“Mantis on Mushroom” by Jerry Bahls
By Katrina Moore
After being canceled last year due to COVID-19, ArtPrize is back and bringing 995 artists along with it. Three of these submissions are currently on display outdoors at Grand Rapids Community College, on the south end of the Juan R. Olivarez Student Plaza.
GRCC’s Visual Arts Department Head Nick Antonakis curated the pieces for GRCC’s venue. When asked how he selected the pieces that are currently being showcased on campus, Antonakis replied, “Artists apply to venues where they would like to exhibit their artworks. This year, due to Covid we decided it would be best to offer an outdoor venue only. This of course limited the number of entries we received to outdoor sculptures and installations. I curated our exhibition by looking for artworks that exhibited artistic skill and used materials in an interesting and competent way. At the same time I looked for artworks that are able to communicate an idea or a story to the audience.”
Among these displays of art, there is a praying mantis resting on a mushroom. The piece titled “Mantis On Mushroom” is by Jerry Bahls, a retired chemist. “Mantis On Mushroom” was crafted entirely from buckthorn wood, which Bahls works with exclusively. In an interview, he expressed his appreciation for the beauty of the colors and the feel of the wood.
“It’s a very beautiful wood,” he said. “The inner core of the wood is very reddish, and towards the outside it’s almost yellowish, so it’s kind of a range from yellow to red or orange.”
“It’s got a very nice feel to it, and that’s one of the things that attracts me to it,” continued Bahls. “The other thing is it’s an invasive species, and I’m kind of an environmentalist and I want to figure out some way to get rid of it, because it really chokes off the undergrowth and prevents anything else from growing up. So my plan is to make it so valuable to artists that they’ll come in the middle of the night and cut it out and take it home.”
Bahls didn’t do any woodworking before he had retired, because he “didn’t have the time before.” So when Bahls’ family chose to have a spending limit on their Christmas gifts unless they wanted to make something themselves, Bahls decided to create “Mantis On Mushroom” for his daughter. It was finished last October and delivered to Michigan last May. When asked why the statue is of a mantis, Bahls simply said it was what his daughter wanted, so that’s what he made.
Bahls said he finds woodworking to be very satisfying.
“When you do something and it turns out reasonably good,… it just makes me feel good. It’s also the process, planning it out, I’m a bit of an engineer at heart, so you kind of have to figure out what it’s going to look like, how you put it together, is it gonna stay together.”
“Good Breeding Stock” by Niarus Walker
By Colin Hubbell
St. Croix artist, Niarus Walker, created art inspired by trauma and resilience with her 2021 ArtPrize submission “Good Breeding Stock,” located in Grand Rapids Community College’s Dr. Juan R. Olivarez Student Plaza.
One of Walker’s most recent pieces entitled “Good Breeding Stock” can be found on display in the Juan R. Olivarez Student Plaza. The pair of statues depict two figures, both half cattle and half human breaking a chain. The statues compare the forced breeding of male and female African slaves to that of senepol cattle, a type of cow known from Walker’s home of St. Croix.
It was important to Walker that there was a female and male statue in order to show “this did not happen with the males alone, women were obviously involved in this trauma as well.”
While the artwork references slavery, Walker hopes people see their own life experiences, trauma, and personal enslavement in the piece. She said she wants people to find their own personal meaning regardless of their background, and that through acknowledging personal trauma, healing can take place.
“Good Breeding Stock” is made from recycled coax cables, some of which were picked up directly from destruction left behind from Hurricane Maria. When the storm hit in 2017, Walker said she had a feeling as though there was little she could do to help her traumatized community in their time of need. However, Walker eventually realized that through her art she could make a difference for the St, Croix community. Walker went around picking up the cables after hearing a calling to do so, and the project began. After getting permission to do so, months of collecting cables ensued, and in 2018, the male figure had been completed within eight days.
However, upon considering entering the statues into ArtPrize, Walker wanted to refine her work with cables. During this period of refinement, Walker was faced with the hard choice of either using recycled rebar for reinforcement or keeping the project purely telephone lines at a cost to its stability. Ultimately, Walker would introduce recycled rebar into the project and continue work from May to August. When the project was completed, there stood two figures made out of cable and rebar.
