Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Answering the Eternal Question

What is art?

Morris Shapiro,the Director of the Park West Gallery in Southfield, Michigan, took a stab at this eternal question in an essay Experiencing Rockwell that appeared on April 28th in the gallery's official blog. This post, while well reasoned, expertly informed and fascinating to read, adds to the piles of ink, real and virtual, that have been created searching for the answer to this intellectually interesting but essentially unanswerable question.

At the outset, I must admit that I have myself, in this very blog, made my own contribution to that ink heap with a post titled So What is Northern Michigan Art Anyway? I raised and then knocked down several straw-person explanations before finally, exasperated with the impossibility of the assignment I had given myself, ended up with the lame and unsatisfying conclusion that perhaps the answer really is as simple as:
Northern Michigan Art is art by Northern Michigan artists, in all of its variety of splendor, spirit and wonder.
I suggest that Mr. Shapiro's geographically broader question has a similar answer.

The starting point for Mr. Shapiro's essay is the Detroit Institute of Arts' current exhibition, American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell. Shapiro points out that many experts consider Rockwell a great illustrator but not a fine artist. He then tours the exhibition, discovering evidence to refute this conclusion.

This issue is not unique to Rockwell. Experts have created an extensive lexicon of labels for works that, while they may appear to the uninitiated to be art, should more correctly be called something else. Sometimes that other thing is, as with Rockwell, illustration. At other times the label is commercial or craft work. A few years ago in a controversial letter to the editor of our newspaper here in Petoskey, Michigan, a local expert claimed that the works in a local show were not true art but were all derivative. No doubt other terms of [non] art will occur to you.

Mr. Shapiro's efforts to discredit the illustration label and establish Rockwell as a true artist fall into the trap of accepting that such distinctions may be valid but asserting that, in Rockwell's case, the more complementary term, artist, should apply.

Shapiro argues, based on what he sees as he walks through the Norman Rockwell exhibition and other galleries in the DIA, that Rockwell deserves to be considered an artist for several reasons:
  • His work contributes to the culture and artistic identity of America.
  • He displayed a mastery of oil on canvas.
  • He had the chops to do the French Masters and include their work in his own.
  • He embodied artistic discipline.
  • He was highly productive.
  • He had an unparalleled ability to communicate and to touch people.
  • His work is enormously popular.
  • Norman Rockwell's work fits perfectly into the pantheon of the masters.

I do not dispute the truth of any of these statements. However citing them as criteria for being an artist as opposed to an illustrator necessarily accepts the validity of this distinction and implies that it would be appropriate for a properly credentialed expert to affix the illustrator label to some practitioner of lesser merit than Norman Rockwell.

As an expert himself, Shapiro has a personal and professional stake in the existence of the sort of distinctions discussed here and the right and ability of experts to be the arbiter of these distinctions. Mr. Shapiro also candidly discusses his own extensive professional and commercial interest in the works of Norman Rockwell and thus in establishing him in the highest possible echelon of artists.

At the end of his essay, Mr. Shapiro returns to what he considers to be the important question:
How can an artist of such power, possessing spectacular technical genius and an unparalleled ability to communicate and touch so many, be so often dismissed by those who claim to wield the power of judgment as to what is and isn’t “art”?
He answers saying, “The answer is too long and complex to be addressed here.”

The answer appears complicated primarily because the question is too narrowly stated. The true question is whether any artist should be similarly dismissed or degraded by such experts or, more precisely, whether distinctions such as illustrator/artist have any validity or meaning.

Mr. Shapiro speaks to far more artists and art collectors than I do. I would think that from years of working with and listening to them he would realize that, as intellectually unsatisfying as it clearly is, perhaps the only viable answer really is:
Art is what artists do, art museums display, art galleries sell, art collectors, well, collect and art enthusiasts enthuse over.
While such a recursive definition is inherently unsatisfying, it may be as close to the truth as it is possible to get.

What do you think? Please post your comments.

