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U-M’s sustainable material, color garden in bloom

The University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design has taken another important step toward campus wide carbon neutrality with the opening of the Sustainable Materials & Color Garden on the grounds of the school. 

The garden, conceived and built by Stamps faculty, staff and students, allows Stamps creatives to source plants for natural art practices creating accessible opportunities to cultivate plants used for materials, natural dyes, and papermaking.

When “a blank piece of paper” is a widely used metaphor for “nothing at all,” it can be a task—or a month-long course—to teach students that not only is paper a novel product, but one that requires the physical beating of fibers from nature into separation, and completion of the subsequent natural processes that allow for paper creation.

Nicholas Dowgwillo, Stamps 2D media studio coordinator and leader of this course, would know. Thankfully though, this month-long workshop with kozo—Japanese mulberry used to make paper—had the intended impact. 

“There was a lot of student interest in looking into the natural origins of the plants that make the material we were working with,” Dowgwillo said. 

Nicholas Dowgwillo at opening reception of Sustainable Materials & Color Garden

Kit Parks, Stamps fiber and 2D foundations studio coordinator, found similar enthusiasm from students around natural dye materials.

“When the pandemic hit, a lot of students were creating their own dyes at home and were asking what it would take to start our own garden here. So we connected with the U-M campus farm at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, and in 2021, we planted a couple of beds out there,” Parks said.

Students led the research of plants they were interested in having access to, including how to plant and grow them and how to process them into usable materials and dyes.

Ultimately, without a bus route directly to the campus farm, it was difficult to access and maintain the gardens at Matthaei. Out of an abundance of student interest, a synthesis between Parks, Dowgwillo, and Stamps professor Joe Trumpey, and a successful Giving Blue Day fundraising campaign, the on-location garden could become a reality.

Now, just steps from the Stamps building, is a garden with muraski, hibiscus, flax, tango cosmos, marigold, Japanese indigo, chamomile and more.

A step toward carbon neutrality

“Getting students aware of where their stuff comes from is critical. Especially as makers, it is our responsibility to do right,” Trumpey said. “If we are using unsustainable materials that treat the earth, the water, the soil, the air, other flora and fauna badly, and especially if it treats humans badly, that is not a good part of someone’s practices. So, we have to teach the students how to source good materials and develop a rubric for ‘what is good.'” 

The proximity of the garden to the studios at Stamps makes it easy for classes to step outside and visualize the processes of making their own materials.

Echoing U-M’s commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions universitywide, Trumpey teaches his students to “see the carbon in everything.” 

“If we had to compare a synthetic yellow dye that’s manufactured with some petro chemical, that comes from some distant place, that has a different kind of a carbon footprint than a few students going out to the campus farm and clipping goldenrod heads that have pollinator benefits, honeybee benefits and beauty benefits, and bringing those to the studio to boil in water to make a nice yellow dye out of it—that is a completely different kind of carbon story,” he said.

Since the pandemic, supply chain issues have been a persistent issue across industries, the arts notwithstanding; not being able to access the materials you need can completely halt the artistic process, Trumpey said. But by imparting a sense of resourcefulness, students can feel empowered to continue their practice even in unprecedented times, he said.

“Thinking around questions of sustainability in the sense of how we sustain an art practice in an era of climate change, and knowing that our resources and timelines, and costs of shipping and receiving materials from a global supply chain will be changing, and in some cases suddenly, is important,” Parks said.

A center of gravity

In addition to serving as an integral piece of the holistic artmaking puzzle, another important purpose of the garden is to create space for community.

“Good spaces encourage community—I call them ‘centers of gravity,'” Trumpey said. “We look at this dye garden space as a center of gravity where people could be seeing some beautiful things, thinking about their work, hanging out with friends, drinking a coffee … people gravitate towards beautiful things; having nature as part of that is important. And if it’s a didactic space where students can think, ‘these plants aren’t just pretty, they also have a purpose; I’m making beautiful things out of beautiful things,’ then they really understand the full story.”

Parks said they named the garden the Stamps Sustainable Materials & Color Garden because “it’s going to facilitate a lot of different projects.”

“You can use the plants for dye, for making pigment, watercolors, paints, food coloring, bio materials, making paper, making yarn, but it’s also a site that can be engaged with from the perspective of community development and design,” Parks said.

Dowgillo said that artmaking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. 

“The materials that we use, the way we interact with others in the studio, the audiences for the work that we make, all those things are connected to each other,” he said. “Deepening your understanding of art is deepening your understanding of those connections, and to me that is really important.”

The space is furnished with benches, stools and a table that were built from the historic Tappan Oak. Students milled the oak and utilized indigo harvested from the garden itself to dye the stools blue.

In the future, responsibility of the garden will be taken over by an extracurricular student-based club. They will make planting and growing decisions; plan events, programs and community harvest days; and continue to increase community engagement with the space.  

Stamps classes will engage with the garden on many levels and will have the opportunity to propose ways of using materials for their coursework, suggest workshops that can take place in the garden, and participate in the actual harvesting of materials. 

“Being able to look around your local environment and know how you can connect things together, I think that helps all of us ground our practices—literally and figuratively,” Trumpey said.

Chalk: ‘Possibly the simplest tool you could ever make art with’

ANN ARBOR—David Zinn is a man on a mission—a mission to, via his chalk art demonstrations, inspire others to want to make their own chalk art.