Although “Good Breeding Stock” includes statues, Walker largely considers herself a painter that dabbles in multiple mediums. Art has always been a part of her life ever since she was a young girl sculpting with the clay in the riverbanks.
“Art is the way I see the world,” Walker said, explaining that she often sees objects in their shape, textures, colors, and positive or negative spaces.
Artistic expression is the way she feels she can communicate, especially on topics she must speak out on, even if it is emotionally taxing. For Walker, the hardest part of making art is the emotional toll it can take on her.
“People work really hard and really put a lot of emotional selves into their work,” she said.
Currently, Walker, who received an ArtPrize grant, is working on multiple vanitas pieces. Vanitas can be described as a type of artwork that highlights the brevity and importance of life. However, one thing is for sure, Walker is a risk taker who enjoys the challenge of a new medium or genre. She almost always has multiple projects in the pipeline, despite being a mother and art teacher in St. Croix. To see more of Walker’s past and future works you can visit her website or Instagram page.
“Instant Classic” by Liz Albert and Shane VanOosterhout
By Angelina Jahn
Michigan natives and childhood best friends Liz Albert and Shane VanOosterhout have come together to create “Instant Classic,” an ArtPrize installation piece showcasing discarded polaroids that were collected and captioned with phrases the artists have written – some taken from their childhood diaries.
Albert, a lens-based artist, began her love for physical photography with her own family negatives along with home videos. She later went on to graduate with a BFA in photography from the University of Michigan, alongside Vanoosterhout who also graduated with a BFA, with a focus on graphic design.
Albert, who tracks down the photos which she then screenshots and sends to VanOosterhout for approval, has collected many more polaroids than the ones ArtPrize goers have seen in “Instant Classic,” primarily from scrolling through eBay.
“It’s a daily habit, I’m obsessed with it,” Albert stated. “It’s like going to a garage sale. What else can I find?”
What about these forgotten polaroids has them continuously coming back?
“Liz and I have known each other almost our entire lives,” VanOosterhout said. “We have many things that we connect on, and we bring all of those things to the table with our work, our collaborative process. We’re both fascinated with human behavior, what makes people tick. One of the things that I think keeps us really engaged in this process of finding new images is, there’s no end to human stories. As one of our images says, ‘There are only so many feelings in the world’, well what is that number? We’re not saying that anybody knows that number, but that’s a way of saying of all the people who have ever existed on Earth, we all share the common bond of emotion. What emotion, what sort of narrative have we not yet found that we would like to put out for people to see?”
When selecting the polaroids they wished to include in “Instant Classic,” the two not only considered the visual and compositional appeal of the photos, but the emotional component as well.
“There is a great amount of empathic researching, where you spend a lot of time upfront understanding people’s perspectives, their needs, their fears, their hopes, their dreams,” said VanOosterhout.
When brainstorming ideas for captions, Albert and VanOosterhout originally showed the pictures to people, and asked them to come up with a list of words and phrases for them to possibly use. However, they rarely received a phrase that they liked and used, so decided that they would come up with their own.
“We started a document with all these old phrases from our journals that we thought were funny. You think, ‘Oh my God, I wrote that in such a moment of heartache’, but now as a 55-year-old adult, ‘Oh my God, that is so funny’,” said Albert.
When asked how it felt sharing these, Albert replied, “It’s validating on a personal level that your thoughts and feelings, other people are relating to them. It makes you feel less alone in the world.”
“Liz and I were both born in a time and place where we felt we didn’t really fit in,” added VanOosterhout. “The environment that we grew up in seemed very contradictory to a lot of the things that we held true and dear, and sort of honest and authentic, so we had a lot of conversations about the inauthenticity of the world we thought we were living in at the time. Liz and I were both outsiders. She was bullied. I was bullied. We both had a lot of those kinds of peer issues to deal with.”
“Jumping forward many decades, because that’s such a formative time in your life, when you’re a kid, these things just keep rolling around in your brain, and they stay with you. Connecting with these images is very therapeutic for us. One of the things we’re really passionate about is reaching back to younger people who feel like we did then,” he said.