NIGHT & DAY: A Shadow Art Culture

This week in FilterD

Hallelujah for Ann Arbor Conversations and the Penny W. Stamps Lecture Series. These two organizations are bringing some of the smartest, most dynamic personalities and artists to town, exposing locals to a world of ideas and experiences that reach beyond town and gown sensibilities.

First up is Frank Warren of  This is the guy who turned an art project into an Internet phenomenon, where over 200K people from around the world have sent him postcards revealing dark, hilarious, emotionally profound, and highly confessional secrets. He posts them to his blog and over 5 million visitors a month come to check them out. He'll be sharing secrets, insights, and observations in what'll undoubtedly prove to be a fascinating evening.

Tomorrow you can catch counterculture icon Stewart Brand waxing poetic about cultural hacking. A former Merry Prankster, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog, and super early adopter of Internet technology, Brand was so TED before anyone ever considered forming TED.

On the music front there's the soulful and delicate harmonies of Swell Season, which earned many a fan after its singing duo Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova starred in the lovely indie film, Once. And for fans of Nickel Creek, Toad The Wet Sprocket and Lyle Lovett's band comes The Works Progress Administration Band. WAP is an all-star line up of bluegrassy, folk-poppy Americana virtuosos, boasting vocalists from each of those three groups. Each should deliver a helluva night's worth of entertainment.

Shadow from the fringe

But this week is mostly about Ypsilanti. Spotlighted in FilterD are a pair of linked events that demonstrate Ypsi's blossoming fringe arts scene. Tiny but mighty Dreamland Theater will be hosting a long list of bands while debuting "A Puppet History of Ypsilanti" between acts. It's in conjunction with the bi-annual hipper-than-hip arts and culture event The Shadow Arts Fair (SAF). Heck, the puppet show even features a marionette version of Fair co-founder Mark Maynard.

As for the SAF, well, all I can really say is be there or be square. It's become a signature cultural event for Ypsilanti, bringing together local artists, musicians, DIY'ers, and creatives of every stripe, all while attracting large crowds.

And with the SAF in mind, I emailed Mark Maynard, who helped found the fair and runs a popular Ypsi-based blog, a few questions about Ypsi's arts and culture scene - where it's going,  what it means, and what it needs.

CONCENTRATE:  When you walk into the Shadow Art Fair, you really get the feeling Ypsilanti has a vibrant, interconnected arts community that's supported by the locals. But how does the city fare the other 363 days a year? Are you seeing local involvement, cooperation, and support in the arts year-round?

MARK MAYNARD:  It's definitely getting better. Now, with the Shadow Art Fair and SPUR Studios, we've at least got the beginnings of an infrastructure that we can start building on. There was a lot of forward movement seven or so years ago, when Gallery 555 had their space on Michigan Avenue, though. The trick is to sustain it.

CONCENTRATE:  How do you see Ypsi's arts community evolving, and how important do you think that evolution is to the city's identity?

MARK MAYNARD:  Ypsi's a weird place. It's been the home of both animation pioneer Winsor McCay and punk rock icon Iggy Pop, two of our greatest American innovators in the arts. And then there were the inventors Elijah McCoy and Preston Tucker. They all had visions somewhat contrary to the accepted norms of their day. Some were more successful than others, but they all tried to change the world. I'd like to think that willingness to take risks is still here. So, to answer your question, I don't think we need to evolve so much as get in touch with what's already here, below the surface.
CONCENTRATE:  When I talk to artists in Ypsi they often cite inexpensive space as the main reason they live and create there. Ann Arbor, they say, is too expensive, too established, or too impenetrable. So, is cheap rent all a community needs? Or is that just the first step? What else does Ypsi need, and is it getting it?

