I never enjoy doing exit interviews. It’s by far the worst part of the job… if you can call this late night obsession of mine a job. I hate seeing good, bright, motivated people leave our community. And, as you can probably imagine, this is especially true when those who are leaving are talented collaborators whom I consider to be close personal friends. And, sadly, that’s the case this evening. Tonight’s interview, the most recent in our series of Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interviews, is with my trusted coconspirator Melissa Dettloff, who, after many productive years in Ypsilanti, dating weirdos, designing underpants, and the like, has chosen to move back to Detroit. Melissa, for those of you who don’t know her, is a founder of the Shadow Art Fair, a renowned clothes hacker, a co-owner of the Severed Unicorn Head Superstore, a hug-loving vegan, and a committed dog lover, among other things. In short, she’s the kind of creative individual that you’d want to have on your team, no matter the task at hand… Please join me in thanking her for service, and wishing her well on her future endeavors… Detroit is lucky to have her.
MARK: What were the circumstances behind your first coming to Ypsilanti?
MELISSA: My ending up in Ypsilanti was a total accident. I was living in Dixboro with an (ex)boyfriend. We’d been there about a year, after moving from the woods of Brooklyn, Michigan, where we’d spent the previous year. (Prior to that, we’d both been living with our moms.) Well, we broke up, and I moved out. I agreed to continue to pay my part of the lease, so I moved back in with my mom, and was driving from Eastpointe to Ypsilanti every day to go to work. I was working at VGKids to make extra money, in addition to selling things that I was sewing and making. After a few months, my friend Jennifer (formerly of Henrietta Fahrenheit), who lived in Ypsi, asked me to house-sit and watch her pets while she left town for a few weeks on vacation. I did, and, when she got back, she offered to let me live in her spare bedroom, which I did for about 9 months, until my lease in Dixboro ended, and I could afford to rent my own apartment. So I got an apartment on Forest, which I lived in for 6 years — the rest of the time that I was in Ypsi.
MARK: The last Shadow Art Fair is coming up. As one of the founders, I’m curious as to your feelings. Are you at all conflicted?
MELISSA: I think the Shadow Art Fair has had a good run, and I don’t feel conflicted about letting it go. It’s time. I’ll miss having a reason to hang out with you and the rest of the gang, though, and spending that unruly 12+ hour day with you all. I’m happy that it existed, and that we did it for so long. And I met some of my best friends through the Shadow. But, I’m sure that its absence will be filled by the next group of people with good/weird ideas. This will be Shadow Art Fair #15, I think. That’s a lot of Shadow Art Fairs.
MELISSA: No, but, as an adult, sometimes people call me MADDOG… because my initials are M.A.D.
MARK: One of the things that I admire about you is that you’re not complacent. You had a good job at a local university, and, instead of just rotting away behind a desk, you packed up and left because you wanted to do something else… What was it that you wanted to do?
MELISSA: Well, one of the biggest impetuses (if that’s a word) was that the lease on my apartment wasn’t being renewed. (My landlords had a baby, and needed the extra space upstairs.) So I had to decide if I was going to stay in Ypsi, or move on to somewhere else. I decided to move back to Detroit, which is where I grew up… I’d started spending a lot of my free time there over the last year or so.
One thing I wanted was to be closer to my mom and sister, niece and nephews, and I am very happy to have that now. In the last eight years or so, I felt like I only had a tangential relationship to them. I guess a lot of people try to get away from their families, but I’m close to mine, and it feels good to be nearby.
Beyond that, it felt like it was time to put myself into a new place… new situations and challenges. The university job was very comfortable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I tried to imagine myself in 5 or 10 years, at 40 or 45, still being there, and I didn’t like how that made me feel. Time goes by so quickly. I felt like there was more for me out there… What that is exactly, I’m not sure, though. I’m a single person without a mortgage or kids, and I’d been saving a bunch of money, so I felt like it was okay for me to have a period of time that was a little more loose and exploratory. I went through a difficult loss in my family two years ago, and I’d been feeling for a while like I needed to step away from things for a bit and rest, and I was in a position to be able to do that.
MELISSA: Of course. In terms of reality and paying bills, it’s a stupid and crazy thing to do.
MARK: Why greyhounds?
MELISSA: Sometime after my childhood dog Daisy passed away (she was almost 16, so we kind of grew up together), my mom showed me this newspaper clipping she had been hanging on to for years, about adopting ex-racing greyhounds. She said she always thought it’d be nice to adopt one, so we did. I’ve had only greyhounds ever since (adopted three and fostered I can’t remember how many). They are sweet, loving, laid-back dogs, and so thankful to be given another chance, and a soft couch.
