Ah, to stroll again. Too soon to soak up rays, perfect to soak in our town’s radiant art scene. Arts Alliance, the Washtenaw County non-profit that promotes the county’s arts, represents more than 60 galleries and studios that stretch from Ypsilanti to the east to Dexter to the west and Saline in the south. Many of the finest venues are within easy walking distance from each other in contiguous Ann Arbor areas—“downtown,” “west side,” and “Kerrytown” as well as the University of Michigan Main Campus. Take a leisurely afternoon or spend seven days in May to check them out.
On Main Street within blocks of each other are 16 Hands, the Selo/Shevel Gallery, WSG, and the Clay Gallery. 16 Hands opened in 1975 as a co-operative of eight artists (totaling, thank goodness, sixteen hands). It had a very successful 13 year run on Washington before they moved around the corner to Main. I was young back then and a big fan. I still have eight shot glasses, each made of a different kind of exotic wood by Glen Ernst. Only one coffee mug is left from the original six I collected, and I can’t make out the name on the bottom, but it’s now my son’s favorite drinking cup. And I’m sorry to say that some years ago I lost a most cherished multi-wood bonded clipboard by Pat Thurkow. The good news I found researching this article is that Pat Thurkow is still making them and selling them at 16 Hands in their “new” store on Main. But not new for long. The lease is up in July and they will be moving to an as yet unknown location. They will be shifting their focus to jewelry, hats and scarves, wedding and birthday gifts with less of an emphasis on lighting and furniture. Of course, they will retain their amazing collection of cards for all occasions. 734.761.1110.
A few dozen steps away at Main and Liberty is the Selo/Shevel Gallery. Selo/Shevel is a remarkable piece of living, breathing Ann Arbor history. Partners Elaine Selo and Cynthia Shevel opened a head shop called Middle Earth in 1967 in a second floor space next to the State Theater. Incense, posters, black lights, the whole bit. I remember it but only vaguely. I think you had to walk through strings of beads hanging in the doorway. It was a long time ago. In the mid 70s Middle Earth greatly expanded and moved to its current location on South University, less a head shop but still a counter culture redoubt. That’s a pretty long time ago too, and it’s still going strong. Then, in 1982, with Middle Earth still flourishing, the girls opened up a second shop, Selo/Shevel, as an upscale and now award-winning gallery featuring American crafts and folk art from around the world (named one of the top 10 galleries in America). They feature blown glass, ceramics, woodwork, wearable textiles and now, exclusive in this region of the country, the dazzling jewelry of Alex Sepkus. I was struck by their really lovely and distinctive array of mezuzahs – the things containing excerpts of the Torah that Jews put on the entranceways of their homes. I don’t do mezuzahs, but if I were to try one or buy one as a gift, that’s where I’d head. My wife and I got a mobile at S/S a few years ago and it still hangs from the ceiling of our card room. Maybe it’s not an original Calder, but pretty close and we love it. And it cost 12,000 less. Not 12,000 dollars less. 12,000 times less. 734.761.4620.
A block west on Liberty is the hallowed Ann Arbor Art Center (see the special article on page 9). If you think Middle Earth (1967), or 16 Hands (1975) is old, the Art Center first opened in 1909. That’s even before my time.
Almost exactly across Main from Selo/Shevel is the WSG Gallery, one of my favorites. I tease them that their name reminds me of DSW Warehouse because DSW is short for Designer Shoe Warehouse and WSG is short for Washington Street Gallery (where they used to be until a few years ago). This is the 12th year for WSG, voted Ann Arbor’s “number one” gallery, and it is a co-op showcase for top local talent. It also hosts visiting regional artists and special exhibits which rotate every six weeks. Opening this month is a show, “Seasons,” by Her Honor, Elizabeth R. Schwartz. Liz is a lawyer and former judge who long ago put down the gavel and picked up the palette and brush. Her abstract paintings are inspired by, and evocative of, nature and nature’s cycles and rhythms. Her work is perennially represented in the Michigan Fine Arts Competition and part of leading corporate and private collections. “Seasons” will have its opening reception on May 13. When I was an economizing student I liked openings for the free wine and cheese. Now it’s for the joy of meeting artists and other art lovers. See you there. 734.761.2287.
Almost literally a hop, skip and jump away on Main is the Clay Gallery. The Clay showcases the remarkable ceramic work (functional and decorative) of its members, all leading local artists. There are also special exhibits by guest artists, this month the nationally renowned Elizabeth Lurie. Her functional porcelain pieces are exquisite and though contemporary in appearance, they have a timeless feel to them. Also on display this month is a storewide garden show celebrating spring. Outdoor planters, birdbaths, vases, wall pieces and jardinières (the fancy word for ornamental flower pots). Sure, you can get cement bunnies and angels at Lowes and Home Depot, but if you want real, unique, collectable artwork on your terrace or in the backyard, this is the place. I think my favorite right now is the work of Marcia Polenberg, child bride of UM School of Art and Design Professor Emeritus, Ted Ramsay. Her whimsical bunnies and piggies are striking at first, then surreal, then, well, sort of personal, like pets. 734.662.7927.
Just around the corner and a block down on Fifth Avenue is the Ann Arbor District Library. Beginning May 4, the AADL is proudly hosting the national traveling exhibit “Benjamin Franklin: In Search of a Better World.” Scientist, inventor, diplomat, humorist, founder of America’s lending libraries, and one of the principal Founding Fathers of America itself, Franklin only gets more endearing the more you know him. Honoring his 300th birthday, the exhibit is 1,000 square-feet of colorful, freestanding photo panels in six sections. It depicts Franklin’s youth, self-education, his philosophical and religious beliefs, his entrepreneurial success as Philadelphia’s leading printer, and his prodigious output in science, medicine and public health, all of which made him one of the preeminent celebrities of the Enlightenment and of all times. As if his contributions to the Declaration of Independence and Constitution weren’t enough! When you consider the buffoons and morons, the petty, greedy, superstitious rabble who are running America today it is both heartening and depressing to realize that the immortal Fathers who founded our young and fragile country were, quite literally, geniuses. Make sure you bring your kids. Stay gold, America.