The Ancient Art of Glass Blowing is Alive and Well in Northern Michigan

Glass is truly ancient. People have been making things out of glass about 3,500 years! In pre-Roman times, glass makers were making vessels, but glass blowing had not yet been invented. These early glass jars were made by wrapping hot glass around a core made of clay and dung (yuck). Glass blowing was invented in the Roman Empire in about 50 BC.

Glassblowing came to America in 1607 with the settlers of the Jamestown colony. Glass was used mostly for bottles and windows. Artists and designers didn't become an important part of the glassblowing scene until early in the 20th Century. In 1960, glassblowing finally moved out of the factory and into the artist's studio. The studio glass movement began in America but almost immediately spread around the world. When the artists took over, innovation and creativity exploded and glass became firmly established as an art medium. (Here Artists Market glassblower Lynn Dinning demonstrates this ancient/modern art.)

Today that experimentation continues. Glass artists are creating new techniques, making imaginative use of color, creating a wide variety of decorative, sculptural works and smashing barriers as quickly as they are created.

In Northern Michigan in general and the Petoskey area in particular, we are blessed with several talented and creative practitioners of the ancient yet modern art of making and shaping glass.

Lynn Dinning's path to becoming an outstanding glassblower is as long and winding as her journey from the big city of Detroit, where she was born, to her current home and studio in Northern Michigan's tiny Good Hart. In Detroit, her art form was theater lighting, sound, and scenic design. When she migrated north, Lynn began designing wearable metal objects and fiber garments. In 1982, she seized the opportunity to try glassblowing in North Carolina. She has been creating beautiful glass ever since. Many Northern Michigan residents know Lynn as a professional ski instructor who has been named one of the 100 Top Instructors by SKI Magazine.

Harry Boyer of Harbor Springs was a science major at Bowling Green State University when he met Dominic Labino, head of the glass blowing department. He had been interested in art primarily as a fun distraction from the rigors and discipline of science but he was immediately struck by the relationship between science and art. He then met a second creative genius, Erie Sauder, an incredibly gifted woodworker and innovative businessman who developed the Sauder Museum and Craft Village in Ohio. Harry worked with Sauder for eight years. In over thirty years as a glassblower, Harry has continued his complete fascination with the mixture of art and science, the chemistry and physics and the history of glass, from the natural formation of volcanic glass to the ancient development of glass blowing, to being able to mold the beauty of Northern Michigan into the properties of glass.

The glassblowing team of Jay Bavers and Glenna Haney live in East Jordan, Michigan, where they create award-winning lighting, wall groupings and vessels as Jordan Valley Glassworks. Unlike Lynn and Harry, Jay was born with a love for glass and a family connection to its history. He is a third generation glassblower. His grandfather was a glassblower in Vilnius, Lithuania. He came to the United States and started blowing glass and he set up his shop in Brooklyn. The family lived above his shop. Jay would go downstairs first thing in the morning before school and help set things up before the men came to work. He enjoyed sitting there, watching the guys work and eventually apprenticed with his grandfather. Jay and Glenna enjoy working together and with Jay's son and daughter, the fourth generation of the glassblowing family.

There is more to making art from glass than just glassblowing. Linda Manier of Wolverine, Michigan, practices the even older art of kiln formed fused glass that dates back over 5000 years to the era of the Phoenicians. The knowledge they gained while working with this unpredictable and exciting material continues to inspire creative work to this day. Linda creates bowls, plates and a variety of beautiful decorative items by shaping and fusing together various colors of glass at high temperatures.

Toni Hansen and Dolly Osborne of Petoskey have been using still another technique to make glass jewelry designs for almost five years. Dolly encountered dichroic glass jewelry at an art fair. She and Toni decided to attend a class to learn how to make their own fused glass jewelry and have been making stunning glass jewelry ever since. Dichroic glass uses thin layers of metal oxides within the glass that allow light to be simultaneously reflected and transmitted, producing vivid color combinations. The artists fire layers of different colors of dichroic glass together in a kiln to create colorful, one-of-a-kind pendants and other items.

We are extremely lucky to have so many talented artists in Northern Michigan producing an incredible variety of beautiful creations using the ancient, modern and constantly evolving art of working with glass.

