Monday, July 5, 2010

Reb Roberts - Sanctuary Folk Art

This article is one of my features that I like to look back on. It features a local gallery owner who not only features local artists, but helps brighten up and educate his community through art and art appreciation. The article is also up on Rapid Growth Media at Enjoy!

* * * *

Reb Roberts, the Grand Rapids artist and gallery owner, seems capable of willing urban revitalization into existence simply by imagining and painting it. Wherever he adds art to the city’s landscape, development follows.

Ten years ago, Roberts put five brightly colored paintings in an empty lot at the corner of Diamond and Lake Drive. At the time the property – a former gas station – was contaminated, abandoned, and an eyesore in the community, Robert says. But the pace of change accelerated as the art attracted more attention to the blight. Today that corner is a thriving urban hub housing a restaurant, retail, and a nonprofit group.

“When we planted the artwork, Shell got upset and took the paintings down,” he says. “They put up a fence around the lot. So we put up the painting in front of the fence. Later, when they began development of Marie Catribs on that corner, I got a call from the restaurant saying they wanted to keep the painting and hang it on the wall. It said ‘East Hills: Center of the Universe.’ Now that area is branded ‘the Center of the Universe.’”

Today Roberts is busy egging on redevelopment in another regenerating part of the city – the four-block stretch of South Division known as the Avenue for the Arts.

A Gallery on the Street
Roberts and his wife Carmel Loftis opened a gallery, Sanctuary Folk Art, in the neighborhood in 1999 as a place to create and display their own artwork. The duo also welcomed and worked closely with artists from the Heartside Ministries art program, a project that nurtures the creative instincts of low-income and homeless people.

“I was very enthused about the art they were doing,” Roberts says. “Our styles and approach to creating art were similar. There was a kinship in the way my compatriots and I created. It’s intuitive, raw, and straight from the heart.”

It wasn’t long before that art was spilling out of the gallery onto nearby rundown properties. Roberts, Loftis and 24 other neighborhood artists first put up a mural on four-foot-square panels beside Division Street.

But Roberts didn’t stop there. When he opened the gallery, the windows in several buildings in the area were boarded up. So Roberts got permission to paint on the exterior walls. Today numerous structures that were once drab and disregarded are coated with eye catching colors and attracting new interest. And the South Division corridor now is in the midst of unprecedented redevelopment.

"It’s kind of like a gallery on the street," Roberts says. “Passersby get used to the disrepair; it’s like an eyesore,” he says. “But when you put art up there, it attracts attention. When people notice that, they look at the buildings, the neighborhood, the cityscape. People wonder what’s coming next; they want to get in on it."

The art, Roberts says, also is a way for residents to stake a claim in the neighborhood, express their dissatisfaction with the disinvestment and decay, and visualize a much brighter future. It also helps neighbors, visitors, and even potential investors establish more personal connections with the area and feel more a part of the neighborhood.

The Art of Revitalization
These days, Roberts is taking that message beyond the streets. He recently contributed artwork for the Grand Rapids Children's Museum's recent Bob the Builder exhibit, and spoke to kids about using their imagination to physically build a community. He also regularly visits the Frederick Meijer Gardens, local mental health facilities, and other community institutions to spread the word about the transformative affects of art. In the summer, he teams up with kids to create banners for neighborhoods around the city.

The purpose of that public art is to evoke emotion and stimulate new interest in too often forgotten or neglected areas.

“Neighborhoods can become pedestals for art, and make people want even more art,” Roberts says. “I know a lot of people who find something that uplifts them, it makes their day. If there’s enough in [a particular work of art] to make you feel something, that’s why we do what we do. That’s part of the emotion, the excitement of watching other people get excited, too.”

Roberts believes that an unwavering commitment to the arts also can help Grand Rapids become a destination city in an era that prizes creativity and bold ideas. The city is filled with young talented artists, he says, and a longstanding passion for art in the broadest sense.

But those strong assets are not always promoted and celebrated in a strategic way. For starters, he says, city leaders could erect an archway over the Avenue for the Arts, similar to the famous entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco, to call greater attention to the local art scene, and the emerging cultural district.

“Why not build one entering onto Division?” Roberts says. “Then you know you’re entering ‘the Avenue for the Arts,’ like the light when you come out of a tunnel.”

The idea makes sense. But for now Reb Roberts will keep painting up signs and blighted buildings with his colleagues and neighbors. That, he says, will continue to inspire the community to embrace a fresh perspective, chart new courses for action, and make the community's mark on the Heartside neighborhood.

“There’s a little fear among people who have been here for awhile, that as things get gentrified, they fear they would be pushed aside,” Roberts says. “But the art is like putting a signature on the neighborhood. And since it's often times a collaboration, the people are part of something that’s a part of this community.”

Introduction to Faces Behind the Stories

Hello, my name is Matt Marn, and I am a recent graduate from Grand Valley State University over in West Michigan. Now armed with a journalism degree, I am getting this collection of clips started to get my name further out there and show everyone what I can do.

I tend to write more on the features side of the news, I try to show more detail, emotion, try to show the human side of the story. The face behind the news, if you will. I hope you enjoy reading this collection of articles I have written.