“Which is why I like chalk art to begin with, because it is possibly the simplest tool you could ever make art work with, and it’s one which almost everyone has likely used at some point in their lives—ideally as kids, the age at which we are most confident about our own ability to make art,” Zinn said.

Zinn’s whimsical chalk art can be seen around the world, around Ann Arbor and on demonstration at the Ann Arbor Art Fair next week. 

Artwork by David Zinn

Artwork by David Zinn

“The meaning of art in this case isn’t just what you can buy and hang on your wall, but it’s what you can create in your own space, on your own time and in your own way,” Zinn said.

By the end of each demonstration at the fair, Zinn will have created a new character interacting with the streetscape of the city. And by the end of each day, visitors will have contributed their own doodles to create a colorful, dusty tapestry unique to the art fair, never to be seen again come the next rainfall.

Artwork by David Zinn

Artwork by David Zinn

Did Zinn study art during his time at the University of Michigan? No. But the “first domino” that led to what the artist does now did fall while he was living at East Quad. 

“East Quad being an old, beloved building, had chalkboards on the fronts of the dorm room doors that had been there since the ’40s and did not work as chalk boards, but more like ancient pieces of slate you couldn’t write on,” Zinn said. “In the middle of the night my junior year I went out and found a roll of chalkboard surface contact paper. … I ended up covering my entire door with this chalkboard surface.” 

There was a 10-to-15 year gap between that and Zinn actually taking his art to the sidewalks, but it is why he had chalk in his house when he first had the idea to go outside and draw on that fateful sunny day.

“Chalk the Walk” will take place 1-3 p.m. July 21 and July 23 at Liberty Street and Fifth Avenue. Sidewalk chalk will be available so that fairgoers can join in on the creativity and add their own mark on this year’s Ann Arbor Art Fair. 

Artwork by David Zinn

Artwork by David Zinn

Ralph Helmick sculpture at School of Dentistry adds distinctive new element to the University of Michigan campus art collection

A new art installation at the School of Dentistry brings a distinctive addition to the portfolio of art on the University of Michigan campus, school and university administrators said during a reception celebrating the artist and his striking creation.

Perennial by Ralph Helmick

Perennial by Ralph Helmick

Perennial is a sculpture by award-winning artist Ralph Helmick that hangs in the dental school’s enclosed three-story atrium. It is composed of more than 900 gold-leafed elements suspended by fine braided steel cables from a water-jet-cut aluminum frame to form a 3-D rendering of a columbine flower. Most of the hanging objects are variations of bicones, a geometric shape chosen for the appealing way it reflects light. The sculpture also includes gold-leafed dental hand instruments, such as dental mirrors and forceps, that were donated to the art project by alumni of the dental school.

The sculpture appears to be lit from within but its luminous quality is produced when light shining through the atrium skylights by day or artificial light at night is reflected off the 24 carat gold surfaces. After the sculpture’s installation in December, dental students, faculty, staff and patients have marveled at its beauty and composition, whether looking at its individual parts from two balconies next to it, or when viewing from ground level, where the best vantage point for perceiving the entire shape of the flower is near the atrium entrance of Café 32.

Professor Albert Richards and one of his columbine radiographs.

Professor Albert Richards and one of his columbine radiographs.

The choice of sculpting a columbine flower at the dental school pays homage to the late Professor Albert Richards, a faculty member at the school from 1940-1982. A world-class expert on dental radiology, Richards used his expertise with x-rays to create artistic radiographs of flowers that show the intricate and beautiful internal elements within their external structures. The black-and-white radiographs, which became his lifelong hobby, appeared in text books, calendars, encyclopedias, museums and many magazines in this country and internationally. After retiring from the dental school, Richards published a book in 1990, The Secret Garden, which contains 100 of his best flower radiographs. Included in that collection are two columbine images that Helmick used as models for Perennial.

Helmick’s commission for the School of Dentistry came about after Dean Laurie McCauley met his wife, Dr. Nan Niland, a 1979 alumna of the dental school, in 2013. McCauley learned that Helmick was an acclaimed artist and she was impressed by photos and videos of installations he has done around the country and in the United Arab Emirates. McCauley invited Helmick to create a work of art for the dental school atrium. He agreed as a way to honor his wife and the school that provided the foundation for her career as a dentist.

Ralph Helmick with his wife Nan Niland (center) and School of Dentistry Dean Laurie McCauley.

Ralph Helmick with his wife Nan Niland (center) and School of Dentistry Dean Laurie McCauley.

“One thing that has impressed me over the decades that Nan and I have been married is how devoted she is to her alma mater here,” Helmick said. “This is a very special place. When Laurie broached the subject, I thought this is a fascinating opportunity to have me acknowledge Nan and Nan acknowledge her alma mater.”

While considering what form his piece would take, Helmick embarked on the extensive research he does for each of his public art commissions. It led him to Richards’ trademark radiographs. Not only was Richards’ work beautiful and inspiring, but Niland fondly remembered him as one of her kindest instructors. Many of Helmick’s 50-plus public works address the meeting of art and science so all the aspects of the story just seemed to connect perfectly, he said.

A collection of dental mirrors form the pistils at the center of the columbine flower.

A collection of dental mirrors form the pistils at the center of the columbine flower.

Helmick’s favorite radiograph was the columbine, for its dynamic beauty, but also for its “sculptogenic” form. He made sketches from a Richards radiograph, then worked with a programmer to create a computer-assisted-design spreadsheet. It guided the precise locations on measured cables to attach the gold-leafed bicones and dental instruments that form the columbine image. Describing the process from start to finish, Helmick calls it “making a 3-dimensional image from a 2-dimensional radiograph of a 3-dimensional flower.”

