began to feel at home and began to let my voice be heard. I became a member. And it was amazing. Surrounded by so much passion, it really pulled me back into wanting to do art again. There weren’t a lot of venues available to young artists and the three galleries that were open showed only member works or were juried in and it’s not the easiest thing to get a show or in a show at a gallery if you are still developing as an artist. The group, the core of it coming from a musical background, started booking shows at local bars, and it worked. It wasn’t idea, but it worked. The shows would many times include music at their core but would also add poets, sometimes authors, and would have some art on display. They were a mishmash of things but the shows worked and over time, this group of people who were doing this out of their own pockets, and from a place of wanting to just do shows the group made a place for itself in Flint and funders started to take notice. As long as I was with the group, which was around three years and change, we kick-started the big crafting group in town, helped create space for young artists among the established galleries, and created events that added to the culture of the city. And eventually, we became part of the arts status quo and were welcomed into the galleries we couldn’t get into before, if but for the occasional show during off months.
I loved those times.
I left when I realized that what I wanted to do, needed to do, wasn’t always going to jibe with what the group needed to do. I wanted to do more events with writing, and I wanted to work on my own events. But without that kickstart, without the Creative Alliance and the friendships I made and the inspiration I got from those people I wouldn’t have re-discovered art or my passion for it.
During this time, not long after the CA founded, an alternative gallery opened called Red Ink. Red Ink was an arts non-profit that began in San Francisco and was built around re-claiming unused property and turning it into a gallery for a couple years where artists would have space to show and to work and then after that short lease, after the building had been re-imagined, it would be sold. Some local artists and non-profit people got together and made a case for Red Ink to come here, to Flint, a city that could use that sort of space, and they got their wish, Red Ink came.
Red Ink was incredible. It was the right management at the right time and the right artists. You got to see artists that were here, in Flint, that had not found a place to show yet. They did shows that were things you felt you had to be at. And they helped a generation of artists become professionals. The short time we had Red Ink, they made a huge impact. Red Ink’s undoing was heartbreaking and it left a huge hole in the Flint arts community. The toll of inner turmoil had changed the venue and organization and a lot of the big plans that had been laid never saw fruition but it was such an incredible time and space. If there was a major negative I would offer that it was that at the openings of shows it allowed the artists to get a little full of themselves mad the shows sometimes felt as if it was about the artist and not the art. I honestly think that’s part of the arts culture though, whatever the discipline – you will always have people who their popularity, fame, or success goes to their heads. And honestly, never having had that issue, never having to deal with it, I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same.
Though I probably wouldn’t.
Red Ink returned, in a much smaller way, a time later but despite some amazing artists it wasn’t the same. The vibe was never the same. And in the end, that second incarnation was just as doomed.
In the middle of all this is where I began to really get involved in things. In ‘the scene’, though some would prefer such a name not be given. For me it’s easier to say ‘scene’ because, well, it was, and it is. Some people were part of it, active and involved, some weren’t, and worked independently or not at all, but there always was a sort of scene. But I wanted to go back, to how things started before I explained my part in them. When I got involved in the arts in Flint there wasn’t a lot happening. There were bands that played shows, there were artists that did their thing, and I am sure there were some poetry slams at the college but that was about it. If you wanted to see art you went to the galleries. If you wanted music you went to a bar or a venue. Without the work of the CA and the existence of Red Ink there was no indie arts scene. I am sure one would have developed, eventually, but there wasn’t one already there. These were the pioneers.
And if those organizations were the pioneers, I was part of the boom.
During this time my friends and I had started to go to art shows and alternative craft shows and other weird shows (I remember an underground ‘circus’ we went to that was pretty fun) and we started to make friends and some of us HAD friends that were part of those happenings. It really inspired us, going out there and seeing what people were doing. I remember sitting down with friends out in Detroit and talking about the kinds of shows WE’D all like to see. There was such vibrancy in Detroit, in where shows were happening, in what they were, and how they were being done, it was amazing to us. We had never been a part of or seen the big shows of other cities, just what Flint did, and it was like – we can do this, this can all be done IN FLINT! And it was so exciting. And it was exciting to hear how our friend was influenced by what the CA was doing to do her own shows in Detroit.
