Creative Inspiration: The “UPsurge” in the Arts

upsurge in arts in MIs Upper Peninsula

Have you noticed how creativity is bubbling over through myriad arts endeavors throughout the U.P.? As Marquette Arts & Culture Center Director Tiina Harris explains, “If you don’t have anything to do, it means you’re not looking. There are a lot of really dynamic choices out there-everything from knitting, painting, and ceramic classes to more pop-up, learn-to-paint options-lots and lots of art opportunities, even metalsmithing.” Harris adds, “More community members are taking art classes, whether at the university or local art center. We have a strong tradition of painting, ceramics, and fiber arts but now the sector has expanded to include more film, graphic design, and the literary arts… Everything seems to be booming.”

This boom is woven into the fabric of U.P. communities.

47 North Belly Dance, a fusion belly dance troupe based in Houghton/Hancock, has swelled to include fifteen dancers from a start of three just four years ago. The troupe performs at all kinds of local venues, including half-time at local roller derby home shows. Co-leader Allison Mills says, “We’ve seen classes grow, but not nearly as much as our audience—they’re an explosion of positivity and enthusiasm!”

And how many communities with populations under 21,000 do you know of that not only have a city band, symphony, art museum, and chorale societies, but also a professional modern dance company? TaMaMa was founded in 2016 by Tara Middleton, Maggie Barch, and Marissa Marquardson to “create innovative movement-based art and integrate it into the community… pushing the boundaries of traditional dance.” TaMaMa has performed in art galleries, art festivals, even on rock walls and in busy downtown crosswalks, as well as more traditional venues such as the Forest Roberts Theatre, where they’ll perform “Collections” in early June.

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Photo from TaMaMa Dance Company

Those up for developing their own moves can check out new options with free classes by local instructors during the Blueberry Dance Festival. Held in late July, the Marquette festival also includes master dance classes, a professional dance performance, and a dance showcase and competition.

MACC Director Harris says, “People are desiring to get together and collaborate more, and do more—there’s a new Drink & Draw group meeting at local bars. The local knitting guilds have younger members now, so people in their 20s to 80s are knitting together. The Marquette Poet’s Circle is making its mark across the entire U.P. They have readings, exhibits, and are strong advocates for writers living in the U.P. They’re doing some really interesting projects connecting artists and poets together. Our senior arts classes have a waiting list – they never used to. We’ve added a senior theater class. Eight-twelve seniors attend local theater performances and rehearsals together. Many of those taking these classes have no previous experience in the arts or theatre. Retirees are looking for something to do…. The100DayProject has increased people’s desire to pick up a new creative habit or get back into an old one.” elaborates Harris.

Local theatre groups throughout the U.P. are performing at beautiful historic venues such as the Calumet Theatre, Negaunee ‘s Vista Theatre, and the Historic Ironwood Theatre, as well as more unusual ones, such as Marquette’s boathouse-turned-performance-venue Lake Superior Theatre, and Shakespeare and Wolf’s Head Theater productions at the Ore Dock Brewing Company. Escanaba’s Players de Noc recently advanced to the prestigious AACTFest Regional competition, and youth theatre is thriving in many parts of the U.P.

Originality, a tell-tale sign of a healthy arts scene, is also blossoming.

The Vista Theatre recently went beyond tried-and true favorites with a production of “The Brain Trust,” by local playwright Bill Hager. Cindy Engle, founder of online source MarquetteMusicScene.com, notes local bands are playing more of their own original tunes. She says the number of bands overall has increased too, as well as new venues for them with more coffee shops and restaurants having live music nights.

Original poetry is shared publicly in places such as The Preserve in Marquette. Original writing is encouraged at the Marquette Poet’s Circle’s monthly workshop and open mike nights, and at U.P. Poet Laureate Marty Achatz’s monthly poetry workshops at Ishpeming’s Joy Center.