At a reception for the work on April 5, Susan Gott, the university’s Campus Planner and a member of the U-M president’s Advisory Committee for Public Art, thanked Helmick and the dental school for bringing the “unique, inspiring piece” to campus. “Public art is fundamental to our mission, whether it’s our mission for teaching or research or clinical care or community service,” she said. “Art creates a sense of belonging and connection to a place. It can build community. It can help activate and draw people in a way that creates new memories. It creates a collegial experience.

“I feel so grateful and honored that we get to welcome this piece together into the collection,” Gott said. “It is extraordinary in its magnitude. It is so expressive. The collection on our campus ranges in media, in scale, in style, in era, in material. This stretches the diversity of the collection even further. I think it is bringing something that is really transformative for the university.”

From left, Robert Love, artist Ralph Helmick and Zach Hawkins look up at Perennial during the recent reception.

From left, Robert Love, artist Ralph Helmick and Zach Hawkins look up at Perennial during the recent reception.

Christopher Audain, Managing Director of The Arts Initiative at the university, also addressed the importance of art at the reception. He said art is unique in the way it can imprint meaning on space and tell a multitude of stories all at once. “I believe in the power of the arts to bring people together. Art also makes us look more carefully and experience where we are. Art endures, whether it be a painting or a sculpture or a song or story or installation,” Audain said.

Audain said the reception was in many ways a celebration of the merger of art and science by both Richards and Helmick. “The more ways we find to come together and appreciate the moment we are in, the better. Let’s take a moment, together, to appreciate this,” Audain said, pausing as the audience collectively looked up at the sculpture above them.

In thanking the audience and those who facilitated the installation, Helmick said his goal as an artist is to encourage contemplation and reflection in a world that has become increasingly busy and distracted by non-stop communication. He said the sculpture may seem complex, but his intent was simple – “I wanted to make something beautiful.” While the site, its history and the intended audience are important factors as he plans a project, the art itself is the ultimate focus. “A piece just has to look great without any of that,” he said in an earlier interview. “It just has to be its own standalone expression that engages me personally as an artist.”

Niland shared that the colorful installation by Helmick in the lobby at the Yawkey Center for Cancer Care in Boston is an example of the power of her husband’s art to provide a source of pleasant engagement, in this case for families enduring the anxiety and discomforts of cancer treatment. “Countless people have told us how meaningful it is for them,” she said. “To be in that situation and to have something beautiful to look at and to distract them and allow them to reflect on other things.”

Niland said Perennial has many of the same qualities. “It is just so uplifting. Even if you are right underneath and can’t see the macro image of the flower, it is like golden rain. It is just lovely.”

This night view looking straight up shows the aluminum frame in the shape of a columbine that is attached just below the atrium’s glass ceiling. Thin steel cables holding the bicones and dental instruments hang from the frame.

This night view looking straight up shows the aluminum frame in the shape of a columbine that is attached just below the atrium’s glass ceiling. Thin steel cables holding the bicones and dental instruments hang from the frame.

Based in Newton, Massachusetts, Helmick has installed public sculpture commissions from coast to coast, including at airports in Chicago, Philadelphia, Tampa and Seattle; university and scientific research centers, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Notre Dame; numerous state and federal buildings, including justice centers and courthouses; healthcare buildings; and convention and civic centers. One of Helmick’s most acclaimed works is “The Constellation,” a monumental installation that forms the centerpiece of The Founder’s Memorial Park in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The stunning sculpture is a permanent national tribute to the UAE’s founding father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. The sculpture won the prestigious CODAaward for International Institutional Artwork in 2019.

Helmick has a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and Tufts University, and he studied at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.

Dr. Nan Niland’s sister, Dr. Nona Niland, photographs Perennial during the reception.

Dr. Nan Niland’s sister, Dr. Nona Niland, photographs Perennial during the reception.

Both Helmick and Niland earned their undergraduate degrees at the University of Michigan, where they first met as Resident Assistants in the Mosher-Jordan residence hall. Years later they reconnected and married. After graduating from dental school and completing a one-year residency at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Niland spent her entire career as a dentist in the Boston area before officially retiring earlier this year.

Dean Laurie McCauley called the installation of the sculpture “a dream come true” that was nine years in the making after she first met Niland. Helmick was engaged in other projects and installations that had to be finished before starting on the dental school project, which took about two and a half years once it was initiated. McCauley thanked Helmick for his generous effort on the project, which he donated to the school, as well as members of the dental school community, including alumni, who contributed to the cost of the installation. Dr. Nan Niland’s sister, Dr. Nona Niland, a University of Michigan School of Medicine alumna, made a substantial contribution toward the cost of materials and installation. McCauley also thanked those alumni who responded to her request for dental instruments to be part of the sculpture, including the family of former Professor and Director of Clinics Frank Comstock.

Kristin Guenther (center) and Barbara Kolling gaze up at Perennial during the reception.

Kristin Guenther (center) and Barbara Kolling gaze up at Perennial during the reception.

McCauley noted the sculpture’s title of “Perennial” can be expanded beyond its meaning for flowers to include the educational philosophy of perennialism, which is fitting since the sculpture’s home is in an educational setting. Perennialism focuses on teaching things that transcend time and that develop minds that can think critically.