Source of information on the history of glassblowing: Glassblowing.com

This Fundraiser is a Little Different!

Getting a little tired of all the standard fundraisers? Been to enough auctions? Tasted enough wine and cheese? Taken enough Walks for whatever? Looking for something totally new?

Then here is a fundraiser in Northern Michigan for you. The Michigan Community Blood Centers offers you HOPE ON A ROPE – Sign Up to Go Over the Edge! Donate at least $1,000 and you can register to go Over the Edge off the 17th floor of the Grand Traverse Resort & Spa Tower. That's right. You rappel down 17 stories of this Northern Michigan landmark.

Appropriately enough, all proceeds from this unique event will go toward the cost of tissue-typing and screening of prospective marrow donors, providing hope of survival for other people in a life threatening situation. Those people, of course, are not volunteering to pass up a perfectly good elevator to slide down a rope on the outside of a very tall building. They are facing very serious (and non-voluntary) life-threatening blood diseases such as aplastic anemia or some kinds of leukemia.

Don't believe me? There actually is an organization that puts on these events all over the country. Why not invite them to conduct your next fundraiser? If you still don't believe me, this group of course has a promotional video. Check it out on their website.

It sounds like a great cause to me and I suppose there are some (relatively) sane people out there who will actually pay a lot of money to subject themselves to this ordeal, described by the sponsors as an opportunity to take in the fresh breeze off Lake Michigan and enjoy the scenic beauty of Traverse City while experiencing what they describe as a controlled rappelling descent

The descent takes place in Traverse City on May 16th. If you miss it or if you survive it and want to try your luck again, there is another one on June 6th at the River House Condominiums in Grand Rapids.

At least it is not another pancake breakfast.

For the generous . . . and brave, details and registration are available on the Michigan Community Blood Centers website.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Coolest Small Town Update

Last month we told you that Budget Travel Magazine was taking a poll to determine America's Coolest Small Towns. Well, the voting is complete and the results were announced on April 15th. Petoskey did not crack the top ten but we did get 1,338 votes and came in 14th, just behind Port Austin, the only other Michigan town to get votes. The winner, America's Coolest Small Town, according to the voters was Owego, New York, with 24,692 of the 101,622 votes cast.

Kudos to Owego (and Port Austin) but we hereby officially invite everyone who voted, yep all hundred thousand or so of you (and all of you who didn't vote), to come to Petoskey this summer (or any other season) and experience America's TRUE coolest small town. And as evidence, we submit this watercolor, Artists Market artist Carol Rossman Brossard's Snowy Evening Downtown Petoskey showing a very cool Lake Street scene.

As for Budget Travel Magazine, you can come visit too. You must not be entirely confident in your results because, according to your website, you are voting again in 2010 and are now accepting nominations. Hint, Hint!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Ten Top Things to Photograph or Paint in Northern Michigan

Some days I sit here in the Northern Michigan Artists Market looking around at the amazing creations by our approximately eighty wonderful Northern Michigan artists and think that I would like to have more abstract, outsider, edgy pieces. Everyone here seems to want to do landscapes, still life and nature. And I can understand that. After all, it IS beautiful here in Northern Michigan.

The great outdoors is, after all, great. Most artists who live here can't seem to help themselves. The beauty and awesomeness of it all just overwhelms us and we have to paint it or photograph it. So I guess it is not surprising that the art here in our gallery is just going to be different than it would be if this was the Big City Downtown Artists Market.

So, in recognition of the fact that Up North is the beautiful place that it is and that we will all just have to live with that, I offer as a public service to all would be Northern Michigan artists, my list of

IN NORTHERN MICHIGAN (with examples) . . .

10. Ice and Snow -- While most of the subjects in this list are hot and warm and sunny, it is important to remember that it is cold here most of the year. So we start with this shot of a ship, shot by Jack Keck in the COLD ice.

9. Barns -- Face it, barns are just plain arty, especially if, like this one photographed by Luanne Schonfeld, they are a little past their prime.

