Port Huron's art scene striving to shine brighter

Angel wings behind The Raven Cafe are a great place to snap a photo.
Art can be found all over Port Huron, from local galleries to sculptures along the River Walk, but people may not know where it is or take the time to drink it in. Also, they might not realize the opportunities they have to try their hand at creating art.

"The art scene is growing in Port Huron. It's been a long time coming," says Trina Avedisian, chair of the art and music festival Art on the River. Along with the festival, she pointed to galleries and local businesses that display artists' work.


Art Studio 1219 is a key player in the art space—it houses a gallery where local artists display and sell their work. It aims to promote local emerging and mid-career artists by giving them a platform and hosting master classes from people in the field on topics such as how to frame your artwork professionally, "so they learn these different aspects of how to build their own small business," says Executive Director Gina Panoff.

Studio 1219 also offers classes and workshops for the public, including some tailored to specific groups, such as the Girl A variety of artwork lines the river walk in Port Huron.Scouts and veterans. The studio recently launched a veterans program that provides pottery and mixed media (drawing and painting) classes at no cost to the veterans.

"We try to raise funds for different groups in the community that maybe couldn't afford art classes," Panoff says. For certain groups, "there's not really anything offered for them to meet up, to talk, and to create artwork."


Once a year, the studio hosts a free day of art.


"We offer all of our classes and workshops at no cost for the entire community, so if we don't hit them with one of our other specialized programs, at least they have that one day," Panoff says.


The Blue Water Art Association fosters creative expression and offers opportunities for artists to learn, share, and advance their skills. They meet at the Port Huron Museum every Tuesday.


"It's neat to see that kind of creative space going on within the museum walls," says Andrew Kercher, the museum's manager of community engagement.

Bringing art into the community

This fish isn't about to harm anyone walking the path in Port Huron.Visual art often pairs naturally with music, and some local art-related events bring the two together. Art on the River is going into its 10th year. Last year, it included about 50 artists and crafters, and several bands, over three days. In Port Huron, "they talk a lot about ‘live, work, play,' and so we decided we'd help with the ‘play' part," Avedisian says.


"What we're trying to do is bring art to the people, so they can see it," Avedisian says. "They come for the music, but while they're there, they see the art and become familiar with the artists and crafters."


Art on the River "brings people together from the community, but I think that it's important for people to get exposed to art to see different things," including art from different cultures, says Courtney Stager, chair of the artist section of Art on the River.

The twice-yearly Port Huron Art Hop also features music and visual arts, by bringing artists into restaurants and other businesses.

Stager noted that Gina's Gallery is another place where local artists can display and sell their artwork.

"I do think that we need more places like that in Port Huron—to have more spaces available for artists to promote and sell Colorful shapes create this interesting statue.their art," she says.

Several downtown businesses display local artists' work, which both gives the artists some exposure and gives patrons the opportunity to see the art.

The Raven Café is one of them.

"I believe it adds to the authenticity of a local business to have local art," says Jody Parmann, the café's co-owner and an artist herself. "Downtowns are being revived because people are no longer looking for ‘stuff.' People want an authentic experience—a story to tell. Local art, in local businesses, in quaint downtown districts feeds that desire."

Avedisian added that placing art in businesses or public spaces brings art "to people who don't normally see that kind of thing in their daily lives." She noted that customers often stop to look at a painting by local artist Earl Robinette that's hanging in Wolverine Market. It may be that "their lives are work, work, and more work, and they kind of miss that beauty that art brings to their world. It brightens everything up," she says.

Robinette has been painting since he was 5 and has had a studio in Port Huron since 1976. He taught art at St. Clair County Community College for decades, and has won numerous awards for painting and pottery. Still, his studio and gallery have not seen many visitors, which he attributes to an overall lack of interest in art.

A unique sculpture welcomes people visiting the St. Clair County Community College campus.But he agrees that art is important, and he takes the time to appreciate others' art in various formats. "I enjoy the colors, the shapes. It doesn't have to be realistic, it doesn't have to be abstract or contemporary—it can just be whatever. And I can appreciate it," he says.