The dental school is fortunate and grateful to have the new art gracing its atrium, McCauley said. “This piece with its beauty, historical context, generosity from our community, a husband’s devotion – what more could you ask for in a piece of art?” McCauley then led a toast at the event, “To art, to the artists who perennially lighten our lives, to our generous community, and to colleagues who become dear friends.”

The reflective beauty of the sculpture’s elements is evident in this view taken at night.

The reflective beauty of the sculpture’s elements is evident in this view taken at night.

Installation team members Matt Koestner (left) and Brandon Plumert, in a mechanical lift high above the floor, attach dental instruments to cables.

Installation team members Matt Koestner (left) and Brandon Plumert, in a mechanical lift high above the floor, attach dental instruments to cables.

Early in the installation in December 2021, the Perennial team uses a mechanical lift to attach cables to the columbine-shaped framework at the top of the atrium. A few of the first bicones to be hung are visible in the center of the photo.

Early in the installation in December 2021, the Perennial team uses a mechanical lift to attach cables to the columbine-shaped framework at the top of the atrium. A few of the first bicones to be hung are visible in the center of the photo.

An assortment of dental instruments, covered in gold leaf, await installation.

An assortment of dental instruments, covered in gold leaf, await installation.

Blue sky and clouds provide the backdrop in this daytime view looking up toward the atrium glass ceiling.

Blue sky and clouds provide the backdrop in this daytime view looking up toward the atrium glass ceiling.


More information on artist Ralph Helmick and his public art commissions can be found on his website here.

Ph.D. dissertations provide inspiration for artist

Alison Rivett would love nothing more than to make the arts accessible to more people.

That’s a large part of her role as associate director of the university’s Arts Initiative, but it’s also the guiding principle behind her latest efforts: illustrations based on Ph.D. dissertations.

Alison Rivett

Alison Rivett

Dissertations are not the most natural form of inspiration for art, and Rivett relishes the challenge.

“I was interested in text and image, since my time as a grad student here at the Stamps School of Art & Design,” she said. “I’ve only done a few from this series based on dissertations, but I want it to become my life’s work, especially at a place like U-M. I am interested in art for an audience of one, but very personally meaningful to that person.”

She completed her first one in 2019, a painting inspired by an analysis of the papyrus collection at U-M. Rivett was with the International Institute at the time and a colleague wanted to gift her partner something visual from his scholarly work in the classics department.

She chose a Greek-language papyrus letter to illustrate.

“I found the one I thought was the most visual, and it was a letter from a husband to his wife telling her to pack up the household and come,” she said. “He has found the place they were going to be living and all the things she needs to bring with her, which were trunks of clothing, 12 jars of olives, his three best men, and a few sheep.

“Taking it literally, I’m showing the woman carrying all this stuff on her own on a big platform — even though he probably did not intend that, it would have been difficult for her to move an entire household. I often look for what a textual description leaves out, or assumes.”

She also recently completed another piece inspired by an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards, which were hand-painted in Italy in the mid-15th century.

Alison Rivett made this painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards.

Rivett’s painting from an art history dissertation about the history of early tarot cards

“The illustration I created combines frescoes referred to in the dissertation, and juxtaposes them with people mentioned in the textual evidence,” she said. “This one was great to work on because I love painting patterns-on-patterns.”

The finished product was gifted to the recipient as part of a “secret Santa” exchange.

The other painting she completed was about linguistic anthropology for a friend who wanted a gift for her Ph.D. adviser. The subject was the Wolof language in Senegal. She said she’s about to start another one based on an anthropology dissertation.

“I say part of the gift is I read the entire dissertation, and the joke is, they say, ‘You’re the second person who’s ever read this,’” she said. “I note the passages you can see in your mind’s eye that seem to suggest a setting.”

Rivett created this painting based on a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal.

Rivett’s painting from a linguistic anthropology dissertation about the Wolof language in Senegal

Rivett’s sense of humor shines through in her illustrations, and she believes that helps open the arts to a wider audience.

“Even when I try to do paintings that are straightforward, they end up being kind of funny, and that’s one way I see the arts being more accessible,” she said. “If you can laugh at it a little, it takes away some of this gatekeeping idea that art has to be about the sublime or it’s only for people who are insiders and go to galleries every week.

“When I was a student here, even classmates pursuing Ph.D.s were intimidated by art. They thought they did not have enough training to access or appreciate it fully. I think of that a lot now as we at the Arts Initiative think about how more students at the university can participate in art making.”

Rivett is an art consumer in addition to being a creator. She said her favorite exhibit each year is the Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners through the Prison Creative Arts Project. The exhibit closed last week.

She said she enjoys visiting museums that are off the beaten path, inspired by her time as a museum studies student at U-M, and she holds the distinction of being the second paid employee of the American Museum of Magic in Marshall.

She also said she enjoys checking out local estate sales on weekends and has come away from many of those with unique finds.

“I went to an estate sale that had a set of scrapbooks,” she said. “I found that all of them, 10 or 12, were filled with images of cats found from various sources — newspapers, greeting cards, and even Morris the Cat from cat food containers. I bought five of them.

“When confronted by incredulous friends, who see these as ‘trash’ not ‘treasure,’ I point out that these are pre-internet Google images. If we wanted to have images of things, we had to work hard to find them and collect them. And, particularly because these are images of cats, and some say the internet mostly exists as a platform to share images of cats, I think these are, really, an early version of the internet.”

