Around the country, several communties have what are referred to as First Friday events, where, on the first Friday of each month, various venues coordinate new art installations and the like, encouraging people to come out, stroll between them, etc. Well, for the past several months, things have been ramping up locally, and, this past Sunday morning, representatives from First Fridays Ypsilanti received a grant from the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation for $1,000 so that they could push things even further. Following is my conversation with organizers Kayj Michelle, Elize Jekabson (pictured above) and Caleb Zweifler.
MARK: To start with, what can you tell me about how First Fridays came to Ypsi? Had one of you, perhaps, been to a First Fridays event elsewhere?
KAYJ: I lived in downtown San Jose, California for five years before moving back to Ypsi in 2010. San Jose has an internationally celebrated First Fridays Art Walk circuit, which primarily runs during the summer months. And, when I moved back to Ypsi, I started coordinating art shows at the Ugly Mug Cafe & Roastery. The shows rotated on a monthly basis, with openings taking place at the beginning of each month, so there was a little ground work that had already been laid. But things really started to come together when Bona Sera got involved. They were really pushing to get others involved and brand the whole thing as a First Fridays event.
CALEB: The person pushing it at Bona Sera was Deb Ennis. I’m fairly certain she’d heard of the concept from her boss, and she decided to run with it. She started making her way around town, talking with people at other local businesses, like B-24’s and Bowerbird Mongo, in hopes of getting wider involvement from the community. From there, it was kind of a networking chain reaction. That’s what sparked it, though.
ELIZE: The owners of Bona Sera, Barb and Annette, were inspired by art walks in larger cities, where they’d lived in the past, and they really wanted to involve the community and get art on their walls. They started hosting art shows at Bona Sera, and put Deb Ennis in charge of curating them, which she did so with enthusiasm until November of 2013, when she no longer had the time to devote to it. At that point, Deb asked if she could pass the torch to me. She, Barb and Annette had built a strong foundation. They’d gotten the name out there. And, in December 2013, we started getting more organized, and communicating more closely between venues.
CALEB: The essential formula centers around a business venue collaborating with local artists to cross-promote one another. Typically, this means that local art will be brought in to occupy vacant wallspace of said venue – whether that be paintings, illustrations, photography, fiber art, or maybe even something sculptural, if there’s space for it. This is usually accompanied by a performance of some kind. It could be music, poetry, or even stand-up comedy. So, you have these “typical” ingredients, but the end-results can vary dramatically. This gives the curators freedom to experiment, and it gives the art-crawlers a lot to choose from when First Friday comes around.
KAYJ: I think it’s important to also highlight that we aim to have the First Friday events free and open to the public. They’re also open to all-ages. Depending on the venue, and how they choose to participate, what you see from space to space could be drastically different. We currently have six venues rotating artwork, or hosting art talks and workshops. And, as Caleb mentioned, each pairs art of some kind with a performer, or a group of performers. First Fridays in Ypsilanti is being used as a platform for local folks of all kinds to showcase their talents. The number of venues is relatively small right now, but we’re able to host a pretty broad range of things, in spite of that.
MARK: Might any of the vacant storefronts in town be somehow incorporated?
KAYJ: Yes. Ypsilanti City Planner Teresa Gillotti is currently working on finding a vacant storefront in downtown where we could set up a pop-up market for that one day. We have yet to find a cooperating space, but it’s something that we’re actively seeking out.
MARK: What’s your vision for this market?
KAYJ: Some venues aren’t located right next to each other – there’s either a block or two of residential houses, non-participating storefronts, or vacant storefronts – and we have a few different ideas as to how we might fill the art walk circuit. One of those ideas would be to have a one day pop-up market in a vacant storefront. A market inside vacant storefront wouldn’t just increase the venue spaces for the FFY art walk, but the owners of the spaces would be able to show it as a viable retail location at the same time the art is on display. The pop-up market, as we’re envisioning it, would host local/regional crafters similar to what you’d find at art events like Shadow Art Fair or DIYpsi.
MARK: What kind of turnout have you been getting for First Friday events thus far?
KAYJ: The turnout has been good to great, especially since the FFY committee formed last fall and we’ve been meeting and communicating on a regular basis. From my vantage point at the Ugly Mug, I’ve noticed more movement, with people making their rounds to other FFY events, which is awesome.
ELIZE: We’ve been have amazing turnouts at Bona Sera. Not too long ago, we started getting temporary liquor licenses for our First Fridays events. Everyone loves food, art and booze! Because I also cook at Bona Sera, I don’t get to do the art crawl myself, much less look up from the cutting board during the event, but the feedback I get has been extremely positive! I can look out the window and see people running back and forth between Bona Sera and Beezys. It’s great to see.
CALEB: It waxes and wanes throughout the night, as people hop between the different locations, but the cafe always fills up for the performances. And, considering the brutality of the winter this year, our attendance has actually been pretty astounding. I expect we’ll be attracting even more art crawlers as the warmer weather approaches.
MARK: Do you act as matchmakers, putting artists in touch with people representing these various venues, or are the venues responsible for finding their own artists, etc?
ELIZE: As of right now, we each represent a different venue. Sometimes, we think the art would be represented better at a different venue within FFY, and we refer the representative of that venue to the particular artist. We help eachother out in organizing artists at all the venues if need be.
