The benefits of community-engagement and actively supporting the arts are becoming more and more evident to a progressive business like Ypsilanti’s Bona Sera Restaurant. Annette Weathers, Bona Sera’s owner/manager, is proud to be a part of the community, and she recalls the steady impact that an event like First Fridays had on the local arts community in its infancy.
“Since we opened in 2012, there’s been a change that I think is only accelerating; there are a lot fewer closed storefronts down here, and more small businesses are coming in.” She is right. Over the last five years, businesses like Bona Sera, Beezy’s Café, Go Ice Cream, Red Rock and Ma Lou’s have brought renewed energy to the downtown area. More importantly, inventive or freshly offbeat enterprises like Bona Sera have made it part of their mission to support the arts and music.
Every Second Friday
Weathers, along with a vast group of Ypsilanti residents and business owners, sees a definite correlation between Ypsi’s resurgent art and music scene and the monthly First Fridays series. Bona Sera also recently started hosting monthly dance parties in their downstairs space, known as Bona Sera Underground. The series is run by the micro-philanthropy group Friends w/Benefits every second Friday of the month, raising funds for local nonprofits and charities.
Bona Sera inhabits a building that used to house the old Kresge Department Store, (and after that, the bygone Mongolian Grill). Their unique, ambiance-heavy downstairs space used to be The Keystone Club. “It was perfectly set up,” said Weathers, recalling when they started setting up for their 2012 opening, “(The Underground) already had this nice little lounge-y, martini bar look to it, with sort of a Prohibition-era vibe. That’s why people like to use it for events!”
The Underground is a unique venue with exposed brick archways, a large “U” shaped orange Formica bar, with a stage and PA system,” said Riva Jewell-Vitale, who manages Bona Sera’s events and catering. “We hold a variety of events in the space, which lends well to candlelit catered dinners and receptions, to performances and music shows.”
Wonder Woman and Bad Fairy
Bona Sera blossomed out of what was initially an underground supper club spearheaded by Weathers’ business partner, known locally under her alias Wonder Woman. Weathers herself took on the moniker of Bad Fairy when she began lending her two decades’ worth of culinary specialties to this fateful philanthropic venture of fundraising through community-bolstering, clandestine catering parties.
In 2013, after Bona Sera was getting into their groove, Deb Ennis started helping them initiate First Fridays and soon afterward, it really took off.
“First Friday’s came from both of us thinking of ways to encourage traffic to Ypsilanti and especially downtown,” said Weathers. “We also recognized the art, music and creativity of the community and thought First Fridays, as an Art Walk, would be the perfect way to showcase the many talents of Ypsilanti!”
While Weathers acknowledges that a void (in terms of steadily active live music venues) still lingers after the closing of Woodruffs Bar, she isn’t focused on pushing The Underground into anything that could replace it. It’s a space that can be booked, and is on many occasions, but isn’t a typical “venue.”
First Friday’s Beginnings
Elize Jekabson, program director of First Fridays and the curator of art at Bona Sera, just like Jewell-Vitale, is an artist. Jekabson came out of the sculpture program at EMU, while Jewell-Vitale has a background in metalwork; both are part of Ypsi Alloy Studios, where a community of artists each have their own studio space, but share common work areas and tools. While Jewell-Vitale has coordinated special events, dance parties and concerts in The Underground, Jekabson has been cooking at Bona Sera for almost four years and has served as volunteer-manager of the art shows there for just as long.
Those four years included Jekabson’s collaboration with Kayj Michelle, (president of First Fridays organization). “It’s all very connected,” Jekabson explained. Michelle moved back to Ypsi in 2010 after experiencing the expansive First Fridays event held in San Jose, CA. And after Deb Ennis stopped organizing, it was Michelle who took the leadership role at committee meetings.
“Bona Sera pushed hard for the art walk. (First Fridays) played a large part in their being able to stay afloat the first two years they were open before they could obtain their own liquor license,” said Michelle. Coupled with Bona Sera’s well-connected staff members, Michelle explained that the success of this art walk has really always been a product of intentional collaboration between the host venues.
“The core group of volunteer organizers for First Fridays in the beginning,” said Michelle, “were doing it out of the sheer need for showcase space in Ypsi. We have been short on supply with gallery space and music venues for some time. But Ypsi has also had this long history of being DIY, so the idea of (First Fridays) fit in very well, once people became familiar with it.”
This is why we’re spotlighting Bona Sera, Bona Sera Underground, and First Fridays – because the intertwined story of their respective efforts have helped a collective sensibility take hold throughout Ypsilanti. “Artists need space to work… especially 3D artists,” Jekabson said. “They need access to tools, they need critiques, they need a push from other artists. Spaces like Ypsi Alloy are few and far, nationwide.”
Spaces such as Bona Sera, are few and far, as well. “Bona Sera is important because it brings people together through food, art and music,” Jekabson said. “(They) have never asked for commission on work sold, which is almost unheard of in any art exhibition setting, so it really is for the artist.”
First Friday is sponsored by Bank of Ann Arbor and partners with Ypsi’s Riverside Arts Center; you can visit Bona Sera, Ypsi Alloy and several other local venues on July 7, starting at 11am. Also, in July, Bona Sera’s featured artist is Flint-based artist/sculptor Pauly M. Everett.