‘A Lesson in Longing’: U-M students team up to create portraits of their campus community

After transferring to the University of Michigan in fall 2020, N’Dea Shelton, a senior studying history at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, was looking for a way to get to know her new classmates.

“As a transfer student, I wanted to connect with this university better,” she said. “I wanted to get to know who was here because it is really easy sometimes to just live—to just walk and not pay attention to anyone.”

At the same time, Michael O’Brien, a first-year MBA student at the Ross School of Business and a photographer, was also seeking to understand his new community and the U-M culture.

With this shared desire to make meaningful connections, O’Brien and Shelton have collaborated on “A Lesson in Longing,” a project that combines photography, interviews, music and text to produce multidimensional portraits of U-M students. The project takes its name from a 2019 Jennifer Packer painting of two figures within a spectral domestic interior.

The two artists were brought together by the U-M Arts Initiative, having served this past semester as Creative Fellows for its “Bridging the Divide” project. The initiative aims to expand art access and promote art making by U-M students across all disciplines, and it launched “Bridging the Divide” to support and mentor student work focused on connection, collaboration and healing. Twenty-one students across eight university units participated as inaugural Creative Fellows for the project.

To create the portraits of “A Lesson in Longing,” O’Brien and Shelton developed a two-part process that generated multiple portraits of each subject. First, O’Brien photographed each subject in their home. He deliberately chose a technically cumbersome film-based process for these portrait sessions, a 4×5 camera, in an effort to slow down and spend time with his subjects. Each photo shoot lasted up to two hours, he said.Those same students were then interviewed by Shelton, who asked them to complete statements such as “I’m on a journey toward,” “The world would be a better place with” and “One song that describes my place in life is.” To produce her portraits, Shelton then overlaid the interviewees’ answers on photos taken by the subjects themselves from their windows. She also included Spotify codes to the subject’s selected songs.

While O’Brien’s photos capture a subject’s likeness, Shelton’s text-based images are fully anonymous and won’t be displayed side-by-side with the students’ photos when “A Lesson in Longing” is installed April 8. Similar to O’Brien’s goal in engaging long portrait sessions, Shelton promised anonymity in her portraits so her subjects felt free to be honest and open in their answers.

“They are free to say what they want to say without anyone casting judgment, without anyone attributing their picture or face to anything they say,” Shelton said.

The collaborators chose to work with students they may not have otherwise encountered in order to center the process of building relationships through art making.

“I’m drawn to photographing communities that I’m a part of, essentially in an effort to get to know them better,” O’Brien said. “I’d basically been making portraits of family members, and I really wanted to make portraits of people I didn’t know.”

“On a personal level, I wanted to build confidence speaking to people at this university,” Shelton said. “With this project, people have been extremely willing to share their opinions and pieces of their lives with me.”

Taken together, O’Brien’s and Shelton’s images depict multiple facets and different perspectives of the students that make up the U-M campus community.

“I describe Michael’s role as capturing the person in their environment, and my role was to try to capture the person’s personality that maybe the photo doesn’t show, the words that they say and what they feel,” Shelton said.

“A Lesson in Longing​​” will be on view 4:30-7 p.m. April 8 at the Nichols Arboretum Reader Center at 1610 Washington Heights, Ann Arbor, as part of a special showcase of all the Arts Initiative “Bridging the Divide” projects.

The reception with art, food and music is free and open to the public.

FestiFools returns with even more fools and a new location

After two years, FestiFools makes its vibrant return to the streets of Ann Arbor April 3.

The fest’s signature larger-than-life papier-mâché puppets, created by students of the University of Michigan Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts, will descend upon campus held up by their creators, community members and loved ones.

And for the last time, the chaos will be orchestrated by “the original fool,” Mark Tucker; he will pass the baton to a new puppetmaster for future annual FestiFools productions. In honor of his final FestiFools, Tucker will be contributing his own puppet to the parade this year.

The puppets’ route will take place on State Street between William Street and South University Avenue allowing more space for social distancing than their previous Main Street location.

“There is so much here pedagogically that I love,” said Tucker, academic program officer for the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “I love watching a student—especially a non-art major, which is mostly what I teach—I love watching their journey from having an idea in their imagination to creating it all three dimensionally, and doing the engineering inside, and going through the trials and tribulations of actually making a piece manifest.”

The majority of the puppets that march each year in the FestiFools parade are made in Tucker’s class, “Art in Public Spaces,” with additional help from the community. Students from all disciplines are encouraged to explore the making of large-scale theatrical scenery, as well as the creation of large-scale public spectacles.

There will be at least 15 new, original puppets this year. Each puppet takes a minimum of three people to carry; some take as many as six or more. And as much fun as it is to watch, “it is a lot more fun to be under a puppet animating it and interacting with the crowd,” Tucker said.

And what comes next for Tucker? He will continue teaching his class, but the creative content will be presented in a new, still to be determined, way. He is considering an entirely new event, pop-up experiences, or even bringing some foolishness and fun to new towns in Michigan.

“Creatively I’m ready for a new adventure and I’m going to segue in May over to UMMA (U-M Museum of Art) where we will take the FestiFools community model inside a museum and have folks coming there to create an exhibition together,” he said.

The interactive exhibition, FUN, is scheduled May 14-Sept. 4, 2022. The inspiration for this year’s FestiFools puppets was drawn from each student’s favorite piece at UMMA, and some puppets may even be given a second life as seed materials for FUN.