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The center’s monthly Out Loud nights foster sharing of all kinds of creative forms. Owner Helen Haskell Remien also points out, “People appreciate when a visual art exercise is a component of a retreat — yoga retreat, energy-related retreat, writing retreat, coach-led retreat. It brings a deeper spiritual depth and meaning and context to the art.  And this seems to be desired by many.”

Remien adds, “Another desire among attendees has been art offerings for kids,” which Ishpeming resident Mark Hall has begun meeting through monthly art workshops for all age groups.

Amber Edmondson and Raja Howell’s book arts workshops at Joy Center have been so popular they are now bringing their vision to reality with a place of their own—Wild Pages in Ishpeming’s Historic Gossard Building, with art and writing supplies, workshops, and locally-created books and art.

In fact, Ishpeming is experiencing a bit of an arts renaissance, with artwork and art classes available at multiple locations—Nook ’n Cranny Art Studio and UPTown Gifts, which are also in the Gossard, Rare Earth Goods, which holds informal weekly music jams too, and Inspired Art & Gifts within Globe Printing.

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Feeding that artistic flame is imperative to keeping it burning brightly, and artists are doing just that at the Marquette Artist Collective, a new group which, as their website explains, welcomes all visual artists and “strives to support each others’ creativity and the arts in our community,” with twice-a-month gatherings, plus art shows in their downtown gallery, and other local spaces. And new art studios have also popped up along Marquette’s Third Street area, offering visitors glimpses of the art-making process, artwork for sale, and art classes.

In Munising, UP~Scale Art, owned and operated by the Munising Bay Arts Association, provides a cooperative option for local and regional artisans to exhibit and sell their art, a yearly internship program teaching the business side of art, and eventually, a range of workshops and art classes. More art can also be found at businesses throughout the area.

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The Calumet Theatre, a National Historic Landmark offering symphony, folk music, jazz, opera, theatre, dance, and community events, is bringing more big names to this intimate 700-seat venue, with five Grammy award winners and nominees performing there this year. New Executive Director Marlin Lee is passionate about making the theatre a go-to for outstanding performances, and utilizing his media marketing and independent concert promotion experience to bring in even more big name acts.

At Michigan Tech, the Rosza Center is focusing diligently to provide memorable, consistent programming for all ages so that “not just kids but the entire family can come together,” explains Programming and Development Director Mary Jennings. More events are being scheduled on the weekend too, so those from other parts of the U.P. can attend more easily.

In Ironwood, non-profit Downtown Art Place (DAP) worked hard to renovate its beautiful structure alongside the Historic Ironwood Theatre with help from dedicated volunteers, private donations, grant funding, and city government. Now in its seventh year, volunteer-run DAP exhibits juried displays of work from fifty to sixty regional artists, has a complete ceramics studio plus classroom space for an array of art classes, and provides the city’s lowest rental cost to 12 – 18 artists leasing art studios there. Board President Howard Sandin also notes an increase in the number of both artists and visitors DAP serves, with tourists from each state as well as other countries in the past year.

New art galleries have sprung up in town since DAP began. Ironwood is also home to Theatre North, the oldest still-functioning theatre group in MI, the Range Art Association, established in 1954, and emphasizes music in the schools, with HIT Idol run annually for youth by the Historic Ironwood Theatre with a guest judge from TV.

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Sandin notes, “There’s a tremendous economic benefit for any area with ongoing support for the arts. For every dollar spent, $8 – $10 comes back…. The city is smart enough to know there is a real benefit to having an active art culture downtown, and has helped make buildings available.

He elaborates, “After 5 p.m., downtown Ironwood used to be dead. It’s thriving now, with nine new businesses opening in the last year, including a brewery. There’s greater enthusiasm. It’s lively now.”

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U.P. communities are also coming to life with the addition of murals. “CUPPAD (Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development) received an Art Place grant to help create murals in the U.P.,” says Harris. “There are three or four in Iron Mountain, one in Manistique, and more in the works in Gladstone and Munising. There has been interest in Marquette as well.”