Some people who aren't that into art may think art isn't for them—it's for somebody else. To them, Avedisian says, "Give it a try. Go look at it." Sometimes you have to sit and look at a piece to feel it, she says. "But people are so busy in their heads all the time, they don't sit and look at it. They walk by and take a glance."

The Port Huron Museum's Carnegie Center was recently renovated, which freed up more space, and the museum is now going through its collection to choose what else to exhibit, including sculptures and other pieces of art.

"We're also incorporating art into exhibits we have now," Kercher says. One, called Diving for Answers: Solving Mysteries of the Storm of 1913, opening Nov. 8, will include stories and artifacts from shipwrecks, as well as art. "We've talked with the Blue Water Art Association, and some of them have been doing paintings and other types of artistic expression tied to that theme," Kercher explains, so the exhibit will include local artists' work.

"Art's important. Art can actually tell you a lot about history and about the time when an artist created a piece," Kercher says, adding that an interdisciplinary approach to history may help reach people. "A painting by a modern artist—of their interpretation of these events from over 100 years ago—that might strike something in someone more so than the regular exhibit would."

Kercher notea that Port Huron is hosting the 2020 Michigan Museums Association conference, with the theme of creating connections, based on art. "Arts, history, and culture are so tied together that it's hard to separate them," he says. Anything can be used to make intriguing art.


Amplifying art

More public art and art-related events could make art a more visible part of Port Huron. For example, Parmann says she would like to see more murals downtown. She suggested creating more "interactive art (like the wings on the back of the Raven) that people would want to be photographed with. This goes back to people wanting an authentic experience—a story to tell. I believe interactive murals designed in such a way could move people through downtown and give them a reason to stroll."

Avedisian suggested that events like a chalk art competition, which other areas in Michigan host, would raise interest.

Kercher praised Art Hop, adding that the people involved in it are largely young professionals, while the Blue Water Art Association is mostly retirees. He suggested that if there's a way for the community to bridge the gap between the two, that might be helpful.


Supporting artists

How can Port Huron better support its local artists? The most obvious way is to buy their art.

"We have many great artists making amazing works of art, but I think our community hasn't caught up to buying local yet," Parmann says. "They're still shopping at box stores like Hobby Lobby for art. The price is right, but it doesn't have the same soul as when you buy something from someone."

A new mural lines The 7th Street Tunnel thanks to a collaboration long in the making between the Blue Water Young Professionals, SC4 staff and students, and the city of Port HuronHowever, "it you can't afford to purchase art or you can't afford to take the class, just spread the word about the art and that you can be creative, that there's a space for it, and there's artists in the community that create some pretty cool stuff," Panoff says. "We have a lot of people who come into our studio who didn't even know we existed, that we had this many local artists. We have 150 different artists" in the area, she says.

"They're wildly talented," Panoff says. "It's amazing what they do."

In commissioning murals, sculptures, or other forms of public art, Panoff emphasized the importance of turning to local artists, to both support them and celebrate the local talent.

Studio 1219 wants to support artists "so they can do this full time and be more of a full-time job, rather than something that they like to do on the side, that they can't quite make enough money on," Panoff says.

Creating other spaces where artists are "able to sell their own artwork would be very beneficial for them"—and for the community, Panoff says. For instance, she explained that some cities have set up areas where artists take turns selling their works in huts or stands. "That would be really cool to have in Port Huron," in part because it would be a tourist attraction, she says.

Art housing—especially if it provides both housing and a storefront for the artist—would also help, Panoff says.

As more young people move into the area, they will likely bring with them "positive support of artistic expression," Kercher says. "The art comes when there's economic revival."

Expanding opportunities to see art, interact with it, support local artists, and create art yourself may boost the community as a whole.

"It's good for the soul," Avedisian says.


Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit. You can read some of her work here.

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