Fish Fighters Lansing
Joan Bambery has plenty of respect for “the Great Old Masters sorta deal,” as she calls it.
But it’s not her kettle of fish.
“Fish Fighters Lansing,” Bambery’s ArtPath mural under the west side of the Shiawassee Street Bridge over the Grand River downtown, is.
There you’ll find two dozen bug-eyed cartoon fish, each one doing something different, and all of it to excess — riding a skateboard, painting a portrait, exploding into shards from drinking too much coffee, and so on.
“I don’t want to create a beautiful mountain on the side of a wall, you know?” Bambery said. “I take character depictions that are very abstract, like these fish. Anybody walking by should be able to identify themselves in these fish.”
If their manic energy ignites into a fight or two, she assures us that it is all in fun.
Bambery, 25, grew up in DeWitt and graduated from MSU with a bachelor’s degree in studio art in 2021. She is a keen student of line, color and form, but she doesn’t wear those skills on her sleeve.
“I adore fun,” she said. “That’s why my two main genres are public art and video game art.”
“Fish Fighters” taps into the crackling chaos at the core of creativity. Some of the fish look a bit underwater; others are downright fried. The “academic fish” with the melting eye is clearly in over his head, besieged by flying books. Even Bambery’s signature, in the mural’s lower left corner, reads “Joanisconfused,” which is also the name of her studio.
All that jazzy energy belies the careful thought and hard work Bambery poured into the mural. She fixed each fish’s color, direction and position on the grid with great care. On her last day of work under the bridge, she showed up at 4 a.m. and left at 5 p.m.
She traces her fish imagery through a long symbolic tradition, from the ancient ichthys, a Christian symbol that is often graphically reduced to two elegant, intersecting curves, to Dr. Seuss’s “Red Fish Blue Fish One Fish Two Fish.”
“The fish in that book looked like a goblin had a child with a hairy thumb, but I still believed that they were fish when I was told that they were fish,” she said.
Bambery considers herself mainly a public artist, but also does freelance two-dimensional art for game graphics.
“When you break the medium down to its core, it comes down to three components: storytelling, visual imagery, and fun,” she said.
She contributed to “Emergence,” an “orange and purple fantasy thing” along the River Trail near the Kresge building at MSU, and was selected to design one of East Lansing’s largest murals, “Groovy Opportunity,” downtown. She will be leading the next phase of “Groovy” in 2022 and will paint her first solo mural, on Division Street, soon after that. She also has a mural project in Mt. Pleasant in the works.
“It’s a real trendy medium,” she said. “All these businesses and cities just want the paint on the wall.”
Craig Hinshaw’s “Rainbow Trout” is best seen in late afternoon, as the sun wheels behind the trees on the west bank of the Grand River, just north of the Robert Busby Bridge in Old Town.
Some trout bite at dusk. These light up at dusk.
The resinous fish take on the glow of stained glass, multiplied by dozens of tiny bits of plastic embedded inside.
They’re not there just to look pretty. They carry a message in their bellies. Look closely and you’ll see a fragment of a toothbrush, bits of toys and other tiny pieces of junk plastic.
Walking on a beach in Mexico, Hinshaw, 72, found as much plastic waste in the surf as there were sponges washed up on the beach.
The more he looked into it, the more alarmed he became at the ever-growing mass of plastic junk filling our rivers, lakes and oceans. He was inspired to create “Rainbow Trout” after reading a Jan. 16 story in The New York Times about Jerusalem-based artist Beverly Barkat’s “Earth Poetica,” a 13-foot-tall globe made from plastic waste to be hung in a building at ground zero in Manhattan.
To translate Barkat’s concept into the slippery piscine world, Hinshaw had to transcend his longtime identity as a clay artist. He has a master’s degree in ceramics from the Cranbrook Academy of Art and has been associated with Flint’s Buckham Gallery, among the oldest artist-run galleries in Michigan, since its inception 40 years ago.
“Black and White,” Hinshaw’s current exhibit at the Buckham, is nothing like “Rainbow Trout.” It’s a fusion of Disney whimsy and blunt force — geometric forms made of unglazed black clay, fitted with clunky feet and sculpted into chain-link bundles of bad attitude.
After a lifetime of working in clay, Hinshaw found it “invigorating” to experiment with the novel medium of resin and plastic. He crafted a clay fish and used it to make a negative mold out of flexible latex rubber. The resin had to be just the right texture, transparency and viscosity to hold the tiny bits of plastic in suspension.
Welding is not Hinshaw’s forte, but he forged ahead with the last step anyway.
“I burnt the hell out of my fingers touching the wrong parts of the wire, but I assembled the frameworks I needed to display the fish,” he said.
