The Shadow Art Fair: Keeping Ypsi A Certain Size Of Weird

Shadow Art Fair could be bigger than Elvisfest.

One Day, 40 Artists, 9,000 gallons of beer. Keep Ypsi Weird. All that good stuff. But it's not going to happen. At least not in any conventional sense. And that's how Mark Maynard and the Michigan Design Militia want it.

"Slurpee wanted to give us money to put a trailer outside Shadow Art Fair this year," Maynard says, drinking from his personalized mug at the Corner Brewery, home of Shadow Art Fair. Maynard and company reluctantly declined, not reluctantly because they wanted the money but because they were disappointed that they couldn't conceive of a clever way to sabotage the sponsor. Something about footbaths of frostee was the best they could do on short notice.

"We don't make money and we're not looking to make money," says Chris Sandon, a member of the Michigan Design Militia since 2009.

"We're not in it for the money," Maynard adds later. They'll repeat some form of this statement many times over a few hours. It's written in my notebook on four separate pages.

"There might be an opportunity to eat processed food off someone this year," Sandon says. "Like those sushi people." This is also written in my notebook. Elvisfest and Ann Arbor's Art Fair this ain't.

Bigger isn't necessarily better

"My daughter was born at Elvisfest," Maynard says, recounting the story of an Elvis impersonator touching his very pregnant wife's belly and her going into labor shortly thereafter. "We get more people than Elvisfest."

It's hard to argue. Shadow Art Fair draws in the neighborhood of 2,000 people to each event, attracting hundreds of vendor applications and stirring louder cries each year from the community and fans. Why not make it bigger? Why not make it more frequent? Something akin to the DIY Street Fair in Ferndale?

"Bigger isn't necessarily better," says Maynard. "Bigger wasn't better for us a few years ago. We didn't have fun."

Maynard refers to 2010 - the year Shadow Art Fair tried something bigger. They used three additional venues for art and music, adding an Art Race and an adults-only version of the Ypsilanti puppet talk show "Dreamland Tonight".

"There was a lot of pressure on us to do the event at the Corner Brewery bigger," Maynard told in 2010. "People would talk about closing the street in order to feature more artists, but we didn't want to change it that much."

"It spread us thin," says Sandon, who organized the Art Race. The 2010 event burned the team out. After that, Shadow Art Fair went from a twice-yearly vendor showcase to one summer vendor event and a winter dance party called the Krampus Ball. There were many complaints. I was one of the complainers. But bigger proved not to be better. At least for the organizers.

"We're inclined to do the opposite of what Ann Arbor does." - Mark Maynard

"Shadow Art Fair was created in reaction to Art Fair," says Maynard. "Art Fair is good for businesses in Ann Arbor, bringing in money while the students are away, but the work isn't interesting."

The first Shadow Art Fair in the summer of 2007 was intended to be "a big party where you can buy stuff". Its popularity spawned a winter edition and two events apiece in 2008 and 2009. (Author note: I was a vendor at the summer and winter Shadow Art Fairs in 2008).

"Shadow Art Fair is a lot to handle," says Maynard. "We all have jobs. If I was a business person, we'd do it four times a year and have full sponsorship. But we have our personal lives and it's just too much."

Some, me included (cough, cough), were disappointed by the 2010 down-scaling, adding just another themed dance party to the calendar. The first Krampus Ball was a hit. The second even more so. Now Maynard fields questions about how to make that event bigger and better as well, maybe taking a page from Ann Arbor's grassroots FoolMoon and closing Cross Street for an outdoor gathering. After all, while the devilish Krampus is mostly unknown in the U.S., parades in his honor are popular in Austria.

"We're doing something more adult," says Maynard. "I prefer to block the roads, not shut them down."

Bigger isn't better; we're not in it for the money. Maynard is a tough nut to crack.

If you're starting to think that maybe you and I don't own Shadow Art Fair. We don't. It wasn't created for Ypsilanti as much as it was created in Ypsilanti.

It's the bigger, better, dance party debate. What you and I might want for Shadow Art Fair isn't what Maynard and Sandon and the rest of their group want for their event. And that's the thing we need to remember: this is their event. They built it. They run it.

Money isn't the issue. The Slurpee people wanted to provide sponsorship. A craft magazine offered sponsorship one year. Individuals have offered to write checks on the spot. But Maynard and his partners don't want the money.

He claims that there are only two limiting factors that count - vendors and volunteers. Not traditional vendors hawking clothes or jewelry or conventional art, but the kind of artists that the Michigan Design Militia envisioned showcasing from the beginning.

"There's a shortage of interesting vendors," Maynard says. By this, he means vendors like an artist who took pictures of people's feet one year, or kid vendors with cupcake machines or Sandon's giant pooping cat a few years back.

Maynard also laments a lack of volunteers, but from our conversation, I suspect he's just really, really picky.

"The issue is trust," he says. "It's not just anybody. They need to match our aesthetic and fit in."

Do it yourself

Sure Maynard would love more people to set up tables and sweep floors, but that's not the kind of volunteers that will grow Shadow Art Fair. And to make Shadow Art Fair bigger than it is, Maynard and his group will have to give up a measure of control or give it up all together.

But why should they? I've been a vendor at Shadow Art Fair twice and attended nearly every event since its inception but Shadow Art Fair isn't mine. When the winter Shadow Art Fair transformed into a demon-laden Ypsi BANG! I wrote my emails. I offered to volunteer, but I didn't hear back and I'm not one to beg. Maybe I don't match the Shadow Art Fair aesthetic of cool and interesting.

I think I just hurt my own feelings.

I toyed with the idea of organizing a Shadow Shadow Art Fair (copyright pending) in protest of the transformation of the winter event, but like Maynard and company, I just didn't have the time to create another event. Others had similar, more fruitful ideas, like Cre Fuller, Sherri Green Carroll and Marcy Davy who organized the first DIYpsi once the 2010 winter Shadow Art Fair fell through.

"We wanted to sell some stuff," Fuller says. "Mark's group puts on a great show. They're a creative, eclectic group of weirdos. DIYpsi is a more straightforward art fair." DIYpsi started small but is now a regular fixture each winter.

When asked if Mark and the Michigan Design Militia have some obligation to the community to grow Shadow Art Fair - make it bigger and better, more inculsive - Fuller doesn't hesitate.

"Mark shouldn't be obligated to do shit," he says. "If you want an art fair and there isn't an art fair, make one."

Which, as a moral to this story, ain't a bad one.

Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. He's also kinda sorta artsy. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at


All photos by Doug Coombe


Chris Sandon, Mark Maynard and Melissa Dettloff of Shadow Art Fair keeping Ypsi weird. If you don't get the Beatles reference please look up "butcher cover" on Wikipedia.
The 2011 Krampus Ball leaves the Corner Brewery led by John Notarianni of the Detroit Party Marching Band.
Mark Maynard leads the 2011 Krampus Ball march from Corner Brewery to Elbow Deep at Woodruff's.
The Detroit Party Band and the 2011 Krampus Ball crash Elbow Deep at Woodruff's
Melissa Dettloff, Chris Sandon, Jennifer Albaum and Mark Maynard of the Shadow Art Fair at a Concentrate Speaker Series event at Conor O'Neill's in November 2010.
Cre Fuller of DIYpsi and his robot sculptures in his studio at SPUR.
Ain't no party like an Ypsi party.

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