MARK: What’s your first memory?
MELISSA: When I was little I had a group of imaginary friends called “Messy and the Girls.” Messy was the ringleader. I remember this one day playing outside on the swingset in the backyard with Messy (and the Girls), and it was like being somewhere else, and they felt really real to me. My imagination had transported me out of the backyard, to another place. A few months later, I got mad at Messy, and threw her in the garbage can in our kitchen, and that was the last of the imaginary friends.
MARK: What, if anything, did you learn in Ypsi?
MELISSA: I learned a lot. It was the first time I felt like my own person, and started to learn what I really liked and cared about. I’m not very social, and, growing up, I didn’t feel like I had much in common with most people, but I learned in Ypsi that it was okay to be who I was, and to stop beating myself up for being or feeling different.
MARK: Do you have job prospects, or are you going to try to do something on your own?
MELISSA: Freelancing is working fine for now. I suspect at some point I’ll have a regular job again.
MELISSA: I’m working freelance/contract – some for “the university,” and some for others – doing illustration and design for websites, and book covers, and things like that. Once or twice a week, I help my sister make soup for her soup business, cutting vegetables and not being in front of a computer screen. I ride my bike a lot – the bike riding in Detroit is really nice. I’m making kombucha, and experimenting with flavoring it (I like how it tastes but it’s too expensive to buy), and I started developing my own black and white film again. I wake up early and try to draw in the morning before the day gets going, otherwise I end up putting everyone else’s projects first and never get around to drawing.
MARK: Where in Detroit did you decide to settle down, and what were the contributing factors that went into making that decision? Was there something or someone in particular that you wanted to be close to? Were there areas of town that you wanted, for whatever reason, to steer clear of?
MELISSA: I am in an apartment in the West Village, which is in the lower east side, near Indian Village and Belle Isle. I grew up on the east side, but in the northern part, around McNichols and Gratiot. I wasn’t very familiar with the West Village neighborhood, so it feels new. I love being this close to Belle Isle – it is one of my favorite places, if not my favorite.
I wasn’t trying to be near or away from anything in particular… I wanted to be in the city proper and within bike-riding distance of areas I go to frequently, like downtown, midtown, Eastern Market.
Contributing factors in deciding on an apartment were: 1. Are dogs allowed? 2. Is the price reasonable? 3. Does it feel safe? I saw a few places that fulfilled one or two of those things, but where I ended up fulfilled all three. There is a vegan soul food place opening soon across the street from my apartment – that more or less sealed the deal.
MARK: How has Detroit changed, if at all, since you last lived there?
MELISSA: It has and it hasn’t. There are pockets that have changed, and there are larger areas of the city that are still having difficult times.
MARK: What’s your favorite memory of your time in Ypsilanti?
MELISSA: I can’t pick one favorite memory. Favorite times include Shadow Art Fairs, Krampus marches, eating pizza at VGKids, sewing at SPUR, walking dogs, severed unicorn heads, feeling young – lots of good memories in Ypsi.
MELISSA: I doubt it. I’ve been to a lot of places, and they’re fun to visit, but I’ll probably stay in Michigan. I can envision myself in Detroit and/or somewhere up north.
MARK: How did you come to know Jennifer? Do you remember when you first met?
MELISSA: Jennifer and I met in Chicago, at the first Renegade Craft Fair (in 2003). She was there shopping for her store, I think, looking for new things to carry. I’d heard of her, and she’d heard of me, and she came up to my table and introduced herself, and that’s how we met.
MARK: What do you have planned for this upcoming Shadow, on July 20?
MELISSA: I will have some zines, including a couple that I’ve been working on that feature my dog Miguel, and I might be involved in some way with Vinnie Massimino’s Fax Party. Other than that, I plan to hang out, see friends, and enjoy it.
MARK: Do you have any parting words for the people of Ypsilanti, constructive criticism, any objective observations that you think we’d benefit from hearing?
MARK: Will you come back and visit once we have a train stop?
MELISSA: Yes! I really want to see that train happen. I come back and visit fairly often anyway, even sans-train.
[If you enjoyed this, check out the rest of our Ypsi/Arbor Exit Interviews… And, no, I have no idea why she’s holding a jar of her own urine in that photo. If you see her at the Shadow, you should ask her.]