Planting the seeds of art in Monroe

Woodrow Hoffer found it disheartening when a Michigan arts agency deemed his hometown “an underserved community,” where residents may lack access to arts and cultural programming, services or resources. In a nutshell, a “cultural desert.”

Having grown up in Monroe, Hoffer, an architect, professor, and creative director, knew firsthand the lack of cultural opportunities for youth, especially those who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods. The southeastern Michigan city has no art museum and no art galleries. Most children may never attend a live cultural performance outside of school. 

Hoffer, working with Stephanie Zorn Kasprzak, executive director of the Monroe County Opportunity Program, decided to do something about that desert. They created a community-focused initiative called Plntng Seeds. 

The goal of Plntng Seeds is to bring art to the city’s public spaces and inspire young people in and around Monroe to follow their “purpose of creativity.”

Last summer Plntng Seeds collaborated with visual artists of diverse backgrounds to create six murals, the largest display of public art in Monroe’s history. This summer several more murals will be painted. Artists will be in Monroe from June 1 through June 10, working on their murals and visible to the public.

“We are aiming to be the change that we would like to see in our community, and the seed with which will blossom young creatives to continue the growth of arts and culture in our region,” Hoffer says.

What’s happening: An initiative called Plntng Seeds is bringing public art – in the form of murals – to various neighborhoods within the city of Monroe, home to about 20,000 people.  In its inaugural launch last summer, six murals were painted. This summer seven more murals will be created. One artist has already started, and the others will follow in June.

How did Plntng Seeds get started: After helping bring art to the unadorned walls of a gymnasium at The Opportunity Center @ ALCC, Hoffer turned his attention to a community-wide initiative. A member of the center’s advisory council, he thought art on gym walls would inspire the youth of the Orchard East neighborhood. Plntng Seeds became the next step, expanding from one center in the community to the entire community. Exposure to creative cultural outlets for most youth in the community is limited to school field trips.

The mural inside the gym at The Opportunity Center @ ALCC.“I’m a visionary person – I like to create,” Hoffer says. “A lot of young people in Monroe and the community are fortunate if they take a field trip even once to an art museum. That’s their one experience with art and culture. Art (in museums) is put on such a high pedestal that it doesn’t seem attainable by many of us. 

“I wanted to create something so that a young person could wake up in the morning, turn their blinds and see world-class art in their backyard,” he says.

The artists: The murals are being painted by a diverse group of artists, artists who reflect the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood and the city. “A large aspect of this initiative is about diversity and inclusivity,” he says. Part of the initiative includes inviting artists who also want to give back to the community. 

Last year’s artists were Mike Han, Bakpak Durden, Tony Whlgn, Ouizi, Jake Dwyer, and local artist Amy Arnold.  Artists are selected through research and networking and curated by Hoffer in collaboration with building owners and community members. Plntng Seeds has gone farther afield this summer, choosing artists from around the world.

“What I hoped for and what has been happening is that while these artists are creating their murals, people, young and old approach and ask them about their work,” Hoffer says. “They’re asking what it means to be an artist, how they chose a purpose and passion of creativity, and what their works represent. It is important that young people have the opportunity to see creatives who share similar backgrounds to themselves thriving in careers that they too may aspire to one day practice.” 

The mural by Ouizi at Tiffany's Pizza. The murals: The murals reflect the diverse talents of the artists. Last summer murals were painted at Tiffany’s Pizza, Orchard Center High School, the Opportunity Center at ALCC, Hellenberg Park, and the Monroe Beer Cooler.

This year’s first mural is being painted by Detroit artist Rick Williams. He is also co-owner of Distinct Life, a creative agency focused on brand development and storytelling.  Williams is painting at the Monroe Community Ambulance building. Another artist, Dom Laporte, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, will paint a water-themed mural on the rear of the FEDCO headquarters. This mural will be visible from Interstate 75 and greet people as they travel to Monroe. 

Support and funding: Support for the initiative has come from the Monroe County Opportunity Program (MCOP) and The Opportunity Center at ALCC. Funding has been provided by a multitude of partners, including local businesses, community foundations, the city of Monroe, Google, DTE Foundation and FEDCO, Inc. “However, this program would not exist without the generous contributions of the La-Z-Boy Foundation, headquartered in Monroe,” Hoffer says.

Detroit artist Rick Williams working on a mural.
What’s next: In the fall, Plntng Seeds plans to launch a pop-up exhibition space to showcase the curated works of photographer James Dickerson. Dickerson will tell the story of the people of the Orchard East community through his photography. Along with this exhibition, the organization is curating a series of four creative conversations that will look to inspire creative revitalization in our community.

“Long term, we are looking to curate more collaborative opportunities and partnerships to continue to disrupt the status quo, to use art and culture in transforming our community. We are also interested in partnering with other communities to provide inclusive and equitable opportunities to creatives, to amplify their works in community development and revitalization, and to represent how culture can be utilized in creating community,” Hoffer says. “It is important that we are creating places and spaces that are diverse, inclusive and equitable for all.”
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