Vine Neighborhood

Artists in Kalamazoo's Vine neighborhood find a way to work together at Critique Night

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Vine Neighborhood series.

Artists work in isolation. They create something, look at it, and ask themselves: Is this what I want? Is it what an audience wants? Does it convey ideas, meaning, reasons for existing? Is it finished? Does it need more blue in the corner? 
To be alone in a studio with questions bouncing around inside your skull can be a difficult existence. 
Put a handful of artists in a room together, to show their art and ask those questions, and you get ideas bouncing around.
For the first Vine Artist Critique Night June 10, ideas were flying, launched by varied mediums and their creators who were looking for feedback.
"In my experience, and in the experience of lots of artists that I know, a critique night is a fun, relaxed kind of thing where we can come together and show each other our work, and get feedback on that," Ellen Nelson, event organizer, says. 
Qynce Chumley's comic, based on his life growing up in southern Illinois and then going to college in Kalamazoo, will be published through an Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo KADI grant in July."Especially when, working a solo career, it's sometimes hard to know if I'm taking a piece of work in the right direction, if it looks as good to other people as it does to me, or vice-versa," she says. 
"Also I'd say it's kind of soul-healing to be around other artists, other people who are going through some of the things you are... share ideas, share advice and knowledge with each other." 
Mona Lisa, medical-ish scans, abstractions in the year of the plague
Four artists -- current or recent Vine residents -- came out for the debut of the event. As an artist and VNA board member, Nelson also showed her art. Works ranged from comic-book panels of its creator's life to an abstract painting that took its painter into a scary place.
J. C. Kins says his dark work of paint and Bic ink, shapes suggesting shadowy figures packed together, was done "in the heat of the pandemic." 
He tells the group, "I keep looking at it like, you're finished -- but you're not." 
While he was working on it during COVID, "randomly, this friggin' Bible verse popped into my head."  He looked it up, and it was about plague in the city, people slain by the sword in the country, survivors fleeing into the mountains. 
Ellen Nelson, Qynce Chumley, Marissa Klee-Peregon, Daniel Staggs and C. J. Kins examine Klee-Peregon's scanner images of objects."And I was like, f--- me! I'm not working on this anymore!" he says, laughing. "I haven't touched this since."
The others didn't have suggestions to soothe his fear of apocalypse, but they did agree with him that the title should be from that verse.
Daniel Staggs showed his pencil recreation of da Vinci's Mona Lisa. "You guys can just tear into it," he invited the critiquers. 
He says his son had told him, "'You're going to draw the Mona Lisa? You can't do that!' Yeah, I can. It took him what, 14 years? I'm going to do it in under a year." 
The group complimented him on his lines and shadings -- after all, his main gig is as a tattoo artist.
"I was doing it at Fourth Coast, that's why it has coffee on it," he admits.
"As all good art should," Kins says. 
Comic artist Qynce Chumley showed the few unfinished pages of a 180-page comic book based on their life growing up in a little southern Illinois town and coming to Kalamazoo. Two panels needed to be finished, soon. Thanks to an Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo KADI grant, it's to be printed in July.
Ellen Nelson shows her work.The group hovered around a page. Does a scene need a filled-in background? Leaves? Or no leaves? They discussed the addition of foliage longer than non-artists probably would. 
Marissa Klee-Peregon showed images from a scanner, revealing murky shapes of fabric sculptures. The group asks, 'What is she trying to communicate?'
The images are ambiguous, between figurative art and abstract, inspired by "body and gender," she says. Recalling x-rays, ultrasounds, they're about the "ambiguity in capturing information."
Nelson wants to "just make art that gives respite from the weight of the world." Her work is colorful, "'60s wallpaper kind of stuff" with "bits of realism." Her "Fancypants Flowers" -- a temporary title -- has her "a little stuck." Is it too flat? Should there be dandelions in the background, to contrast with the perfect coneflowers?
Look at it upside down, print out copies and experiment with those, do what it takes to look at the painting in a new way, the others suggested.
Ideas, trivia, support
Then there were Nelson's crocheted flowers, brightly colored -- what to do with them? "I just like to make them when watching 'Murder She Wrote,'" she says.
Staggs interjects that "I'm currently making 12,000 origami roses in three months for a world record attempt." He has 2,000-something at the moment, two weeks into the effort. It's reassuring to know "I'm not the only person who's like, I've made all these, what do I have to do with them now?"
Put people who work in isolation with others who do the same work, and it all comes out -- the ideas, trivia, opinions they might've kept to themselves, or admissions of compulsive tendencies to create.
The U.S. Army put out a book of European art in 1943, not to give soldiers fighting WWII an appreciation for art, but so they could identify works that might have been stolen by Nazis. Staggs used the book's photo of the Mona Lisa to do his reproduction.
Mona Lisa in pencil by Daniel Staggs.Naps are important. Salvador Dali and Leonardo da Vinci had the habit of napping. Kins is a big proponent of napping.
A way to make money as an artist is to simply paint in public. Paint portraits on the street as Nelson's father-in-law did. Or sit by the pier at South Haven, paint the scene over and over, sell the paintings to tourists -- Kins found it "very sell-out-ish, but very profitable" when he did it.
"How to Get Money" should be a topic of an upcoming Vine Artist Critique Night, Nelson says. Hold a meeting on how to get grants and, of course, hold a tax workshop for January. 
The meets should be more than critiques -- they should provide a support group for artists, Nelson says.
The Vine is the neighborhood that needs such a group. Creativity abounds -- "There's a lot of artists and musicians and poets here. The big factor is, it's really inexpensive to live here," Nelson says.
Painting and crocheted flowers by Ellen Nelson."It's a transient sort of area, and I feel that transience adds to a constant fresh view and a melting pot of ideas out here," Kins says.
Nelson adds, "There's a lot of creativity here because it's fostered here. I can come to the Vine and the VNA and say, 'I want to do an artists' night,' and they make it happen."
"I wish the rest of the city would adopt their approach," Kins says.
The Vine Artist Critique Night will be held once a month at The Vine Neighborhood Association. The next will be Friday, July 8, 5 p.m. For more information, see the Vine Neighborhood Association Facebook page

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Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see