To quote Ypsi-Arbor publisher and artist Mark Maynard, "being an independent artist isn’t easy."
"You lose a lot of time and a lot of money — it’s hard to be able to stick it out and do something like this, stuff that you feel good about," says Maynard, publisher (alongside wife Linette Lao) of Crimewave U.S.A. magazine and an ardent supporter of the city of Ypsilanti. "So you kind of have a support network for it."
With the initial idea to provide professional support for their "lo-fi" businesses, a handful of consigned artists (including Maynard) and designers at Jennifer Albaum’s Henrietta Fahrenheit --an Ypsilanti-based indie fashion and gift shop that has relocated to the web-- came together two years ago to form The Michigan Design Militia.
Albaum, a a clothing and accessory designer herself, invited a variety of budding entrepreneurs to the group to talk shop and help each other out. Albaum, Maynard, purse and clothing designer Molly Mast, t-shirt reconstruction artist Melissa Dettloff and greeting-card designer Timothy Furstinau formed the core of the original Militia.
"I don’t know if [Jennifer] realized what she was doing when she sent out an e-mail to people who sold stuff at Henrietta Fahrenheit, but a few of us answered the e-mail and agreed to meet," says SappyCards creator Furstinau via e-mail, who credits Albaum as the driving force behind the Militia’s formation. "But at that first meeting we all could see that we could learn from each other."
Says Albaum: "The first year we were organized, we just kind of sat down and brain-stormed and asked questions and helped each other out."
From these informal discussions sprang meetings with specific agendas: The group would invite an accountant to talk about business accounting and taxes one month, then a web designer to discuss how to improve their websites the next.
"A bunch of us didn’t know how to do taxes for our different projects," says Maynard, who also paints and plays in a band called Monkey Power Trio.
At the time of the Militia’s inception, do-it-your-self artistic expression — often channeled through fashion — had been drawing increased amounts of press. The popularity of magazines like Make, the rise of web-retailers like Threadless T-Shirts and the attention of national publications has fueled greater interest in handcrafted products. Consumers see it as an opportunity to thumb their noses at the homogenous mainstream. Maynard explains, "People are kind of pissed off of having to buy everything from Wal-Mart."
The New York Times magazine recently ran an article on independent, non-commercial brands becoming brands themselves due to their heightened visibility, such as t-shirt company The Hundreds and A-Ron’s New York-devoted line aNYthing.
Inspired by the DIY craft movement, the Design Militia decided to plan an event similar to the Ann Arbor Art Fair (one of the biggest in the nation), but “more underground,” according to Albaum, and on a smaller scale than Renegade Craft Fair, a well-known pair of events that promotes local independents in Brooklyn and Chicago.
Albaum wanted to create something similar, an event geared "to promote local independent art and design in any form." Thus was born the Shadow Art Fair, which debuted last summer at Ypsilanti’s Corner Brewery. More or less a test run of what Albaum playfully calls "a big party where you can buy stuff," the fair was a surprise success, pulling in 1,000 attendees. Inspired by the interest the Militia added a second Holiday Fair in December which drew nearly 2,000 people. Now, the two events have become the Design Militia’s main focus.
"We offer tables to musicians, to artists who are actually painting [on-site], photographers, clothing designers," Albaum says, "we even have a guy who roasts his own coffee and he comes — it runs the gamut. We allow non-profits to come — it’s really cool to open it up to that kind of thing."
Each member of the group helps in a different capacity. Albaum writes all of Shadow Art Fair’s press releases while Dettloff runs the website.
"Together with the other Militia members I move tables and furniture at the Brewery, draft blurbs, write e-mails, judge entries and all the little stuff that needs to — and somehow does — get done," says Furstinau, who is in charge of the music portion of the fair.
While the Design Militia members are based in the Ypsi-Arbor area and the Shadow Art Fairs take place in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town district, the group tries to extend its mission farther than its own neighborhood, and includes vendors from other southeast Michigan independent collectives. Shadow Art Fair has featured wares from Detroit Craft Mafia (itself part of a larger, national network of craft business groups), Handmade Detroit and the Hamtramck-based arts collective called Hatch.
"[It’s] good to network with other people and share practices with them, so you learn from each other," says Maynard, stressing the importance of events like the Fair, "you kind of have to build a community." Publishing zines or redesigning salvaged furniture may be an artist’s main passion, but the majority do it while holding down day jobs.
Communication between arts collectives is also important because independent design in the area is already a "shadow" or alternative industry to begin with. Southeast Michigan doesn’t necessarily have the built-in, name arts community associated with the Bay Area or New York city. Pure Detroit Design Lab, located in the heart of Detroit's financial district, sold clothing and accessories from all local designers, but the store closed this past year to make way for the Detroit Fashion Incubator.
Detroit paraphernalia powerhouse Pure Detroit helmed the Design Lab but despite its downtown location, it was still in a neighborhood that attracted more businessmen on power lunches than hipsters searching for reconstructed vintage clothing. The Fashion Incubator, although ambitious and with the same fiercely local philosophy as the Design Lab, has yet to prove itself. It shares the same building as the 4571 Gallery on Grand River Avenue, a relative distance from Detroit’s downtown, but a spot that many hopefuls are calling a potential hub for a new arts community.
For now, growing events like the Shadow Art Fair are what artists can look to for encouragement. Albaum says the Militia would be open to holding workshops for other independent creators in the area in the future, as the group initially did for itself, but crafting the fair itself is still the current objective.
"We'd like to find a way to encourage our participants to get out from behind their tables and meet the other participants and make connections," Furstinau says. "Then, bigger and better things will grow organically out of those connections, just like the Shadow came out of the Militia."
Kimberly Chou is a freelance writer living in Ann Arbor. She is a frequent contributor to metromode. You can read her article about Jolly Pumpkin Brewery here.
Photos:Michigan Design Militia left to right: Melissa Dettloff, Timothy Furstinau, Jennifer Albaum, Molly Mast, Mark Maynard
Mark Maynard with his publication Crimewave
SappyCards by Timothy Furstinau (photo courtesy of Timothy Furstinau)
Molly Mast with products at Mast Shoes
Melissa Dettloff models one of her hoodies
left to right: Molly Mast, Timothy Furstinau, Mark Marnard, Melissa Dettloff.
(Jennifer Albaum in the foreground with back to camera)
Photographs © Myra Klarman Photography - All Rights Reserved