Driving into Grand Rapids on I-196 from the east, it’s hard to miss the massive mural depicting city founder Louis Campau and civic leader Charles Belknap. It’s been a fixture since the early ’80s. The painting, along with the Brass Works Building mural on Monroe Avenue, was once among only a handful of murals to adorn the city’s landmarks. With the introduction of ArtPrize in 2009, that number grew, creating a more vibrant downtown and plenty of Insta-worthy shots.
But it wasn’t until more recently that the city has begun to explode with sweeping, large- and small-scale artwork — on walls, streets, alleyways, electrical boxes, and more. Lions & Rabbits owner Hannah Berry’s vison for art equity is one of the driving forces of this surge.
Gallery, education center, artists’ hub, and event space, Lions & Rabbits makes its home on Plainfield Avenue in the Creston District, where a number of initiatives have begun over the past couple of years.
Looking to integrate her arts education degree into public art, Berry connected with Kim Van Driel, director of public space management for Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. (DGRI). Van Driel invited Berry to paint the Movies on Monroe parking lot, a project that spiraled into several new and future projects that will beautify — and edify — the city for years to come.
“Art equity is all about what neighborhoods are lacking with regard to tax financing and how it’s spent,” Berry said. “With these projects, I can showcase art as an economic driver for these business districts.”
Rad American Women, sparked by the book Rad American Women A-Z, was the next project to evolve from the collaboration between Berry and DGRI. For the 2019 undertaking to honor Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, they commissioned 27 local, female-identifying artists to paint portraits of influential women on mechanical boxes all around downtown. From Angela Davis to Maya Lin to Zora Neale Hurston, each depiction brings attention to women trailblazers and transforms utility into inspiration.
One of DGRI’s goals is public art, public placemaking and space activation. And, for 2020, they again wanted to commemorate not only Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day, but also the 100th Anniversary of the U.S. Constitution’s 19th Amendment. This gave American women the right to vote.
Van Driel and DRGI hired Lions & Rabbits — and teamed with Grand Rapids Women’s History Council — to realize their idea of Women’s Way, an alley activation project designed to memorialize Grand Rapids’ women leaders while also enhancing prominent alleyways.
“We decided to name these private alleys after women and the responsibility of women to take back ownership of streets,” Berry said. “Making these alleyways safe for women, through women, is a way to honor all women.”
The first four alleyways are:
- Harriet Woods Hill Way, near Grand Rapids Police Department headquarters, named for the first Black woman officer at GRPD.
- Grand Rapids Chicks Way, behind Auto Fixit Shop, named for the 1945 All-American Girls Professional Baseball League team.
- Ethel Coe Way, near 20 Monroe Live, named for the community activist, performer and civil rights leader.
- Angeline Kelsey "Naw Kay o say" Yob Way, near The Apartment Lounge, named for the community activist and Citizen of the Grand Rapids Bands of Ottawa Indians.
The project is planned to expand to other areas across the city, with the next set already in the works.
Along with downtown, other neighborhoods are also becoming awash with murals, including Creston, West Side, Michigan Street, and Southtown, through Lions & Rabbits’ After Dark GR initiative, which is financially supported by state grant dollars and matched by the MEDC and Patronicity. With After Dark GR, Berry strengthens the goal of giving a voice to local artists, creating local economic development through art, and showcasing why funding should be allocated toward the arts. This year, 44 artists are involved, representing the ZIP codes they call home.
And though most have been re-homed or auctioned off, the racial justice murals that covered broken windows on Monroe Center are also of significance and yet another initiative by Hannah Berry, in partnership with CWD, the owner of the damaged buildings. Artists were moved to participate in the project as a way to express themselves, call for racial equality and encourage dialogue about serious issues. One of those works, by local artist Kristin Zuller, now hangs at Lions & Rabbits, which can be visited by appointment.
Asia Horne, local DJ and one of the founders of Element 7, nudged Kristin to get involved. “It was an opportunity to be challenged, with the root of the cause being to amplify voices of color following the protests, and as a way to be seen and heard; to express the raw emotion surrounding what is happening in America right now,” Zuller said. “My work for Open Windows, We Are Deathless, was inspired by the song ‘Deathless’ by singing duo Ibeyi. I felt it was the perfect anthem to how I felt then and now.”
Whether static or fleeting, these murals are a way to not only beautify the city, but also promote conversation, bring community awareness to social and cultural issues, and elevate art and artists.
Women's Way mural. PHOTO COURTESY OF ERIKA TOWNSLEY PHOTOGRAPHY
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