GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There is a lot to be said for implementing your vision, but when you’re talking about the art world, the supporting infrastructure to show work can be difficult and costly to build. That was the challenge facing art historian and museum educator Zachary Johnson, when he conceived of a project to bring art into the public sphere — not just in a gallery context, but anywhere he might encounter people — especially during Michigan’s famously deep winter doldrums.
“In studying art history, my interest has always been in bringing art to new audiences,” said Johnson, during an interview conducted amid a bustling breakfast crowd at Marie Catribs, and continued via email. “I’m also constantly fascinated by artists and their thoughts and practices, so I wanted a way to interact with artists and bring their work out into the public. I’ve worked with city governments in the past on public projects, but it can take a long time to gain approval and there can be a lot of red tape, so I wanted to do something where I had more independence and flexibility.”
Flexibility is literally the watchword of Flex Gallery, a rotating exhibition space located on Johnson’s upper left arm, where a series of six custom armbands created by artists are exhibited in runs of two weeks each. “I was inspired by the work of Clutch Gallery, originally Meg Duguid’s project out of Chicago, where she had art exhibitions in her wooden purse,” said Johnson. “From that I came up with the idea of showing art on my arm via canvas armbands. The idea of artwork traveling with me to all sorts of places that art is usually not shown, bathrooms, basements, dance parties, etc., was very exciting. What would it be like for someone to see artwork while out dancing at one in the morning?”
For his opening season, Johnson selected mostly local artists, with a few out-of-towners, with particular interest in presenting an array of media. “I was interested in media that would work well: printmaking, fabric, painting, and comics (due to the rectangular shape of the bands). But I also wanted to push artists a bit and find media that would be less natural to employ, namely, collage and ceramics.”
The five finished works indeed present a range of approaches to the concept. Austin-based artist Christopher Sutton kicked things off from January 1–24, with a painted and collaged piece that took a 2015 year-in-review on one side, merging into some hopeful spring flowers for 2016. He was followed by Grand Rapids fiber artist and business owner Megan Roach, who jettisoned the pre-made cloth armband in favor of an entirely original and austere woven creation, which featured materials she spun, dyed, and wove herself. Next was Alyssa Roach (no relation), also a Grand Rapids artist, who specializes in garment-based collography and used the armband as a platform for her continued examination into the politics and process of sweatshop labor. A panel bearing collograph-stamped doll’s clothes could be lifted to reveal an image pulled from the 2013 Rana Plaza Collapse in Bangladesh — the most fatal garment factory accident in history, with 2,500 casualties.
“I feel that each of them has been successful but in varying ways,” said Johnson, “I put a lot of trust in the artists when asking them to create something for me that I was going to have to wear publicly for two weeks at a time. Obviously, there’s an element of anxiety in that sort of situation, but I was extremely pleased with each piece they created.”
Next followed some slightly more personal fare from Grand Rapids printmaker Rachel McKay, who translated drawings from her grandmother’s sketchbook into layers of semi-sheer fabric. McKay’s piece serves as a double-memorial, paying tribute not only to her grandmother, but using her grandmother’s drawings which are specifically related to McKay’s uncle’s diagnosis and subsequent death from cancer. Within the layers of fabric, the topmost of which bears an abstracted nature sketch stitched with gold embroidery, McKay inserted delicate plaster flowers, designed to shatter and break down over the course of the armband’s run, to reveal a deeper layer that includes a portrait of her uncle and a note from her grandmother — a meditation on the power of time to break down grief into happier recollections. Her work was followed by that of Grand Rapids artist Jen Schaub, an Avenue for the Arts organizer known for her printmaking. Schaub has recently started a ceramics practice, and used her turn on Johnson’s arm to explore this new medium, with “Springtime in the Garden,” rendered in midnight-blue fabric heavily laden with chunky, figurative ceramic charms.
“I tended to only get reactions from people I knew, though each band definitely triggered a lot of conversations from friends, co-workers, etc,” said Johnson.
I became so used to wearing them, that I was sometimes caught off guard when someone asked me about one. My student interrupted our tutoring session to ask about one, and friends of a friend stopped me at a fundraiser to ask me about what I was wearing — so those sorts of instances were common. I think most people were impressed by the craftsmanship of each and the unusual nature of the project. The imagery of Alyssa’s piece about Rana Plaza did shock some people, of course.
Flex Gallery is nearing the end of its inaugural season — with the final work, by New York-based artist Tag W. R. Hartman-Simkins, currently on view through May 1, wherever Johnson is to be found. “The only armband that gave me some difficulty was Tag’s,” said Johnson. “He’s very much a digital artist, so he had trouble translating his ideas to the armband at first. I’ve been happy with how things turned out with him, though, as it became an opportunity for me to problem-solve with him.” In the end, Johnson teamed up with Flex artist Alyssa Roach, using a gel medium to transfer Hartman-Simkins’s image of a comic strip featuring “The Boyfriend Twins” onto the band.
Creative problem-solving is written all over Flex Gallery, which Johnson intends to repeat next winter for another 12 weeks, again attempting to work with a mix of local and non-local artists across a range of media. What a fun and off the cuff (on-the-cuff?) project which demonstrates the possibilities we create when we take matters into our own hands … er, arms.
Tag W. R. Hartman-Simkins’s armband continues at Flex Gallery (Zachary Jonhson’s arm) through May 1. Learn more about Flex Gallery on Zachary Johnson’s website.