Ypsi's in-person First Fridays return as outdoor events this summer

After going virtual in 2020, the popular self-guided arts and culture tour is back – but with COVID-19 safety still in mind.
First Fridays, Ypsilanti's monthly self-guided downtown arts and culture tour, went mostly virtual in 2020 with "some measure of success," according to program coordinator Mary Dettling.

"But this year, a lot of people are tired of going virtual, so we are taking advantage of street closures and are moving outside," Dettling says.

In addition to more in-person outdoor events in 2021, First Fridays has also branched out with new programming and collaborations, including special events at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse and an artistic collaboration with art faculty at Washtenaw Community College (WCC).
First Fridays program coordinator Mary Dettling.
"Last year was pretty dead for the arts scene, especially local arts," says Elize Jekabson, one of the co-founders of First Fridays. "This year, though, people are reaching out to each other, and it's all coming back to life."

Bouncing back from 2020

Dettling says First Fridays organizers "really had to pivot" during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. She says the group's goal is to "connect the arts and community, celebrating our vibrant and rich artistic community here in Ypsilanti as well as supporting businesses in town," and that was challenging to do virtually.

Though most arts and culture programming in 2020 was presented via livestream, First Fridays organizers were happy to be able to host the Festival of the Honey Bee live and outdoors last fall. The event featured live musicians and artists.

"We drew hexagons on the ground so people could stay six feet apart," Dettling says. "It was a really good outdoor event. I think people wanted to start to get back to feeling normal again."

This year, Dettling says First Fridays wants to do more along those lines, "contributing to the community and bringing value by promoting arts and area businesses." First Fridays has already started hiring local musicians for a paid opportunity to play on stage, and staff are "reimagining" the annual Ypsi Pride event as well, Dettling says. 

"We're breaking Pride up into four weekends of programming on Washington Street and other events around the city through the month of June," Dettling says.

Jekabson says each week will have a different focus. The first week will be about musical performances. The second will focus on youth and families. The third week will be a vendor fair, and the fourth and final week will be about self-care and activism.
First Fridays co-founder Elize Jekabson.
Also new this year is a pilot partnership with the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority to use the Freighthouse in Ypsi's Depot Town for events. 

"We're working very closely with the city and have an opportunity to use this underutilized space to provide community events and increase First Fridays' connection to Depot Town," Dettling says. 

First Fridays is also working on creating more connections with businesses west of Depot Town on West Cross Street, she says.

First Fridays organizers have refreshed their website and mission statement, and plan to post written interviews a few times a month to highlight local artists and business venues. 

"We're trying to expand our marketing, because a lot of people still don't know that First Fridays exists, even though we've been around since 2013," Dettling says. 

"Our Layers of Identity"

Also new this year is a partnership between First Fridays and two members of WCC's art faculty, Kate Williams and Jill Jepsen, who launched a grant-funded community art project called "Our Layers of Identity."

The grant required Williams and Jepsen to name community partners. When they began thinking about hosting a reception for the project, they connected with First Fridays as a potential partner.

"They helped us coordinate installing the work in businesses in Ypsilanti," Jepsen says. "They've been a wonderful bridge to the city for us."
WCC art faculty member Jill Jepsen.
Jepsen says she and Williams knew they wanted to do a project centered around community.

"The idea behind the theme is: how do we build community during the time of COVID-19? How do we connect with one another being in isolation?" Jepsen says. "We thought it was a great idea to have people express who they are."

The two artists planned to send out art kits to community members and have them send back art to be displayed around town. At first, Jepsen and Williams considered asking participants to do a self-portrait and tossed around some other ideas.

"But we wanted to leave it open to everybody, not just for people who do art already," Jepsen says.

Finally the two landed on the idea of collage after exploring the work of California-based artist Mark Bradford. The organizers distributed about 440 kits and have 60 left to donate to the community during an outdoor reception planned in coordination with First Fridays for May 7

"[Bradford's] work is all abstract, based on literally layering pieces of paper on top of one another," Jepsen says. "He uses paper as paint and then tears them away. His art uses layers, and that's how we came up with the theme."

The packets sent out to participants included project directions, collage paper, backing for artwork, permanent markers, other drawing and cutting supplies, a biography of Bradford, and a pre-paid envelope so participants could mail the finished work back to the organizers.
WCC art faculty member Kate Williams.
"Mark's work responds to community," Williams says. "He tells stories about picking up materials and found objects and puts them together in an abstract way into these huge collage things that almost look like maps."

Bradford's work often reflects on both his own identity and how it intersects with others, and Williams says she wanted participants to reflect on what makes up their own identities, the things they do when they're stuck at home during a pandemic, and the similar and different experiences they've had. Displaying the resulting artwork in groups, Williams and Jepsen hope to inspire people to "see areas we have in common, similarities between their work and others'," Williams says.

"We were able to connect them with local businesses to have the art displayed in their windows," Dettling says. "It's an outdoor situation. You can walk by and don't have to go into the business to see them." 

Confirmed locations for the resulting artwork include 734 Brewing Company, Unicorn Feed and Supply, Bobcat Bonnie's, The Back Office Studio, K&S Embroidery, and Hinton Real Estate Group. A guide to the artwork will be available on the First Fridays website, and printed maps will be available at all participating businesses.

"It's been a great collaboration," Jepsen says. "I hope we can build on this collaboration and do more with First Fridays going forward."

More information about all First Fridays events is available here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.