Ypsilanti has amassed a decent amount of unfair descriptors over the years, but nearly everyone can get on board with its reputation as a colorful city enriched by a diverse collection of residents who support each other's wild ideas.
That's exactly why the city has become a haven for artists like sculptor Elize Jekabson. In 2008, when Jekabson decided it was time to move out of her parents' house in Dexter, she chose to move to Ypsi because it was much more affordable than Ann Arbor. She realized she was becoming smitten with the town when she went to her first Totally Awesome Fest, an annual underground music festival she describes as "a gathering of weird, awesome people" who come together to listen to "weird, obscure local music."
"I think that was that moment where I was just like, 'Oh, there’s something cool going on here, and I think I want to stay here,'" Jekabson says. "It wasn’t just a stop, which I had assumed it would be for me."
That unquantifiable creative energy, as well as Ypsi's historic affordability and the opportunities it offers for education and professional growth, continues to draw artists to the city – and many Ypsi artists are dedicated to ensuring that their arts community maintains those qualities.
Maintaining affordable space
Visual artist and musician Patrick Elkins, who specializes in puppetry, finds it difficult to explain what draws him to Ypsi, but describes the city as having "an inimitable spirit." He has lived in Ypsi on and off since 1998. Elkins has been heavily involved in Totally Awesome Fest since its inception in 2005. He's also performed shows and curated events at Dreamland Theater, 26 N. Washington St., for about 12 years.
Elkins appreciates all of Ypsi's "unlicensed" art, passion projects, and creative spaces, like Dreamland, YES, and Ziggy's. But he thinks there could be more. He wants unused spaces to be made available to local artists for projects, like the now-defunct sculpture park and native flower prairie on the city's Water Street property, formerly known as the Water Street Commons.
"I think a lot of people in the community feel like there definitely is a lack of space, a lack of venues, a lack of places to perform," Elkins says.
Jekabson saw the same need several years ago, and she took action. While studying art at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), she met other young artists who were interested in showing their work around Ypsi, but they quickly realized there weren't too many places to do so. She and other art students, who organized under the name Ypsilanti Art Incubator, banded together in an effort to get art students' and other local artists' artwork displayed around Ypsi. The group was born out of a house rented by some EMU art students, where Jekabson rented art space for $65 a month.
When the art students had to move out, Jekabson saw the need for an affordable place where artists – especially 3-D artists – could work and support each other. So she co-founded Ypsi Alloy Studios at 564 S. Mansfield St., along with fellow artists Ilana Houten and Jessica Tenbusch. Artists there pay $190 a month for space and access to communal tools.
Jekabson thinks affordability is one of the main reasons Ypsi has such a strong arts community. She feels local artists definitely have a stake in recent citywide conversations about affordability.
"I’m concerned that there’s going to be an affordability issue," Jekabson says. "I mean, people live in Ypsilanti for what it is, and what it is is this creative, weird, little, unique utopia where you can do a lot of cool things that you wouldn’t be able to do other places. And that’s because Ypsilanti has drawn people that are creative that way, that make these things happen."
First Fridays Ypsilanti president Kayj Michelle, who has lived in Ypsi for over 20 years, echoes the same concerns over affordability. She acknowledges Ypsi doesn't have many resources due to its small size and financial situation, but she would like the city to offer public housing rented on a sliding scale to artists and other low-income people, as she's seen in bigger cities.
“In order to keep the art community intact, we need to take care of our housing issue, which is being talked about a lot right now, " she says. "I hope that the people that are fighting adamantly against [the International Village development on Ypsi's Water Street property] and for affordability ... don’t stop and I hope that they end up shifting this project into something that makes sense for our community.”
Michelle believes one of the big reasons Ypsi has such a strong arts community is its proximity to several higher education institutions and the young people they attract. She thinks many students come to the area to study art and they stay in Ypsi because it's affordable enough for an artist to live, create, and show work.
"There's nothing like having college students around because there's a perspective that's being engaged with constantly that's different than the day-to-day professional person," Michelle says. "There's a creative air about that."
A community of support
Ypsi also offers artists a wealth of opportunities for mentorship and support. Sculptor John Pappas initially came to Ypsi in the early '60s to teach at EMU. In his early years of teaching, he won the prestigious "Prix de Rome" fellowship to live and study for a year in Italy's capital, and he was invited to exhibit in an international sculpture show in Chelsea Harbour, England, where he was selected to meet Queen Elizabeth II. But even with his international success, he still decided to stay in Ypsi. Pappas ended up teaching sculpture and drawing at EMU for four decades and still maintains a studio in Depot Town that he purchased in the early '70s.
Pappas insists his creative spirit was ignited by his classes and professors at Wayne State University, all of whom he remembers by name. He refuses to take any credit for his own students' success, but says he "really enjoyed" his 40 years of teaching at EMU.
"I really get a kick out of students who improve and get better and enjoy it," he says. "I don’t try to make students [be like] me. I want them to be them, not me, so I focus on that."
Even though Ypsilanti High School art teacher Lynn Settles has lived in Ypsi for just four years, she has already made a huge impact on the arts community as well. She finds ways to get her students out in the community to share their art, and she says the community has supported her students in turn.
"Since I’ve been here, Ypsi has showed such support for these kids and the things that they do, and that just encourages myself and the kids to do more," she says.
Some of the projects Settles assigns her students are simply for enjoyment, like making different illuminated structures and wearable art for a parade last weekend at Grand Rapids' ArtPrize and for ypsiGLOW festivities on Oct. 27 in downtown Ypsi. But a lot of her assignments have an educational or social justice component, like an ongoing mural project that pays homage to Ypsi's rich African-American history or a silent peace march she organized on Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year.
"Now [the students are] very vocal and they're very confident in what they do," she says. "So they've just become very conscious and they want to be heard and they're using art [to do so]."
Settles believes Ypsi is great at encouraging big ideas and coming out to support them. But she thinks the arts community needs a designated place where creatives can get help. She hopes Riverside Arts Center (RAC), whose board she just joined, will be a hub for teaching artists how to better make a career out of their passion and providing them a place to make connections. She points out that some artists just want to be involved in the making of things, but might not know how to manage their money or promote themselves in order to make a living. She foresees Ypsi's art community continuing to flourish with those types of resources for artists.
"Ypsi is just open to different ideas and thoughts, and that’s what art is all about," Settles says. "Artists are always trying to take one thing and see what else they can do with it – how they can either turn it into a dance, or song, or poetry, or piece of art. Ypsi’s open to that. It has an eclectic group of people here who aren’t afraid to think outside the box. And I think that’s why artists come here."
Brianna Kelly is the embedded reporter for On the Ground Ypsi and an Ypsilanti resident. She has worked for The Associated Press and has freelanced for The Detroit News and Crain's Detroit Business.
All photos by Doug Coombe.