FestiFools is free and open to the public. The festivities will take place this weekend, with FoolMoon kicking off 6-10 p.m. Friday, April 1, in Kerrytown. FestiFools will follow 4-5 p.m. Sunday, April 3, on State Street in Ann Arbor.

Prison artwork live again after 2 years of digital versions

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Prison Creative Arts Project presents the 26th annual Exhibition of Art by Michigan Prisoners, the largest exhibition in the world of its kind.

“Falling Down Locked Up,” Ink & Colored Pencil. Image credit: Tyler Gaastra

The free, public exhibition highlights the work of 392 artists from 26 state correctional facilities in Michigan. It features 714 paintings, drawings and three-dimensional works. 

After two years of not being able to meet the artists in person (the 2020 show was canceled and last year’s exhibition was virtual), PCAP staff and volunteers had strong reactions to reconnecting with them.

“There was no greater joy I experienced this year than visiting artists in prison,” said PCAP Director Nora Krinitsky. “Despite everything, PCAP artists have persevered and they continue to create works of great ingenuity, nuance, thoughtfulness and playfulness. I’m humbled by it.” 

For Krinitsky, art selection trips to each facility are at the heart of the exhibition because this is when powerful dialogue happens between artists and volunteers. 

MSW graduate Emily Cole was among the group of U-M students, staff, faculty, community members and local artists who traveled to all 26 participating prisons in Michigan in search of the best works of art created.

“I learned a great deal about what inspires their work, such as their family, passions outside of art, and the goals that they have set for themselves in the future,” Cole said.

The show features diversity of both artists and artistic choices. Artists range from 18 to 80 years old, men and women from across the state with diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. Most pieces are for sale, with proceeds going directly to the artists.

Last year, almost half of the 823 pieces were sold, generating $28,945 in just two weeks. There is a broad array of artistic media and subject matter, including landscapes, portraits, prison scenes and political statements. 

“Many artists chose to respond visually to several topics that currently dominate the news and public discourse,” said curator Charlie Michaels. “They include emotional and thoughtful reflections on isolation and COVID-19, on the American political landscape, and personal perspectives on race and the Black Lives Matter movement.”

  • "At our Wit's End," Paint. Image credit: Serge Tkachenko
  • "Curiosity Built the World," Acrylic. Image credit: Albert Kakosky III
  • "Even in the Dark, There's Beauty," Acrylic. Image credit: Daniel Teribery
  • “3 Dodo Birds, Acrylic. Image credit: Darryl Rattew

Senior curator Janie Paul started the Annual Exhibition in 1996 with her husband and PCAP founder Buzz Alexander. Paul, a community-based artist and U-M professor emerita whose primary focus is the capacity of visual meaning-creation as a vehicle for social change, has been bringing art from prisons across the state to campus each year.  

Paul and Alexander traveled to 16 prisons in Michigan to collect art for the first show in 1996. 

"We were just mind-blown by the work," Paul said. "We discovered it was such an important event both for the artists inside and for the community. It brought us all together."

The exhibition is at the Duderstadt Gallery, 2281 Bonisteel Blvd. on U-M's North Campus March 22-April 5. Gallery hours are noon-6 p.m. Sunday and Monday; 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. 

The opening celebration begins at 6:30 p.m. March 22. It features speakers from U-M and the Michigan Department of Corrections, artists from previous exhibitions and a performance by the U-M Out of the Blue choir. 

Fair Representation in Arts and Data

Stamps Associate Professor Sophia Brueckner has long known that small things can make a big impact. However, the fact really hit home for her very recently through her work with the ongoing research project, ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data.” In the last year, she’s been part of a team of dedicated University of Michigan (U‑M) researchers who used several of the most popular face detection algorithms designed to distinguish a variety of factors (including gender and race) to analyze the entire collection at UMMA.

We’re trying to draw parallels between bias and exclusion in the museum world and bias and exclusion in technology,” Brueckner says. ​With our research, we hope to create a more aware — and more inclusive — local community and world.”

Funded by the U‑M’s Arts Initiative, Brueckner explains that the year-long collaboration between data scientists, artists, and museum curators has focused on exploring how bias is present and problematic, the process where bias happens, and if they could recognize some trends in the diversity of UMMA’s collection.

There’s simply no other project like this anywhere, and it’s really important research to have in this day and age,” says the project’s lead investigator and data scientist, Dr. Jing Liu.

Liu, who is also the managing director of the Michigan Institute for Data Science, shares that previous to working on ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data,” she had already been kicking around the idea of how artwork could be used to demonstrate to the public, ​in a very intuitive way, both the power of data science and the harm of data science.”

We know that data science and artificial intelligence (AI) systems have implicit bias and that momentum needs to be built up around the topic,” Liu says. ​For a few years now we have thought about educating the public in some way. When we found out that there was funding for pilot projects, I knew it was a chance to be a part of doing something really substantial.”

Working Together To Make Change

The project’s initial findings are certainly thought-provoking. Some key highlights were not too surprising to the research team. For instance, they uncovered that the algorithms often failed in recognizing females in the collection and that the collection is very white-heavy.

We essentially did face detection over UMMA’s entire collection,” Brueckner explains. ​We found all the faces in the collection and then we applied algorithms that are available publicly and open source, which helped identify race classification and gender classification to those faces.”