8. Flowers -- Nothing says the beautiful outdoors like flowers. This is so true that we have an irresistible urge to cut them and bring them inside with us, as in the case of this Girl with Tulips by Nicki Griffith.

7. Trees -- They are majestic, uplifting and awe inspiring, and surprisingly photogenic, like this poplar Bruce Murray calls Stretch.

6. Trilliums -- Our favorite local wildflower seems to make its way into more than its share of pieces like this Karen Kubovchick watercolor.

5. Birds -- The animal kingdom cannot be ignored. And owls are such dramatic camera hogs like this one by Kris Busk. (And I managed to slip in another winter shot!)

4. Mackinac Bridge -- For man-made attractions, the Mighty Mack is the unchallenged king of obligatory subjects for every Northern Michigan painter and photographer. Fortunately, artists can find an infinite variety of perspectives to give us fresh insights into even the most familiar objects like Gerry Pas did here.

3. Unique Downtown Storefronts -- Almost nothing makes a better subject than the shops in our favorite, friendly, chain store free, Northern Michigan downtowns, like this shop on Pennsylvania Park in Petoskey by Kurt Anderson. (I resisted the temptation to include our own Artists Market storefront here.)

2. Lighthouses -- They are romantic, historic, iconic and all those other ic's that make them such excellent subjects to represent the charm and character of Northern Michigan. There are so many well known, beautifully restored choices for this one but I like this Sam Gibbons painting of the abandoned and deteriorating Waugoshance Lighthouse in Northern Lake Michigan off the coast of Wilderness State Park.

And . . .


OK, so it is the same thing I picked for first place on my last top ten list, The Top Ten Reasons to Visit Petoskey, but really, is there any other choice? The absolute most famous, most photgraphed, most painted, most admired, most popular post card subject, most inspiring sight in all of Northern Michigan just has to be the million dollar sunsets over Lake Michigan, like the one captured here from Little Traverse Bay by Geoff Guillaume.

So there you have it, the reason I finally just have to give in and recognize that our gallery of Northern Michigan art is just not going to have as many abstract, outsider edgy pieces as I would sometimes like to see. This is who we are. This is where we are. And I admit that I love it.

Did I leave out your favorite Northern Michigan art subject? To add your thoughts, critiques or (imagine this) plaudits, click on the comment link below and share your thoughts.

artsy Interviews Dolly Osborne and Toni Hansen

Dichroic glass is a very popular and beautiful jewelry medium and Artists Market artists Dolly Osborne and Toni Hansen team up to make some of the best. In the April 9, 2009 issue of The Graphic they talk about how they got started working together and the process they use for creating this colorful style of glass jewelry.

As usual, the artsy column, written this week by Lindsey Manthei, helps readers get to know this local artist duo and brings us pictures of their smiling faces and their work.

So be sure to pick up the Graphic and stop in the Artists Market to see some of Dolly and Toni's fused glass masterpieces (and maybe pick one up for yourself or for a gift.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Petoskey

Let's face it. Unless you happen to live in Pellston, Petoskey, Michigan is pretty far away. A significant part of the year it is cold and snowy. Petoskey does not have any major airports, skyscrapers, palm trees, cruise ship ports, major league sports teams, zoos or roller coasters. [And, despite the efforts of Artists Market photographer Kris Busk, no penguins!] So why would anyone ever come here? Yet, despite all this, zillions of tourists seem to show up here every year. To help resolve this apparent paradox, I have come up with a list, my


10. To get away from all of those places that do have "major airports, skyscrapers, palm trees, cruise ship ports, major league sports teams, zoos or roller coasters."

9. To ride bicycles up and down the rolling hills or, if you prefer, along the miles of gorgeous bicycle paths that circle the bay and wander through the woods.

8. To breath ( with deep, cleansing breaths if you wish) the clean Northern Michigan air, far away from mills, factories and other sources of pollution.

7. Fudge.

6. To leisurely shop in the unique, locally owned, friendly stores of Downtown Petoskey's Gaslight District including [brief commercial brag] the Northern Michigan Artists Market.

