Ypsi's Riverside Arts Center launches residency program, giving local artists space to create

The first of several artists have begun using the center's Off-Center location and the dance studio in its main building, and more will participate over the course of this spring and summer.
More room to move and spread out. An opportunity to experiment, fail, and reinvent. A chance to try new techniques. Those are just a few of the benefits area artists are reaping from a new artist residency program sponsored by Ypsilanti's Riverside Arts Center (RAC) this spring and summer.

RAC staff put out a call for artist proposals in early 2021 and notified those who were accepted for a residency in March. The first of several artists have begun using RAC's Off-Center location and the dance studio in RAC's main building, and more will participate over the course of this spring and summer.

"We've been talking about offering an artist residency at least since 2016," says RAC Executive Director Emily Tuesday. "... We don't have anyone in the building [due to the COVID-19 pandemic], so it's an opportunity to use that space in a different way."

The residency has already proved popular, and the Off-Center space is booked for the entire summer already, Tuesday says.

Tuesday says residents can rent space at a drastically reduced cost, about 4% of RAC's usual rate. Residents can utilize the space for a period as short as one week or as long as a couple of months, depending on the project and the agreement with RAC.

"Riverside Arts Center has been challenged over the past year just like everyone else, and as a shared space that was typically full of people it was hard to conceive of a way to function that kept the community safe," says Kristin Schrader, chair of RAC's program committee. "The RAC residency program is an opportunity for artists to create and include the chance for folks to interact with their work in ways that are exciting and add some of that same feeling while we work back towards normal."
Erin McKenna cloth-dyeing textiles at the Off Center at Riverside Arts Center.
Each resident is also asked to provide an opportunity for the public to engage with their work. The artists are welcome to envision that community engagement in a variety of ways, from exhibits to workshops.

In the application process, preference was given to artists living or working in Washtenaw County. Tuesday says about half the artists who have signed contracts so far live in Ypsilanti or Ypsilanti Township.

Sandra Murchison, chair-elect of RAC's board of directors and co-chair of the program committee, says she expects artists will appreciate that they have a clean space that is probably larger than any home studio.

"Plus they have a focused environment with time and a place to make work," Murchison says. 

Ypsi Township resident Erin McKenna began working out of the Off-Center April 5 and will stay until the end of May. She'll be using the time to redo a textile art piece she has been invited to show in Columbus, Ohio in November.

McKenna says she is thrilled for the opportunity to have space and time to "experiment and play" as she creates new types of patterns on fabric. She's also enjoying getting to know the Ypsilanti community better as she comes downtown to work each day at the Off-Center.
Laura Seligman at her home studio.
McKenna says she wants to spark questions about patterns in the people who see her work. 

"I think about patterns a lot, especially during COVID when a lot of people are recognizing these patterns in their life. I like to think about the intersection of pattern, camouflage, and quilts," she says. "I think about army camouflage, or animal prints, or even sequins. We adorn our bodies with them, but we're actually not blending in, but doing the opposite and being very flamboyant. I like that irony."

McKenna hopes to offer a cloth-dyeing workshop as part of her community engagement, using a shibori dyeing technique she learned from a previous residency in Japan. 

Laura Seligman won't start her residency until June but she's already getting "enormously excited" for the opportunity to try new tools and techniques and create a new body of work. Seligman calls herself a "mid-life artist," as her interest in creating art didn't happen until well into adulthood. She started working with textiles, and eventually learned to draw and paint as well.

"Most recently, I took a course on Zen brush painting online, and that inspired me to work with new materials and get out of my comfort zone," Seligman says. 

Seligman, who also has an interest in meditation, hopes to use her six-week residency as "a quiet time to integrate the contemplative practices that are part of my life with the creative practice."
Yali Rivlin.
"This residency gives me the opportunity to integrate meditation and art in the studio, looking at art in non-traditional ways," she says. "It'll be an exploratory process, and I can work without distraction, with brushes I'm making myself. I want to have a direct experience with ink and brushes and paper that's more fresh and intuitive and not mediated by thinking about composition."

Dancer Yali Rivlin also wants to focus on a less choreographed, more improvisational aesthetic during his one-week residency in early August.

"I definitely find a lot of magic in improvisation, or maybe to be precise, I should say structured improvisation," Rivlin says. 

He says improvising a dance is much different than the traditional choreography process, which can take three or four months to complete.

"When I improvise, it's all instant, all here and now. If you don't seize the moment, it's gone," Rivlin says. "By far one of the most daunting things is to become a master at improvisation."

Peter Sparling, a retired University of Michigan dance professor and founder of the Peter Sparling Dance Company, has been experimenting with translating the movements of dance to a sense of movement on the canvas. So far, he's been using videos of himself as a reference, but he is planning to use a one-week residency in August to have other dancers perform for him in a much bigger space than he's used to.
Peter Sparling in the dance studio at Riverside Arts Center.
"When I read about the Riverside residency, I immediately thought this was a way I could get enough space to videotape dancers in movement as source material for my painting," he says. "It's something I've done with myself in my home studio, but it's only 12 by 18 feet. Now I'll have a larger space to have a handful of dancers I've invited to come take turns improvising for my camera."

For the public engagement piece, Sparling says he hopes to invite community members into the studio to show them how he photographs dance and translates it into his paintings. Sparling says he's excited about the growth of local arts in Ypsilanti, now that Ann Arbor has become so pricey that "independent artists have been gentrified right out of town."

"I see Ypsilanti as a welcome site for allowing local artists to thrive," he says. 

Ypsilanti-based artist and graphic designer Sareka Smith works full-time as a graphic artist for a home decor company, but wants to explore a more recent interest in painting abstract pieces with acrylics during her residency. She calls it "a different way for me to release my feelings and express myself."

Her six-week residency in July and August will allow her to spread out and explore larger-scale works at the Off-Center. She hopes to create one large, abstract piece per week for a total of six pieces by the end of the residency.

"I've been following Riverside Arts Center on Instagram for a while now, and I actually had been dreaming about being in that space since I moved to Ypsilanti," she says. "I feel like this is something I manifested."
Sareka Smith at her home studio.
Smith is also the founder of Black Girls Illustrate, a recent initiative to encourage girls and women of color to pursue careers in art and illustration. As part of her community engagement, she says she is thinking of giving talks about how to turn art and illustration into a paid career.

Tuesday and Murchison say RAC staff would like to make the residency an annual event since the RAC building has traditionally been used less during the summer, even before the pandemic.

"Riverside Arts Center can be a place for everyone," Murchison says. "The artist residency is an opportunity that can be attractive to both emerging and more well-established artists."

Tuesday says it's been nice to see art appearing in the windows at the Off-Center space, signalling to residents that RAC is still active and that "something beautiful and creative is being made."

"Part of the rationale behind the residency is to slowly open back up again so that people can see the heartbeat of our organization again," Tuesday says. "There will come a time we'll return to semi-normal, and we would like Riverside to be a part of the landscape of Ypsilanti again."

Anyone interested in participating in workshops and other events with the resident artists can keep an eye on the RAC website for updates.

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.
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