She said that it’s very hard to understand sometimes why these algorithms are making certain decisions, but the researchers have found the results really interesting. She points to one unexpected discovery: when left to an algorithm to categorize visual input, the most representative face found in the collection is a painting of a clown.

Georges Rouault, Cirque de l’Etoile Filante. Plate XIII: Le Renchéri (p.106), 1935. Full information

We applied a different type of algorithm that looks at which features are really important in detecting a face and then look at the averages,” Brueckner says. ​That the algorithm concluded on the ​clown’ is funny, but it actually sort of makes sense, because clowns have exaggerated facial makeup.”

Motivated by the knowledge that both the algorithms and UMMA’s collection are biased, the ​Fair Representation in Arts and Data” team inspired the UMMA exhibition, White Cube Black Box.

The phrase ​White Cube’ is a term that refers to museums historically being exclusionary and having blank white walls and removing all the context, which makes the work actually quite inaccessible for those who aren’t highly educated in the subject matter or coming from certain communities,” Brueckner explains. ​And, the term ​Black Box’ is used in engineering to talk about how a lot of these technologies that we rely on are opaque.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

Entrance at UMMA during the “You Are Here” exhibit (2021).

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

She and the rest of the research team are currently talking about the next steps of expanding the project. In the meantime, Brueckner is looking forward to public feedback – UMMA visitors can see the initial findings on display at the Apse at UMMA inside of the You Are Here exhibit. Curated by Jennifer M. Friess, associate curator of photography at UMMAYou Are Here centers on the idea of being present as the world reopens after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friess shares that the idea of being present is different for everyone. In her view, It can be really joyous to be back in a museum, but if a person doesn’t see themself represented in a collection, and in the works that are on view, then it can be quite alienating.

White Cube Black Box really makes such a good counterpoint and another way to speak to the idea of being here,” Friess says. ​Underneath monitors, where the findings and research play out in a narrative way, we’ve asked the question ​Are you here?’ as a type of reverse of the exhibit title, and people can really take in the data and contemplate and make connections.”

Viewers examining UMMA’s 2019 Photography Exhibition “Take Your Pick,” which showcased every aspect of 20th-century American life you can imagine—and some you probably can’t.

For Liu, the power of people from different disciplines coming together to share ideas has not escaped her. She shares that in her usual experience when different groups of people talk about the same topic, they tend to talk over each other.

But, with our project, artists and scientists sat down and talked with each other and learned from each other and challenged each other to strengthen our collective effort,” she says. ​I want to see more of this and I’m really hoping that our project is an example that helps to steer things away from the status quo.”

Seconding her wish is Brueckner, who also hopes that the team’s work will steer people towards becoming more educated consumers who will vote for more data privacy and security. If the project can provide an inroad to making people aware of the pitfalls in technology that is being embedded locally, and all across the world, a bit earlier, then she’ll be plenty happy.

This type of biased data collection is already being deployed around the world, and some of it is useful and some of it is frankly pretty scary,” she says. ​Recently, there was a disturbing case in Detroit where a child was misidentified at a skating rink and was given a ban all because of an algorithm. We need to raise awareness that these algorithms are still deeply flawed.”

‘Drawn on the Way’: U-M alumna doodles deeper connection with surroundings

A New York artist has managed to bring joy to the subway system with her portraits of passengers for a decade—and now she shows others how to do the same.

Sarah Nisbett (B.A. 04) developed a passionate philosophy behind sketch portraiture.

What started as a secret hobby to pass the time on the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan led former professional opera singer Sarah Nisbett (B.A. ’04) to a career as a full-time artist, over 70 sketch-filled notebooks, and nearly 28,000 followers through her Instagram account, @drawnontheway. “I found myself riding the subway home from work one evening feeling bored. But I was more than bored, I was longing to do something creative, something that didn’t involve a screen,” Nisbett said. “That’s when I noticed a dapper but slightly rumpled old man sitting across from me wearing a rust-colored three-piece-suit with a matching fedora and a wide, outdated tie that poked through the bottom of his jacket. I wondered who he was when that suit was new. I wondered who he was now.

The first subway sketch that started it all.

“And as I wondered, I put that contemplation into material form and I drew him. When I finished drawing him, I was surprised by two things: the drawing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I was already home. The time had flown by.” Since then, Nisbett has been captivated by highlighting small details. She finds that everyone carries a story with them that you can unravel through the various ways they express themselves. “My experience at U-M was centered around art and language and how to use words and pictures to tell a story or represent a moment in time. I see my drawings as stories and I see myself as a visual storyteller. I embrace these drawings as notes on a fleeting moment in time, that I can share with others or just keep for myself,” she said. Her vivid “five-minute” pen drawings quickly gained popularity on social media, where people can see her subjects and watch them come to life on paper. When possible, Nisbett will give her sketch to the subject on the train with a card reading “You are a work of art.”
A scene from one of Nisbett's TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi's mural, "Drifts," at 200 S Ashley, a large flower mural of pink and yellow flowers. Nisbett's hand can be seen in the foreground, holding her sketchpad with a finished sketch of the two on a bench with two stickers that read, "YOU ARE A WORK OF ART."

A scene from one of Nisbett’s TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi’s mural, “Drifts,” at 200 S Ashley. 