5. To get away from the bright city lights and actually see a sky full of stars.

4. To look at, walk along, swim in, sit on the beach along and generally enjoy the heck out of Little Traverse Bay, that delightful piece of water that makes Petoskey a harbor town on Lake Michigan.

3. Petoskey stones -- finding, rinsing, polishing and admiring the charming fossils that uniquely inhabit the Lake Michigan shoreline of the Northwest corner of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. {Like Artists Market artist Steve Webster did when he created this petoskey stone Lower Peninsula.]

2. Skiing on the snowy slopes in the Winter and boating (preferably sailing) on the lakes in the summer.

And . . .


Unquestionably and without a doubt, watching, photographing, painting, waiting for the mythical green flash just before, kissing on the dock or the beach during and perfectly ending another beautiful day in Northern Michigan enjoying the million dollar sunsets over Little Traverse Bay. [As represented in this painting by Artist Market artist Rick Kolb.]

Anyone wishing to challenge any of these items or add ones of their own, just click on the comment link at the end of this post.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Update For Wayward Friends of Northern Michigan

Last Saturday I was at a luncheon in Ann Arbor where I got to talk to a couple of local guys from Petoskey and Harbor Springs who are now freshmen at the University of Michigan. What did they want to know about the goings on in their home town? One of them asked me if that big hole in the ground is still there. Some of you who visit us from time to time but live elsewhere might like to know the answer too, as well as the status of one of our other famous local traumas (yes we do have them even here in God's Country) so, as a public service, here is the update.

THE HOLE IN THE GROUND is of course the site of the Petoskey Pointe redevelopment project. This has been a controversial project since it was approved back in 2004. The idea was to take a scruffy piece of land at the entrance to Petoskey's downtown and turn it into a several story complex of stores, condos, a hotel and some much needed underground parking. Many people opposed the project for a variety of reasons including claims that it was too big, blocked views of the bay, was out of character with the rest of Downtown, etc. The City Council finally approved the project and a city-wide referendum to block it was defeated. Existing buildings were torn down and a large hole was dug. Since then, the developer has been unable to obtain financing and the hole is still there with a big ugly fence around the entire block. Ironically, with the old buildings down, there is now a great view of the bay but there is still that hole. That live webcam shot of the Petoskey Pointe hole up at the top of this paragraph is courtesy of our friends at Gaslight Media. It is live but, other than the cars passing by, don't expect it to change much any time soon.

After giving the developer several extensions, in early March the City sent them a notice that they were in default. The City is now waiting for a response. So, the short answer is: Yes the hole is still there.

THE HOLE IN THE WALL. The other famous hole in town is a large gap in the breakwall that protects the town harbor. A couple of springs ago during a major storm a section of the concrete gave way. The gap lasted for a while and became one of the most photographed and painted sites in Petoskey (as seen in this pastel by Artist Market artist Jan Vandenbrink). The breakwall is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. They gave the breakwall a temporary patch last year so the big gap is no longer there. The current word is that the Corp of Engineers will begin Phase One of reconstruction this spring as soon as weather and ice conditions allow. The 300-foot outer section of the wall from the lighthouse in to the end of the damaged portion will be replaced first. Construction is expected to last the rest of the year. Many local youth are concerned that construction will restrict the popular but illegal practice of jumping off the wall into the bay. Somehow, I have faith that exuberance and hormones will overcome whatever obstacles are created by the Corp and its work and this local ritual of summer will somehow survive. (Although we of course do not OFFICIALLY condone such illegal and irresponsible behavior.)

I know that many of you who do not live here for the whole year still feel a deep and reverend connection to Northern Michigan. You are all a part of the Northern Michigan community as far as I am concerned. In this space we try to do our part to keep you informed of all the really important and culturally significant happenings. Please feel free to comment on this post by clicking the COMMENT link at the end or email me any questions you may have about whatever stuff from up here you are wondering about during the part of the year when you are not fortunate enough to be in Northern Michigan. Then check back here and I will fill you in.