So we did some Detroit shows, craft and art and rummage shows set up in a bar, and we became inspired. We invited other area folks to come down for these and take part, because that was the thing for us – to get the Detroiters into Flint for shows and the Flint folks to Detroit. To get an ebb and flow where we all got inspired by one another and where we could show people how vibrant Flint was becoming.
Our first show happened by accident of sorts. Some friends and I were living in the upstairs of a building in downtown Flint and our landlord decided to do a sort of art show/garage sale on the unoccupied first floor during one of Flint’s Art walks. He referred to it as a ‘guerilla art show’. Fun name, amazing concept – take this unused space and fill it with artists for one night. We were inspired and asked him if we could take up that idea and use the space and he was thrilled.
We gathered together some other arty friends we’d made along the way and started reaching out to artists from Flint and from Detroit, and we pitched the idea. It was strange but people liked it. A lot. The first show was awkward but it worked out. We decided to do our shows during Art Walk, so we could get that foot traffic and add to that atmosphere, and we lucked out in that it snowed during our first show as ‘guerilla artists’ and because of that a DJ that had been booked for Flint’s yearly motorcycle show – Bikes on the Bricks – got freed up due to that lack of good weather so he volunteered to set up in our space and spin tunes. So in the back of the building we had a DJ and in the front we had a singer and we filled the place with art, with people, and with a show that hadn’t been done before. We embraced art, craft, music, and writing, all of it, and made it about the artists and not ourselves.
If the first show was a success, the second was astounding.
After the first show we really wanted to plan the second so a bunch of us got together and worked on the poster art for the show, on the strategy to promote it, and on who to invite. We wanted to stick with the mix of Flint and Detroit and elsewhere and wanted to keep it varied. And we wanted a lot of artists. A lot of stuff. We put a ton of work into the show, months of work, and we were thrilled to have it come.
Heck, even my folks came out to see it.
And what was special to me was we were getting people who had never shown before, didn’t like to show, or who had all but given up showing to participate. They were friends and trusted us, and trusted our vision and so they did it.
We never could have anticipated the outrage that the name ‘guerilla art show’ – something we used as a fun description of what we did, which was an unconventional show in borrowed space with unconventional artists – would stir. A local ‘indie’ paper had fashioned themselves as guerilla news and when people saw someone else using that word they immediately linked the paper and the show. Maybe we were naive to not see that happening, but maybe, just maybe the paper got a little upset over nothing. What happened was that several people, getting deeply offended that we used the word ‘guerilla’ in our name decided to protest us. They dressed as zombies, met up, and came in a flash mob to the show. Not a big deal, until they got out of hand. The place was packed. At least twenty artists, tons of art, and a LOT of people in there hanging out. It was a great atmosphere. We even had a DJ. The zombies came through, moaning, groaning, shuffling, and they they started throwing their newspaper at people, tossing them, I guess, as a zombie would. The papers hit people, hit art, and almost knocked over a candle a tarot reader had lit in a side room. I was at the front and didn’t realize what was going on as the zombies bumped into people and artwork and threw the paper around. I had thought it was obnoxious but funny at first but as I saw them exiting my attitude changed. I saw that they were being aggressive at our show and, as they were leaving one of them started to unfurl a banner on the ground inside the space. I saw this and became enraged and rolled the banner up, which was full of fake dollar bills and said something about how art shouldn’t be a product of sold or some such thing. Seeing me roll it up, the guy that had laid it down grabbed it from me and tried to unroll it again, and i went red line and unrolled a few things of my own, some choice curse words that couldn’t have been intelligible but were heartfelt nonetheless. He and I got into a very heated exchange and I threw the banner outside so he just went out there and unrolled it there and left this mess of fake money and this banner and ambled off.
They had done their job.
What we learned later was that this was something that had been planned, and coordinated, and in their minds justified. We were misusing a word and selling art when it shouldn’t be sold. Our contention was that they crashed something for Flint, for its artists, and which was meant as a positive. If artists chose to sell or show, that was their concern, not ours. We took no profit, made no money, took no donations, and were not charging for space. It was a free show. And for us, for me, to think that someone got so upset, so upset and didn’t approach us about their concerns or thoughts and did this, I am shocked and I was ashamed for Flint.