In celebration of the project’s 10-year anniversary, Nisbett released her first book, which encourages busy people to find creativity in the moments in between the tasks of life. In “Drawn on the Way: A Guide to Capturing the Moment Through Live Sketching,” Nisbett shares her techniques for creating captivating line drawings that capture moments and moods, and invites readers to see the people they draw with “compassionate curiosity—as more than a stranger, as someone with a story worth knowing or imagining.” The book is an accessible guide to making quick sketches of our world, designed for busy people on the go who only have a few minutes in their day for creativity. Nisbett explains that we spend so much of our lives rushing around that often when we get a moment of pause, we look to our phones instead of what’s around us. “I often say that the subway taught me how to draw, but more accurately it taught me how to see,” she said. “How to see the stories that surround us, and how to bring the background into the foreground and find interest in the interstitial moments ‘on the way’ that we are programmed to overlook in the interest of getting where we’re going. “And, by noticing the little moments that happen along the way, you also begin living in them. And that makes the literal and metaphorical journey much more interesting. It also makes them more meaningful.”
She emphasizes that art isn't about perfectly capturing the world around us, but recreating the world as you see it. "The techniques, projects and ideas in 'Drawn on the Way' are designed to help you be more mindful about drawing, to capture the people, places and things you encounter each day," she said. "By doing that, you'll connect with humanity in a deeper, more meaningful way—and discover a lot about yourself."

$12M gift of Chinese calligraphy transforms Asian art collection at U-M Museum of Art

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Museum of Art has received a gift of Chinese calligraphy from the family of Lo Chia-Lun valued at more than $12 million—the largest gift of art in the university’s history.

The Lo Chia-Lun Calligraphy Collection, donated by his daughter Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and her husband Kuei-sheng Chang, will transform the museum’s Asian art collection, adding an impressive breadth of works to an already stellar collection of Chinese paintings and ceramics.

Lo Chia-Lun (1897-1969) was a student leader in China’s “May Fourth Movement” and became a prominent government official in Nationalist China as well as a scholar, calligrapher, poet and president of two major universities—National Central University and Tsinghua University. 

The Lo Chia-Lun Calligraphy Collection will contribute significantly to contemporary scholarship on Yuan and Ming dynasty calligraphy, and includes masterpieces by Yang Weizhen (1296-1370), Wang Shouren (1472-1529), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Wang Duo (1592-1652), among others. 

Yang Weizhen (1296 – 1370), Two Calligraphy of Poetry (detail), Yuan dynasty, handscroll in two sections, ink on silk, 8 ¼ x 13 ¼ inches (first section); 8 ¼ x 16 ½ inches (second section), Gift of Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and Kuei-sheng Chang, UMMA. 

It also represents a major contribution to the study of Chinese cultural history, as it includes pieces from many cultural leaders of the early 20th century, including Cai Yuanpei (1868-1940), Chen Duxiu (1879-1942) and Shen Yinmo (1883-1971), as well as later artists Xu Beihong (1895-1953) and Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). 

The collection preserves important evidence of cultural pursuits among these notable historical figures, while also reflecting the tastes and intellectual exchanges among leading intellectuals in the early 20th century. 

The Lo family in Taiwan in 1963. Image courtesy of Elaine Chang.

The gift to UMMA is the result of a long relationship between the Lo family and U-M, and builds upon their history of philanthropy including previous gifts of Chinese art. Lo Chia-Lun’s wife, Djang Wei-djen (MA ’27), earned a master’s degree in political science at U-M on a Barbour Scholarship—one of U-M’s oldest and most prestigious awards, offering funding to female students from Asia and the Middle East since 1917. 

Their daughters, Jiu-Fong Lo Chang (MA ’57, PhD candidate) and Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur (MA ’61, PhD ’72), also attended graduate school at U-M as Barbour Scholars; their son-in-law, Kuei-sheng Chang (MA ’50, PhD ’55), earned a master’s degree and doctorate in geography from U-M. In the past decade, Jiu-Hwa Lo Upshur has endowed a scholarship in her father’s name at the Rackham Graduate School and created internship endowments at UMMA.

“This gift honors not only the legacy of my father, but it also recognizes our family’s deep roots at Michigan and our gratitude for the opportunities U-M afforded us at a time when few Chinese students had the privilege of studying abroad,” Jiu-Fong Lo Chang said of the calligraphy collection. 

Wen Zhengming (1470 – 1559), Twelve Poems (detail), Ming dynasty, album of twenty-six leaves, ink on paper, 9 ¼ x 6 ⅛ inches (each page), Gift of Jiu-Fong Lo Chang and Kuei-sheng Chang, UMMA.

UMMA will partner with U-M faculty and global scholars to research and interpret the works in the collection for major exhibitions and collections installations in the coming years.

“The Lo Chia-Lun Collection will have a major impact on U-M and UMMA, in terms of both research and scholarship on Chinese calligraphy and our ongoing outreach to Michigan’s large Chinese community,” said Ann Lin, the Lieberthal-Rogel Professor of Chinese Studies and director of the U-M Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies. 

The calligraphy collection numbers 72 pieces, dating to the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties and the Republican Period, including some of the finest examples of Chinese calligraphic works outside of China. The gift also includes several seals, ink stones and other objects from Chinese literati culture. 

“The addition of the Lo Chia-Lun Collection will be transformative for UMMA’s Asian art program,” said UMMA Director Christina Olsen. “It will significantly deepen UMMA’s holdings of Chinese calligraphy and will add depth and perspective to other UMMA artworks, enabling a more complete portrayal of Chinese art for museum visitors. UMMA is extremely grateful to continue the legacy of the Lo family and to share this rich and beautiful collection with the world.”