Imagine Art N Lee provides creative space for budding and experienced artists at Crossroads Mall

Even though Black women-owned and run art spaces in Southwest Michigan are increasingly prevalent, operating a Black, woman-owned art space in Kalamazoo is not easy, say those who take this path — and there is still a long way to go. 

Most Black art and culture spaces in Michigan, like the Black Arts and Cultural Center in the Epic Center, the Xperience by LuXury Escapes in Farmer’s Alley, and The Space at the very end of Michigan Avenue, are run by only one or two people — and usually, those people happen to be phenomenal women, women whose everyday jobs encompass roles such as accountant, founder, manager, owner and operator, and even custodian. 

Maya JamesInterior view of Imagine Art N Lee at Crossroads Mall.Often, these women set aside any personal tragedy, trauma, and turmoil they've experienced to achieve their dreams. A shining example of this type of commitment is Nicole Lee, the mastermind behind the newly launched Imagine Art N Lee in the Crossroads Mall.

Taking action to advocate for the underserved is a driving force for Nicole Lee, and her dream has been a long time coming, she says. In her new business, she wears many hats as the owner, operator, muralist, accountant, facilitator, curator, and manager of Imagine Art N Lee. 

Full disclosure: I have known Nicole since our first collaborations and social justice campaigns in 2020 following the murders of George Floyd (by Minneapolis police) and Cornelius Frederick, (a student placed in the custody of Lakeside Academy after his mother died). 

From struggle arose a vision

Amidst the outrage after George Floyd's death, Lee showed up by using her voice and creative talents to advocate against the injustices around her. Despite the retaliation against peaceful protestors like Lee, she kept fighting from the inside with a vision of a place where local artists — especially artists of color — could showcase their work, sell their wares, and be celebrated. She imagined a place where non-artists could discover their inner creative abilities in a safe, non-judgmental, and equitable space.

When Lee established her business, located next to Claire’s in the Crossroads Mall, she was working full-time as a social worker and freshly processing the loss of her late father. For years, she had been dreaming of a space where she could unlock her community’s creative gifts, talents, and abilities. In our interview in mid-March, she recounted her journey to Imagine Art N Lee amidst her recent loss and the chronic demands of a full-time job in social services. Maya JamesMaya James painted this portrait of Imagine Art N Lee Owner Nicole Lee. Please see Artist Statement below.“The mission wasn’t just about me.” says Lee, “The space came out of a lot of grieving. In November of 2023, I lost my father. Nearly two months later, I got the keys to Imagine Art N Lee.”

Against the odds, she says, she accomplished her dream.

All are welcome at Imagine Art N Lee, says Lee adding that she intends to make Imagine Art N Lee a gesture of love to our community.

It won't paint itself, Love

During the first six weeks of designing and furnishing her business space, Lee says she was nervous. But all of her small touches make the space personal and inviting. Anyone who knows Lee on a personal level knows the warmth and comfort she exudes when she calls you “love,” a term of endearment she uses frequently. The space features a beautiful purple, blue, brown, and yellow mural spanning across the wall (that she painted herself), and states in an inviting font: “It’s just art” and “It won’t paint itself, Love.” 

Art N Lee has dedicated space for everyone, from the all-gender restrooms to the “paintbrush salon” where her customers can clean their tools in an innovative way. Folks with all levels of experience in the arts have a safe space to create, she says. 

Those who are new to painting have the opportunity to start with simple pre-stenciled paint-by-numbers — or, if they’re feeling braver, to start from scratch on a blank canvas. Her nontraditional studio setup is not your auntie’s typical paint n’ sip. Non-alcoholic sparkling grape juice and mocktails provide a healthy alternative to alcohol and help make the space of creation and recreation open to all ages and backgrounds. 

Maya JamesInterior view of Imagine Art N Lee at Crossroads Mall“People can paint anything they want,” says Lee. But the space can be used for so much more including rentals for events like fundraisers, birthday and bachelorette parties. And if you’re a working artist, you can sell your work with a small shelving fee, as well as keep all the sales profits with no binding agreement.

In the future, Lee hopes to see “Imagine Art N’ Lee” grow and perhaps move into an even larger space that can shelve all types of artists' work, host master classes, and spread her message of healing through the arts into an even wider sphere. During our interview, she reflected on her journey, sharing an invitation to all who have waited to take a chance on their gifts. “My only wish,” says Lee, “is that my Dad could see this.”

If you or someone you love is creative — or has creative tendencies — stop by and chat with Lee at the Crossroads Mall at Imagine Art N’ Lee next to Claire’s between 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 12 p.m to 6 p.m. on Sundays.

Artist Statement:  'Nicole Lee,’  8 1/2”x 11” Watercolor and Acrylic on canvas. In crafting the portrait of Nicole Lee, I sought to encapsulate her embodiment of boundless creativity and inclusivity within her own artistic expression. This piece is a tribute to her vision and the nurturing environment she cultivates at Imagine Art n Lee.  The goal was to evoke Nicole's welcoming spirit and the vibrant tapestry of her creative endeavors.

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