The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts is giving artist a chance to hone their skills. The first five are already at work.
The five women gather around the immense gray mound of clay someone has left on a large board in the center of the room. Its muddy mass splits and cracks in places, and a wet and earthy scent rises from the shapeless clump.
"It’s alive," says Maleeha Elsadr, gazing down at the damp gray mass.
"It’s not just the pottery that we make," says Abbie Nelson. "We make the material, too. The clay. We mix it ourselves."
Elsadr and Nelson are two of five resident artists in the Kirk Newman Art School first artist residency program at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA). The two are ceramicists. Also in the residency, and standing alongside them, are Tamara Hirzel and Jenna Para, printmakers, and Sarah J. Mueller, painter.
The new artist residency program was conceived by KIA executive director Belinda Tate. In her previous position at Winston-Salem State University, she noted that artists needed a landing place after completing their studies.
"Developing artists need time to hone their ideas and further master their craft—and we want to be that place," Tate says. "We know they will grow and learn in the supportive community of the art school."
The seven-month post-baccalaureate residency program is designed to strengthen practice, technique, and development for the artists, providing studio space, equipment and access to mentors. Each resident receives a stipend of $150 per term for materials and two scholarships per term to classes at the Kirk Newman Art School. They will have an opportunity to participate in KIA’s holiday art sale with their artwork and to return in June 2016 to participate in the arts fair.
According to Denise Lisiecki, art school director, the Kirk Newman Art School received a substantial gift from Rosemary and John Brown in March 2015 that helped to fund the new program.
"The public response has been very positive," says Lisiecki. "Two of the residents, Jenna Para and Tamara Hirzel, gave an Art Break talk at the KIA. The audience was very interested in their work and the program."
From the mass of wet clay, the artists move on to the kilns, where clay creations are forged into sculpture and pottery. Maleeha Elsadr is dwarfed by the huge kiln, and she puts her weight on her heels to pull the door open to the oven where pottery bakes.
"I found out about the residency while I was showing my work downtown at an Art Hop," she says. "Someone mentioned it, and I thought it sounded right. I was looking for that next step after graduating WMU. I filled out the application while I was on my honeymoon in Lebanon."
Visiting family with her new husband, Elsadr overcame the challenges of frequent power outages and managed an interview with KIA staff over her smartphone. She was in.
"My work is documentation of my journey," she says. "I work through my ideas and preconceptions in a visual and tactile way to help me understand and express them to others. Hopefully I make others aware of parts of themselves they may not have known existed by how they react to my work."
Abbie Nelson, the second ceramic artist, came to Kalamazoo from St. Charles, Illinois, for the residency. She is a recent graduate of Western Michigan University, but her love for ceramics goes back to childhood.
"Play-Doh," she says, smiling. "As a kid, I loved it. But it was when I saw someone at an art show throw on the wheel that I became fascinated. Ceramics makes more sense to me than any other medium. There is something beautiful about how the clay demands my full attention and physical labor in order for me control it."
For Nelson, her artwork isn’t meant to sit on a shelf to be admired from a distance. She strives for a balance between functionality and beauty.
"There is something special about being able to take art off the shelf and use it, whether it’s a coffee mug, vase, or plate," Nelson says. "The feeling of satisfaction I get from holding and using one of my ceramic pieces is something I haven’t felt from any other form of art."
A jungle of easels stand in a corner classroom in the art school. This is where Sarah Mueller works, although she has also recently rented studio space in the old Gibson Guitar factory.
"I like to do a lot of teaching and organizing community projects," Mueller says.
Some of those community projects include working with seniors with dementia; others bring art into the world of autism as an educational as well as artistic tool. For the artist, these types of projects combine her two passions of helping people and using art to do it.
"I enjoy working with children and with seniors, both ends of the spectrum," she says. "I write grants to fund projects, provide the materials—and it’s incredible what people come up with."
Mueller uses her large-scale portraits to build bridges of understanding within the community, showing the faces of dementia or using visual art as a research tool with students who have autism.
For Tamara Hirzel, smaller is better. She is a printmaker working primarily in linocut.
"Be it a magnificent vista or a tiny insect, nature captivates me," Hirzel says. "Its endless variety of structure, woven together with story and myth are my inspirations. By distilling details and using line, pattern and color, I convey the life and movement of the natural world around me."
Hirzel studied engineering in college, but then found herself sunk in misery. Looking around the classroom, she had an epiphany. "I realized I was not among my people. I was not doing what I love to do. I love art, and these, here, are my people."
Downstairs in the printmaking studio, Hirzel pulls out print after print in various stages of completion.
"Initially painting in watercolor, I discovered oil pastel and was drawn to the process of incising and scraping through the layers of pigment," she explains. "The mark-making in print work is an extension of this, offering the physical interaction I need with my materials. Using gouges and a stylist, I scratch and carve into the plate, feeling the shape of the object in my imagination and through my tools. Printmaking supports my creative process by giving me the framework to build my ideas upon."
Beside her, Jenna Para works on her prints. Para commutes to KIA from Grand Rapids, where she recently graduated from Kendall College of Art and Design.
"My work focuses mainly on the idea of home and the repetitive quest of trying to find what has been lost—ranging from obsolete practices to fading memories—and then restoring them. Through my explorations as a printmaker, I continue to find nostalgia and satisfaction spinning off one another, restoring homes now lost by the ones currently inhabited."
A bit of nostalgia keeps Para going, too. She holds fondly to a memory of her grandfather, an Italian painter who made ceramic tiles. Only, she says, she never met him. The memory was created for her by her father’s stories, bringing her grandfather back to life for her.
"Dad would always tell me when I shared my work, ‘Grandpa would be so proud of you,’" she says.
When the five artists ponder the value of the residency program, they cite a sense of community, fresh insights on their work, building portfolios, having new eyes on their artwork, great facilities and access to equipment, and—fun.
"This is the first year of the program," Hirzel says. "It’s exciting to be a part of the beginning, figuring it all out."
Zinta Aistars is creative director for Z Word, LLC. She also hosts the weekly radio show about books and writers, Between the Lines, at WMUK 102.1 FM.
For more information about the residency program, contact the Kirk Newman Art School at 269.349.7775, ext. 3101.