KAYJ: The FFY committee meets once a month to give feedback on the most recent event and discusses future plans. This is when we share whether or not we might need an artists, or if we learn about an artist who might be interested in participating. Right now it’s a loose process. It’s spelled out on our Facebook page, if people are interested. We’ve got contact information for the point person at each venue, etc.
MARK: You mentioned workshops….
KAYJ: Yes, FLY Childrens Art Center is one of the FFY venues. They participate in the evening by hosting workshops instead of displaying a monthly art showcase. In the past they’ve led interactive workshops. Among other things, they’d had kids making their own trading cards, and cigar box purses. And, for our March 7th event, the Arts Alliance will be hosting a presentation at FLY, a Creative Connections event which will involve people making art!
MARK: How will you be spending the $1,000 Awesome Foundation grant?
KAYJ: First of all, I have to say I am very excited to answer this question! We’re going to spend the grant on getting a webpage added to the Ypsilanti Art Incubator (YAI) website (FFY is organized under YAI), hiring a graphic designer for our logo and branding, and promoting the FFY event info in neighboring communities outside of Ypsilanti. We’re figuring out a plan for sustaining the FFY program economically. The economic structure of our costs of running FFY is unclear, but the grant is allowing us to look at options for one-time start-up fees (such as setting up the webspace we can maintain ourselves).
MARK: What are each of your backgrounds, and how did each of you come to be living in Ypsi?
CALEB: I have a BFA from Eastern with a concentration on drawing. I drew cartoons for the Eastern Echo while in college, and, since graduation, I’ve been dishwolfing at Beezy’s, while doing freelance illustration. Like Elize, I’ve been a part of the Ypsilanti Art Incubator from the outset and began curating the First Fridays shows at Beezy’s back in October of last year.
KAYJ: I grew up in Ypsilanti public schools and graduated from Washtenaw Community College with an Associates in Photography in 2004. I then moved out to San Jose, California to live and work for five years. In California, I served two years of Americorps (City Year & Public Allies) and landed a Program Coordinator position at a non-profit serving women & families who were at-risk or currently homeless. While I lived in San Jose, I organized an art collective (Community Rebirth) which hosted on-going bi-monthly events focusing on networking opportunities for live painters. I moved back to Ypsi in 2010 to be closer with family and got plugged into the creative scene, collaborating with projects and events as I much as I could. I haven’t stopped.
ELIZE: I grew up in Dexter. I completed my Culinary Arts degree at Washtenaw Community College in 2008, and ended up moving to Ypsilanti and worked until I finally decided to take the leap and get my Bachelors of Fine Arts in Sculpture at EMU. I finished this past spring, and got more involved in the community. My first involvement with First Fridays was as a guest curator for the Honey Bee Festival in September, 2013. I’ve been involved with the Ypsilanti Art Incubator since its birth. I currently cook at Bona Sera, and I work in my art studio during my free time.
MARK: How has the First Fridays in Ypsilanti evolved since it’s launch, and how do you see it changing in the future?
KAYJ: I see FFY still in it’s infancy stage, not to slight any of the work, time, or energy put into the effort thus far. I say that to highlight the amount of growth I see possible. Ypsilanti Art Incubator is an amazing effort which has taken to partnering up with Riverside Art Center (RAC). I see the monthly art walk spreading into Riverside Park and reaching into our beloved Depot Town via RAC. Did you know that the staircase that connects the RAC parking lot to Riverside Park was built with the intention to connect the Downtown and Depot Town area? I see that in the future, but we have a lot of work to do before we get there. I have a dream to connect the two parts of downtown with art and excited community members. In fact, I think it’s something that will push Ypsilanti into it’s next economic rising. Also, on a more immediate note, I want to see more Ypsilanti community members being directly involved with the event. We have a diverse city and it’s not yet reflected in the art walks as much as it could be.
CALEB: One area for development I see is that there’s seems to be a subtle disconnect between Eastern’s campus and Ypsilanti itself. It’d be really great to establish a bridge, potentially between the First Fridays venues and EMU’s Art Department. There are opportunities for us to cultivate art students and we’d love to get more foot-traffic from the campus crowd.
MARK: What have you learned about your community as a result of First Fridays?
KAYJ: I mentioned earlier about the staircase at the RAC, which I learned about from Mayor Schreiber during a YAI meeting. That staircase represents a lot to me, and demonstrates that I still have a lot to learn. I was raised in Ypsi, but I know there are more past efforts for community building to learn about, many of which we may be able to revisit. On another note, I’ve learned that there’s a lot of support for our efforts in developing the monthly art walk. This support is in the form of volunteers, participants, in funding (Awesome Foundation!), venues, City officials, and more volunteers.
CALEB: I think it’s been validating to see that the community really does have an interest in local artists, and, furthermore, that they really enjoy experiencing their work in person. It’s been inspiring to see the impact art and music can have when it’s happening right there in front of you, as opposed to digested in a media deluge on a computer or smartphone. And I think that dynamic definitely hinges on accessibility… many people don’t know where to go to discover new art in their communities. That’s why First Fridays has been such a great tool to rejuvenate the first-hand relationship between the artist and the audience.
[If you have an awesome idea that could be realized for $1,000, let us know. Grant deadlines are on the last day of each month.]