We were outraged, the people we’d set the show up with were outraged, and many of the artists were outraged. This outrage bubbled and grew as the days went on and created a very lively debate in art classes at our local community college. It got so intense that I had to take part of a day off of work to go to the school to present our side about what happened. The audacity that someone protested us, an art show, and then wanted to have some sort of referendum was outrageous. And so was this referendum. It amounted to a lot of – uh, yeah, someone else wanted to do the zombie part and we wanted to take papers around so we worked together, but we didn’t do nothin’ bad – crap from the indie newspaper, and a written diatribe about how wrong we were in the use of guerilla and on and on that had to be read because the person who wrote it was working…or a coward. Whatever.
I have never been so angry, so blindly angry than at this time. Suddenly we didn’t know if we wanted to do shows anymore. Would we be protested? Was it worth the trouble? This was supposed to be fun.
It wasn’t fun anymore.
The indie paper folded, the seasons changed, and we decided we didn’t want to stop doing something we loved. So we did more shows, smaller, simpler, but still trying to bring people together from near and far and to help people who weren’t doing a lot of shows, or any, get their work out there. And we impacted the art scene. We had created an alternative venue that would pop up from time to time with shows and other people started doing similar things, setting up shows at other local places to add even more to the Art Walk. The Art Walk had been established years earlier by the Greater Flint Arts Council and was their way to link the galleries downtown and to get people out to all of them for show openings. After many years of it just being the galleries though other people, like the CA, and us, started to use that same night for alternative shows and the GFAC was happy to have everyone joining it. The more the merrier was truly how it was.
It was a great time.
Things came to a crashing halt when plans for what would have been our biggest show, and woulda been something to see, fell apart. There were disagreements, there were arguments, and in the end friendships were fractured and the shows stopped and that was that.
It just wasn’t fun anymore.
And it was only through time, and getting over things that in the end weren’t important that the friendships were saved. But the shows how they’d been, those were gone.
And that was that. Only, it wasn’t.
It took some time but the bug was still in me. I loved doing the shows. I loved being involved. Reluctantly, very, very reluctantly I started to plan shows without the people I had started with. Small, but with the same idea behind them – fun, free shows that were about the art and the artists. I was happy as a clam not to be seen as being involved. I wasn’t in it for that. I want recognition for my writing, not for events. The writing is mine, and just mine, so that’s what I want to be known for, the rest was just something I liked to do. So we started doing shows again, me and other friends, and we loved it. The faces changed, and the venue changed, but we loved it.
With the fracturing of the initial group though it created a void that was filled and so other people started booking space in 625 and doing shows there. And I was bitter, bitter because these people had an attitude that we were sloppy and didn’t do things right and they were doing it better, and they said as much. And it drove me crazy that we did so much work and never got a drop of ink written about the shows but these people came in and were constantly in the paper. And it bittered me on a lot. The shows we had been doing were intentionally meant to not have people know who we were but these shows were inherently about the people putting them on. They were in every show, and they were front and center and it drove me crazy.
And I am jerk for that I guess.
And I needed to get over it.
But as bitter as I was, it didn’t stop me.
I just changed what I was doing.
I began doing Punk Rock Rummage Sales.
Over the years we had seen people take the things we were doing and do it themselves, in some cases better, in others just…differently, but I had soured on those kinds of shows and wanted to change things so I took a page from our friends in Detroit and we (and I mean ‘we’ since I can’t do these things alone, there are always friends that help and supporters there somewhere, so it was always a ‘we’) started doing rummage and art shows at a local bar. This was far from ground breaking but it was new to the area and it was fun.
And people liked it.
They looked forward to it.
The idea was to bring the art show to a rummage show, and bring together weird stuff, fun stuff, and fun people with some music and libations to keep people happy. And it wasn’t, to quote a local character ‘rocket scientry’ but it was fun and it was something different. The idea was to keep things evolving.
And I have watched the art scene shift and change, have seen artists come and go, and have seen the factions and the friction, and all of it over the past several years. I have said and done some ridiculous things and have heard the same sort of craziness from others. I have been influenced and have been jaded and it’s all part of this big, crazy tapestry we have here.
