RETROSPECTIVE: Ann Arbor Street Art Fair A Unique Opportunity For Artists

Lauren Austin's art incorporates photos of seven generations of her family going back to the days before the abolition of slavery.

In retrospect the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair on its face is intended to achieve a few simple goals; give artists a venue for making a living from their craft, provide fair-goers an opportunity to purchase works of art for their home decor or even private collections, or at least provide an opportunity for the public to simply enjoy art like one might in a gallery setting.

But after talking to artists on the ground at this past weekend’s Ann Arbor Art Fair, it became apparent that each artist comes with much loftier goals in mind. To talk to some of the dozens of artists who set up shop throughout Ann Arbor each summer in July, is to come to an understand that there’s a much deeper transaction between those who visit art fairs and those who bring their craft and handiwork out into the public in this incredibly intimate format.

“I love looking at people’s faces, the lines and the shapes,” wood sculptor Alec LaCasse shares while perusing the hunks of timber he’s shaped into various faces with his sculptor’s tools. There are fantastical looking tree faces, wizened old men with a lifetime’s worth of wrinkles, Native Americans with visages of stern peacefulness, and everything in between.

If you look closely, you might notice a familiar feature or two in one of the sculptures, each of which is a medley that is as much reality as it is imagination.

“People are interesting, so when someone is walking around and stop to watch me carve a piece, they don’t know it, but I’m watching them too,” Leonard confessed. “They’re my models. They might only be there for a moment, but it’s enough to borrow a feature that’s interesting. I’ll see a nose or a cheek and think, ‘I’m putting that in here.'”

Somewhat of an introverted and unfocused youth, Leonard started carving wood at the behest of his mother after she bought him a wood carving kit. Intended to teach him to focus on everything, it was a bullseye upon something that he couldn’t help but focus on and continue doing so for the remainder of his life until the present, and probably beyond.

“Your face is an index of your attitude and your personality … that’s the thing about faces, working with them is a very social thing. I put all of that energy that goes into developing socially into carving as a kid, so through my art I developed social skills,” Leonard said, crediting what he learns about people through his creative process as much as simply being out among people representing his art and his craft.

Duane Scherer creates his finger and spin painted clocks in from a visual reel playing in the back of his head that projects thoughts and images from the 70s, 80s, and beyond.

A musician and artist since the late 70s, Duane Scherer, of Lathrup Village, doesn’t necessarily get his ideas and inspiration from the crowd around him, but by making his eclectic collection of colorful and uniquely shaped clocks affordable to virtually anyone, he sells a bunch of them and he’s always on the lookout for people coming up to him to share a story involving a loved one buying them one of his clocks or a story about they themselves buying it years ago and still having it up on their wall ticking away.

“The cool thing about clocks is that they sit in someone’s house — they’re a centerpiece,” Scherer explained. “I decided early on that I want my art to be accessible to as many people as possible, because when I make them I’m using all of my art training and my ideas, and I wanted it to be in a functional form.”

Having been a professional musician backing up 70s and 80s stars like Cyndi Lauper and playing in the shadow of greats like David Bowie, who he takes his professional and life philosophy of taking wild chances from, Scherer blasts his clock art with a mind-spray of ideas in batches he he creates in an artistic and manufacturing fugue state where the images in his head must be translated into shapes and color combinations in clock form.

“Quite a few people tell me that they’re buying one of my clocks because it reminds them of their childhood, I had a couple in Pittsburg come up to me and tell him a story about how their daughter was in vacation in Hawaii and bought one of my clocks for them for their anniversary, and here in Ann Arbor I had a young couple buy a clock who are getting ready to go off from school and get married,” Scherrer said. “They said it will be a part of their collection wherever they go.

“I like to think it’ll be hanging on their wall when they’re in their 60s well into their marriage.”

Even Lauren Austin’s business cards that she hands out to many fair-goers are each varied, high-quality pieces of art that she let’s people choose from, making note of the choice being made each time.

Lauren Austin attended the art fair for the first time this year, having attended it many times over the years.

For Austin, her artwork is deeply personal in nature. Through photographic manipulation she pulls figures out of seven generations worth of her family photos and makes them the human element of a wide range of colorful and fantastical works of fiber art.

Each piece grabs your attention with a combination of realism positioned in often surrealist landscapes, like one painting where Austin’s grandparents and their daughter, who originally posed on the steps of their new home in 1924, stand proudly in front of a bright red, blue, and yellow building with an upwardly wispy African bottle tree off to the right side.

“In African American culture the bottle tree is really important … when you build your first house, you put in a bottle tree to confuse bad thoughts and spirits so they don’t go into your house,” she explained. When creating art around her own family photos, she tries to accentuate the culture and history of her African American heritage through the lens of her precious family history.

Austin also can be commissioned to work with other people’s family photos to create similar art, as long as she is provided with some context or idea to go on, and providing personal materials like buttons or cloth items go a long way to enrich what she produces for other people.

Sharing her own family history through her art gives her an incredible respect for what materials are brought to her for commission work, as evidenced by talking to her about how she views the pieces that flow out from her own family albums.

“That one is my grandmother with my aunt Barbara, my father’s sister, it’s called Purple Baby Girl … I just love the pride her face about the baby,” Austin beams. “My grandmother had a Browning camera and she took pictures of everything in her life and put them into albums, so that’s why my pictures go back seven generations.

“I have a picture of my grandfather’s grandmother, who was born into slavery. It was like two years before emancipation, and in the picture that I have, she is 92 years old and posing with [grandfather] Sammy Lester in her lap.”

Austin pauses for a moment and thinks: “I haven’t had the courage to put that on in an art piece yet, but I will someday. What I work from is a treasure.”

For Austin her artwork transcends memory. Each one blends authentic humanity with visual iconography that delivers an artistic message on an intimate personal level.

When folks walk away with a piece of her art, they also walk away with a tool for understanding different people from different times.

“I have a picture of my dad with his cohort and my father is wearing a suit and he’s really sharp looking … when people see that they ask me who are these people and wonder if they had money,” Austin explained. “No. That’s just how people dressed and black people dressed, and that was surprising to most people, so my work does a little education about the history of black people. Even if they lived in poverty, they had good clothes and went out and had their picture taken once a year.

“Sometimes black people come up and say, ‘I have a photo like this,’ and I tell them that it needs to be on a wall and not in a box, so people can see and understand that we have this varied past and varied present.”

Austin concluded by saying that she’s excited to disseminate her family and community’s history and culture with every piece of art that visitors bought this year and will buy in years to come, and she’s looking forward to seeing how much broader her understanding and worldview can become through the family history that comes her way from the community’s photo albums that she’s commissioned to work on.

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