Battle Creek

Battle Creek creatives offer advice and support to area students during Art Bash 2024

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
BATTLE CREEK, MI — The next generation of creatives to come out of Battle Creek may look back someday and say they got their start at an event inside W.K. Kellogg Auditorium where they were encouraged to embark on an exploration of art in its many forms.
This encouragement happened during Art Bash 2024 on March 21. Hosted by the Arts & Culture Collective of Battle Creek (ACCBC) with strong support from leadership with Battle Creek Public Schools, more than 300 students representing Battle Creek Central High School, W.K. Kellogg Preparatory Academy, and Battle Creek STEM Innovation Center, spent an afternoon hearing from local creatives and seeing them perform their art.
In between the live performances and a few panel discussions, students were encouraged to get out of their seats and dance and sing to music provided by DJ Sic Muziq. And they did just that.
“The number one thing we wanted to do was to show these students that there are professional artists in your community who do this work every day,” says Vania Word, Chief Inspiration Architect with the ACCBC. “We wanted to show them that it’s possible to be a creative by highlighting the people who are.”
These established creatives took to the stage to share stories about their own journeys and the personal struggles they faced.
While a student at Lakeview High School, Teaira Gray a multimedia artist, says there wasn’t a lot offered to students like her who were interested in the arts. She motivated herself during an Independent Study where she focused on her drawing.
“I just started drawing characters from my favorite shows and I didn’t think it would take me anywhere but here I am going to schools to talk about art and I also am going to conventions,” says Gray, who painted a mural on a building at 60 Calhoun Street during Color the Creek 2021. “It was a passion for me and that’s what kept me going.”
She told the students that, “There is so much you can do. If you want to work at Nickelodeon, you can do that.”
During Color the Creek 2022, Gray worked with Duncan Holmes, a graphic designer, who also draws and animates, to refresh an existing mural. Holmes also serves on the ACCBC Grassroots Artist Council.
“I’ve been making stuff since I was a kid. I had a lot of free time because I was homeschooled,” he says. “I was trying new stuff all up until I graduated high school.”
College was not for him because he wanted to “jump right into something else and graphic design was it.”
A fellow member of the Grassroots Artist Council, says she became interested in photography at a young age but didn’t have mentors to guide her or the money to purchase a camera.
“When I was younger, I was incredibly poor and didn’t have access to cameras,” says Kayla McCarthy, owner of Kayla McCarthy Photography and Marketing and Communications Manager for the Battle Creek Community Foundation. When she was finally able to get her hands on cameras, they were ones that used film. She bought her first camera and started her photography business while a student at Kellogg Community College.
“The biggest roadblock for me was access and not seeing other people who were doing photography. There was no route for me to follow to get there or mentors along the way who could teach me,” McCarthy shared with the students.
Despite these initial challenges so common among creatives in all art disciplines, she says she has been able to make a living off of her photography while doing what she has to do on the side.
The visual creatives gave the stage up to their counterparts in the performing arts representing dance, singing, and acting. Included among them was Altamiece Carolyn Cooper who was born and raised in Battle Creek, graduated in 2004 from Western Michigan University with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Theater and performance, and has been a professional actor and singer on Broadway as well as on stages throughout the United States for more than 20 years.
“My parents always surrounded me with the arts. My dad was an actor and I remember watching a lot of movies and musicals on TV,” she says. When she landed a role in the Disney musical Polly which featured an all-Black cast, Cooper says, “That sparked everything in me.”
“Nothing is impossible,” she told the students.
Heather Mitchell echoed these sentiments while sharing what drove her to follow her passion to become a dancer and choreographer. A Youth Enrichment Director with Rootead based in Kalamazoo, Mitchell told the students that, “Comparison is the thief of joy. Don’t compare yourself to anybody. You be you.”
Although she comes from a family of movers and dancers, she says that this did not spare her from a painful experience when she was 13 years old and was a “stick.”
“I had done this move and everybody laughed at me. I went into my room and cried and said I’m going to put myself into this and I’m not going to be laughed at anymore.”
Terri Naoeill, Executive Director of Youth Programs with What A Do Theatre, who was also on stage with Cooper and Mitchell, urged the students to be “willing to put in the work to be a success and do what love to do.”
Word says Art Bash was designed to offer a well-rounded glimpse into what is possible and available in the arts. In addition to comments from the various artists, Rootead performed some dances, Cooper sang, Naoeill and another actor did a skit, Minor Element performed their music, and Jordan Hamilton, a professional cellist from Battle Creek did his version of the Beatles song “Blackbird”, accompanied by musicians with the Battle Creek Symphony Orchestra.
“We wanted to make sure nothing was left out. We had to parallel what is available in our community as well,” she says. “We don’t want to pitch a venue where they can’t begin doing today. We just want to make it easy for them to try.”
Collaborating to nurture and support future Creatives
The ACCBC had hoped to make Art Bash an annual event. With the support of BCPS and Creatives from Battle Creek and neighboring communities this is likely to happen, Word says.
“I think that arts education has to be supplemented with opportunities outside of school. These institutions can’t do it alone,” Word says. “We have a little bit more flexibility to build programming because we’re not inside of an institution and we said, 'Let’s create programming outside of school that helps students create art in school.'”
Conversations between the ACCBC and BCPS began while planning discussions for the K-8 Visual Arts Academy that will be opening in 2025 at Northwestern Middle School, says Dr. Anita Harvey, Director of District Transformation with BCPS.
“More of our students need to see the arts in nontraditional ways,” she says, adding that Art Bash provided opportunities for students to see a variety of art forms in one place. “We want children to see and be engaged and be empowered through the message that was being given out.”
The Arts Academy will include an Art Council composed of community artists to help BCPS leadership create experiences for students. Harvey says this underscores the importance of Art Bash which was created out of the community and Creatives who live in Battle Creek.
“These are the same people who will be able to design what guaranteed experiences through the arts will look like,” Harvey says. “Battle Creek is so rich in its arts community and all of our students have the opportunity to thrive with the arts.”
Exposure opportunities like Art Bash create significant impact opening the mind to possibilities, says Susan Balbaugh, Executive Director of the Music Center.
“Jordan Hamilton, for example, is a Battle Creek native who uses his incredible talent playing cello to influence others to explore music. Not long ago, he met a young person who saw him perform in 2020. Because of him, she now plays cello. He was thrilled to hear he had moved her to take up this instrument,” she says. “We know there were kids in the audience at Art Bash that will pick up an instrument because they saw Jordan play there.”
While not everyone will become a musician as a result of watching Hamilton perform, Balbaugh says, “Many will become future concert attendees and support artists of all genres and disciplines in the future. It is only by exposing the next generation that we can hope to continue our traditions.”
This will require a concerted community effort that will include organizations like ACCBC and institutions like BCPS, Word says.
“We are stepping in to fill a void and working with the schools,” she says of the Collective. “One of our main focuses will be youth programming because they are the ‘have-nots’ and the most underrepresented group in our community. We wanted to be honest with them and tell them that ‘We have your back.”

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Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.