MARK MAYNARD:  Ypsi needs more young entrepreneurs. We need people to start companies, open stores, and create jobs. We need people experimenting with new business models. We need more venues for bands and art shows. We need a gay bar downtown. We need to compel the owners of vacant storefronts to either rent or sell their buildings. The arts scene will take care of itself. What we need are jobs. Artists have to work. But, yeah, with that said, I do believe people are being priced out of Ann Arbor, and I think that works to Ypsi's advantage. And I'm sure we could be doing more to facilitate the switch. We could be advertising to that demographic. But, as you said, it's happening anyway. And I don't think it's just the less expensive rent. I think Ann Arbor might come across as a little uptight to some people, and perhaps confining. Ypsi is kind of the wild west in comparison. There's freedom to do crazy shit. Sometimes it's terrible and sometimes it's brilliant, but it's always interesting.

CONCENTRATE:  The Shadow Art Fair seems to do a good job of drawing crowds from Ann Arbor. Yet, many of the other arts events I attend in Ypsi bring in only small local audiences. Can Ypsilanti's arts scene be self-sustaining, drawing the majority of its audiences and support from neighbors? Or does it need to become a destination of sorts, attracting the interest of larger Ann Arbor (and others) to grow and evolve?

MARK MAYNARD:  First, I should probably point out that a bunch of Ann Arbor artists are involved in the Shadow. There are a lot of people doing great stuff in Ann Arbor, and the Shadow doesn't observe  territorial boundaries. We just want the best people, doing the most inspiring work. So, yeah, we draw a lot of people from Ann Arbor. But people from Ann Arbor come to Ypsi all the time. I remember my friend Jennifer Albaum, who owned the store Henrietta Fahrenheit in Ypsilanti, telling me that a majority of her customers had Ann Arbor addresses. I've never asked Bee Mayhew, but I suspect a lot of her customers at Beezy's aren't from Ypsi. People come when we have product that's worth coming out for. When the Elbow Room has a good band, people drive out for it. The onus is on us to give people a reason to get on the bus, or steal their roommate's car keys. With all that said, I don't think it's just about numbers. It's about the quality of the individuals who are coming. While our downtown merchants might like the business, I'd much rather get one young student here who has an idea for a business, than a whole bus of frat brothers with lots of money. I want to bring in people that are likely to actually do something, and I want to show them that we've got an ecosystem in which they can prosper.

CONCENTRATE:  What do you think it would take to get A2'ers to regularly consider attending Ypsi's cultural offerings? Many here seem awfully reluctant to travel those seven miles.

MARK MAYNARD:  Do you want the smart-ass answer? Well, if they're concerned about coming to Ypsi, I'd just tell them to stay home. I don't want to have to convince anyone to come here. I'd rather just lay out  what we're offering and attract those that want to come. With that said, I do try, when we get people to come to Ypsi for something like the Shadow Art Fair, to convince people to wander around the town a little, and explore the place. I think people, if they gave Ypsi a chance, would find a lot to like about it. It's got a quirky kind of charm.

CONCENTRATE:  Anything about this season's Fair you want to plug?

MARK MAYNARD:  Well, we've got a vendor who will be selling tinfoil hats. And there will be a bike that people can pedal to power a movie. It's kind of a small-scale preview of what we're hoping to do outside in the park next spring with our Cycle Powered Cinema project. Oh, and we'll have a bus running between the Brewery and the Dreamland Theater, where they'll be debuting their puppet show on the history of Ypsilanti. The shows will run at 2:00 and 10:00, and bands will be playing in between. (The Dreamland Theater won our '09 SAF grant competition and was awarded $750 to develop the play, which will be traveling to local schools, senior centers, etc.) And there's tons of other stuff too. As with earlier Shadows, we're always rotating folks out to make room for new people doing interesting things. So people are bound to see something new and interesting.

Yes, the marionette pictured above is of Mark. If you'd like to read his thoughts on his doppleganger, click here.

And if you haven't checked out the Shadow Art Fair it's about time. Seriously. Your friends are starting to talk.

In the meantime, remember to consume your entertainment locally and tip your neighborhood artist generously.

-Jeff Meyers

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