White Lake council boosts rural access to the arts

Nearly 40 years ago, a group of young mothers in the White Lake area struggled to find arts education for their kids. A budget crisis had cut arts and music from the schools, and the next closest options were 20 miles away in Muskegon. 

The moms -- mostly from new families to the region – decided to take matters into their own hands. In 1985, the Arts Council of White Lake -- Nuveen Center (ACWL-Nuveen) was born.

The organization started with drama, putting on plays and skits with the kids, eventually working with schools to add programs after classes.

“It just grew that way, and the more people that were involved, the more ideas we had,” said Lynn Cotter, ACWL-Nuveen co-founder and board member. “It just became the Arts Council in a pretty simple way.”

Today, ACWL-Nuveen has become a full-fledged community arts organization with more than 100 members, $1 million in its foundation and three employees, according to Cotter.

The organization has many facets: It features an exhibit gallery that hosts rotating exhibits yearly, plus a retail gallery. It also offers a variety of arts classes, including painting, drawing, fiber and textiles, ceramics, jewelry-making, sculpture, writing, music and theater, which often complement the current featured exhibit.

Clay hands being made for a Muskegon Museum of Art touring Through Our Lens: Hands exhibit.“That’s one thing that our board really wants to do, is to bring in different kinds of art for the local people, so that they can experiment with it and try it,” Cotter said. 

One of its most recent shows was the Muskegon Museum of Art's “Through Our Lens: Hands” photography exhibit by Whitehall photographer Jennifer Green. The exhibit presented a series of black-and-white photographs of the hands of various residents throughout Muskegon County, accompanied by the subject’s personal story, written by local journalist Susan Harrison-Wolffis. To complement the show, ACWL-Nuveen offered a series of coordinating arts classes in photographic storytelling and hand sketching.

ACWL-Nuveen also has popular recurring events, including its signature free summer concert series, which features a variety of music genres and a mix of cover bands and original local musicians. The series takes place at the Montague-Whitehall Rotary Bandshell from June through August. 

The organization recently started a popular summer garden show fundraiser, the “Garden Art Experience.” Local gardeners are paired with artists, and the community is invited to experience their private gardens while also enjoying watching painters, sketchers and performers in action. 

“Our mission is to inspire the White Lake community through accessible and engaging opportunities in the arts,” said ACWL-Nuveen Director Erin Peyer. “We really do strive to make all of our programming accessible in a wide variety of ways.”

Part of that commitment to accessibility is offering scholarships for those who can’t afford arts classes. Classes can range from $10 for a youth abstract sculpture lesson to $150 for a two-day relief printmaking workshop to $300 for a six-week pottery course.

“I think they’re well-priced, and I think there’s an equity there so that almost anybody can afford them,” said sketching instructor MJ Ernst. 

Board member and artist Kanda Parrot at the Art on the Green pop-up at the Artisan Market.Accessibility to the arts also means a commitment to diversity and inclusion. The organization established its Emerging Artist of Color Residency four years ago to encourage young, local minority artists. Eligible applicants are Muskegon County residents between the ages of 18-25 who identify as BIPOC -- Black, Indigenous, and people of color. They must also specialize in working with two-dimensional and/or mixed media art.

Supported by an anonymous donor and the Consumers Energy Foundation, the residency selects one to two artists every year for a three-week program. They receive studio space, materials and up to 72 hours of dedicated time to pursue the visual art of their choice. They also receive a $1,000 stipend and mentoring from painter and educator Tatsuki Hakoyama, who works with them to create a body of work that will be later exhibited during ACWL-Nuveen’s Fall into the Arts exhibit. 

“It’s a place of inclusion and diversity which can be sometimes lacking in rural or small-town areas,” Ernst said. “It’s like everyone is welcome when you walk in their door.”

Up next for ACWL-Nuveen is “Wish You Were Here: An Urban Sketchers International Exhibit,” which will be presented from Sept. 13 - Nov. 2. Urban Sketchers is a global organization where artists meet regularly to do on-location sketches of places they live and travel. The exhibit will feature a series of 4-by-6 postcard sketches from artists around the world.

Ernst, who founded Urban Sketchers West Michigan, said on-location sketching is different from sketching from a two-dimensional source like a photograph or screen, and tells the story of the moment experienced by the artists. She said this is especially powerful in capturing the experiences of people living in places where social media is limited, like China, or in war, like Ukraine, which both have multiple chapters. 

“The motto of Urban Sketching is ‘We show the world, one drawing at a time,’” Ernst said. “That’s kind of basically what people are going to be doing. We’re going to be asking them to sketch their everyday life or something that’s important to their city or to their life and then sending it.”

The exhibit will be paired with complementary classes, including a presentation on using perspective in sketching from an architect from Urban Sketchers Chicago. Artists of all skill levels are also invited to join a community sketch walk to try urban sketching for themselves. 

Cotter said she is proud of the arts organization she helped to build, and increasing access to the arts in rural areas is important. While big cities are often the artistic hubs, she said they can be intimidating to rural people or difficult to get to.

In her experience as a teacher, Cotter said a lot of her students had never left the region, and it’s important for people of all ages to get out of their comfort zones and experience new things.

“It broadens them, [art] is a universal experience,” she said. “Like music and art, you don’t have to speak the language. You look at it, you listen, you feel it, it’s there for you.”

Experiencing art is also about community building and overall well-being, Peyer said.

“Even if you don’t call yourself an artist, if you come into an art class and give yourself over to that experience, you leave in a different frame of mind …,” she said. “You feel a little bit lighter, and especially as an adult, I don’t think we get those opportunities as much… To have that opportunity is great.”

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and AnnArbor.com (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
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