I was still doing shows this year, did a rummage sale, and put together a book release for my novel and a friend’s books, and helped plan a dark art show, so I am still involved, I am just not AS involved. And part of it is bitterness. Especially as I see now that 625, the place that inspired me and helped create me, and so many events, and laid the groundwork for the Flint Horror Convention, has closed as a venue due to the selfishness of some artists.
And that is what changed, for me.
The scene changed, because it IS a scene. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s not a negative, but it’s the collective artists, they have changed. I haven’t changed with them. I still love shows, love the arts, and admire any artist that keeps doing it. Because artists DO have to find ways to re-invent themselves and what they do. They need to find ways to get themselves and their art out there. Witness the popularity of ‘street’ art. My problem though is that some of us old guard have changed, as organizations have waned, and as people have moved on it has changed the culture.
We made it commonplace to do bar shows here.
We made it commonplace to do shows in any space we could find.
We made it cool to bring art and craft together and mix it all up.
We that were here so many years ago to re-write the arts in the city.
We were the ones that broke the mold.
And by ‘we’ I mean a LOT of people. A lot of people that worked to get the permissions, to get the minds changed, and to change the culture as it was here.
I am removed from the scene now because it’s become so much about the promoter, about the party, about the scene and not about the art or artists. Oh, there is still art, there are still artists but it’s not a community. It’s not working together. It’s factions. It’s entitlement.
It’s ‘I am an ARTIST, so, whatever, you won’t understand.’
But I do.
We all do.
We understand because we were there years ago.
I hate that artists don’t take breaks from shows locally. They are always doing shows, always bigger than life, always in your face. And does it work, does it make more sales or grow the art? Does it? Or are you only selling to yourself and your friends? Are you engaging new artists? Are you fostering young artists? Are you getting out of the area?
Are you doing it yourself?
It is about changing things up. About creating something new. And that is happening, but it is all so fractured.
So many factions all working to make sure they get the attention. HEY, HEY, HEY LOOK AT US! Bigger, louder, more garish. Art that doesn’t involve local artists, or that doesn’t reflect anything but a need for attention.
LOOK AT ME!
No one is working together. They are working in opposition because you don’t wanna lose that ‘cool’, you don’t want to lose the attention…you don’t want to lose the funding.
And it all feels sad, and loud, and…wrong. I don’t feel as if I am going to art shows but parties where there’s art and artists. I loved our guerilla shows because they WERE so stripped down. They were so un-gallery.
It all feels obnoxious and planned.
And it’s sad because there is SO MUCH talent here, and so many people to do want to work together, and with people, and want just to get their art out there but the venues have shrunk now, the opportunities are shrinking, and it’s all becoming a clique.
And I hope I am wrong.
I hope I am the bitter old guy who is just overreacting to a scene, and a scenery change that – to an evolution of the scene and I am just so far removed that I have literally lost touch. That’s a sad thought but it is probably the truth. Art will survive. The artists will survive. It’s just hard not to be sad to see how much has changed in these few years and not all of it for the better. When someone doesn’t have the common sense not to screw things up for the artists coming after them, when their actions lose you a space – which has happened before, and again, and will ever happen I am afraid – it worries me.
Because in the end, if we don’t look out for one another to some degree, we artists of Flint, Michigan, then who the hell is gonna look out for us? In the end it isn’t about the parties, about the money, about the scene but about the art and the people behind it, who are just trying to say something…even if it’s nothing at all. There has to be cooperation, even as we work for our own gains, our own goals, there has to be cooperation. Filmmakers, and painters, and sculptors, and writers, and dancers, and poets, and musicians, and singers, and people who draw, and crafters and EVERYONE has to work together to make sure that everyone has a chance. That this rises about the artist, to a sense of community, to a sense that you may succeed personally but without passing that torch, without helping someone else you aren’t growing. That is what is missing. That is what worries me.
That we are becoming a city of All About The Me where the artist is a clown on a stage, a commodity, a actor playing at artiste, and the sense of togetherness, of working to make things easier, and better is fading. Sure, people will work together…with friends, but how many will work with strangers…or ‘enemies’ because it’s the right thing to do?
How many are willing to step away from the mic and give someone else a moment on stage?
Consider this my exercise in nothing, and my testament to everything.
My personal history for a scene that may not even exist and the very small part I played in things.
The story of a writer who became an artist, who had something to say.