In addition to the numerous long-running arts festivals already established throughout the U.P., new ones are further livening things up—Forestville, a craft beer and music festival at the Forestville Trailhead in Marquette is now in its fourth year with almost double its initial attendance; the Upper Peninsula Shakespeare Festival and Calumet’s Dam Jam Music Festival, both also founded in 2015; Fresh Coast and 41 North annual film festivals; and five-year-old Arts Week in Marquette.

“The initial idea for Arts Week was to showcase local artists and provide opportunities for the community to participate in free and low cost art experiences outdoors,” says MACC Director Harris. “The City of Marquette contributes $1,500 plus staff time as well as revenue from the sale of ads in our program. Yet, Art Week leverages over $15,000 investment through events coordinated by groups such as Pine Mountain Music Festival, Hiawatha Music Co-op, Marquette City Band, and countless others.

People want an opportunity to experiment with something new.

The level of participation in Art Stroll has skyrocketed with 38 participating businesses this year, up from 20 when we started. There are more signature events during Arts Week now too, such as the Fresh Coast Plein Air Painting Festival,” explains Harris. “The idea is to get people outside to enjoy the natural environment Marquette has to offer. It’s an opportunity not only for artists but also for art appreciators to watch a painting happen in real time.  Now in its third year, the Painting Festival has grown and received over $5,000 in sponsorships.

There are more artist-in-residencies throughout the U.P. now also, including in Munising, Marquette, and Mackinac Island, along with long-established ones in the Porcupine Mountains and Rabbit Island. This will be the second year for Evolve MQT’s Creative Residency made possible through the Marquette Chamber of Commerce and the Michigan Film and Digital Media Office. “This year we welcomed a woodcarver, writer, and photographer. All three are well-respected in their fields,” says MACC Director Harris. “Our hope is that they share their experiences of living and working as creatives here in Marquette with the rest of the world, and connect and work with local artists too.”

Harris continues, “This area always has been a cool place to live, but now more than ever… and with that there are more creative people… I think you’re seeing more young people moving here. A recent study shows young people are moving for quality of life first rather than jobs leading their decision. I think we’ve all met people who’ve moved here because it’s an interesting place and then they try to find out how to make a living here. It’s made easier through technology and working from home.

The arts are “a bigger leader than outdoor recreation and growing faster than many industries in the U.S.,” explains Harris.

“This can be seen throughout statewide and local marketing efforts.  Travel Marquette released a video last year featuring artisans and makers, and how the U.P. inspires their work. There’s also been more support from local government. The City of Marquette gives annually to public art. Ironwood is working on an arts and culture master plan. Munising integrates public art projects throughout the downtown, and Iron Mountain recently welcomed several murals into theirs. I think that will soon be the norm in the U.P. – municipalities participating in public art, and supporting arts and culture.”

Arts in the U.P. are also benefiting by connecting across the miles. U.P. Arts & Culture Alliance (UPACA) “hosts meet-n-greets across the U.P. to hear what what’s important to people,” explains Harris, who is also chair of the non-profit. “With representatives from almost all fifteen counties, this very new group is sharing resources, connecting creatives, and advocating for the arts in the U.P.”

State and regional connections led to Escanaba’s Bonifas Arts Center’s application to host an exhibit of early American paintings from the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Manoogian Collection, which occurred last year. And experts through novices from throughout the U.P. and beyond come together to share and learn valuable information at the U.P. Publishers & Authors Association’s Spring Conference, and through their newsletter and Google forum. Out of this has come the U.P. Reader series, showcasing U.P. authors’ work.

“The U.P. has a strong tradition of arts and culture—it’s growing and it’s changing, but it’s always been there,” adds Harris.

There have been periods when the arts have been invested in more than others.  I think we’re at a high point right now, because we understand the impact arts make on both our quality of life and economy. Whether it’s an illustration on a locally crafted can of beer, or reading a book by a local author, the arts are an integral part of our daily lives.”

Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2019 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, copyright 2019. All rights reserved.

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