Hinford is a longtime elementary school art teacher in Madison Heights. “I spent my life teaching kids how to fingerpaint,” he said. He is now retired, but he is still asked to come back, especially when he has a good curriculum idea. Last year, he worked with students to make art from plastic waste.
“Where I play tennis, there are these non-recyclable plastic water bottles all over the place,” he said. “I’ve collected over 200 of these grimy things.”
He cut each bottle into a “torso,” added wire and plaster gauze, and gave them out to students as a template for a self-portrait. For a semester finale, he welded together a gigantic framework of a rabbit.
“They brought single-use plastic to school and wove it into the framework to call attention to the variety of the plastic,” he said. He’s proud that end-of-year surveys of K-5 students included comments such as “I will get ice cream in a cone so I don’t use a plastic spoon.”
“My real objective was to create an awareness,” he said. “I told them, ‘You’re looking at the problem. The baby boomers created this problem. I remember when Bic pens came out. The first disposable ink pens! Then I told them, ‘I’m looking at the solution.’”
Late in April, Grand Rapids artist Stephanie Ellis was lining up three large panels of “Replica,” a moody, nature-themed mural for ArtPath 2022, when she was distracted by a burst of shouting and movement.
“While we were installing it, I saw teenagers doing a TikTok dance in front of my mural across the river,” she said. Ellis’s 2020 ArtPath entry, a giant, leaping frog surrounded by tadpoles, is almost directly across the river from “Replica.”
“That’s what I really like about murals,” Ellis said. “There’s no gate-keeping. Everyone can feel like they can come up close to art. It’s not just the select few who go to galleries.”
Ellis, 23, graduated in 2021 from Kendall College of Art and Design but made a mark as a public artist before that. She applied to ArtPath “on a whim,” with no prior mural experience.
“I was in a state of hopelessness in 2020, with COVID,” she said. “It pushed me forward. I couldn’t just wait for something to come my way.”
The mural’s success was a key boost for Ellis in a tough time.
“It gave me the motivation to keep doing more,” she said. “I’m very grateful for the opportunity. It really boosted my career when I was just starting out.”
The giant frog mural, “Rebirth,” still leaps over the west bank of the Grand River at Adado Riverfront Park.
A clutch of tadpoles burst from the markings on the frog’s back, symbolizing the creation of new images from memories of the past.
“Replica,” just across the river from “Rebirth,” takes the notion of symbolism drawn from nature into deeper waters.
A juicy ribbon of red, attached to a meaty, realistic heart, snakes through a nocturnal color field of indigo and green.
“That’s the blood running through the piece,” Ellis said.
Three panels are centered on the image of two animals, a dog and a wolf, representing the wild and human-tamed worlds. Surging roots and branches embrace the same duality, linking paper planes to birds and artificial birdhouses to wild bird nests.
“Even in a society full of technology, we aren’t so separated from the natural world,” Ellis said.
As a child, she loved to wander the woods and swamps of northern Michigan on family vacations.
“The stark difference of living in the suburbs, then suddenly being in nature made me appreciate the outdoor world more,” she said.
Two of her favorite video games, Nintendo’s Pikmin and Harvest Moon, juxtaposed humans and nature in absorbing ways. “Both focus on using the natural world to achieve a goal and becoming closer with these unknown forces as the game progresses,” Ellis said.
“Replica” explores similar territory. Stepping back from her creation, Ellis described it as a “human-made object, set against the natural landscape of a river, set against the unnatural landscape of a city.”
“I like to think my artwork is natural, but is it really?” she said. “It’s a blurry line between the earth, unobserved, and our human perspective.”
Four wooden posts along the Lansing River Trail west of the I-496 overpass look strangely out of place, like Victorian-era trail markers that somehow survived into the 21st century.
These are the newly conjured bones of Lansing’s ghost houses.
Okemos artist William Charland admits that “Red Outlines,” his 2022 ArtPath entry, is “high concept, but user-friendly high concept.”
Charland, 72, has been interested in Lansing since he moved into the area about 15 years ago. A few weeks spent creating “Being and Autism,” his 2021 ArtPath piece on the River Trail embankment near I-496, piqued his interest in the Black neighborhood wiped out in the 1960s by the freeway’s construction.
He lined a section of the trail with a set of four Newel posts — the main post you grasp when entering a house and climbing a staircase — and topped each one with a symbolic household object such as a teacup, poker chips or alphabet blocks.
Minimal they may be, but the posts are the vertebrae of vanished urban dinosaurs, eloquently summoning up the 600 families and 60 businesses displaced by the construction.
The classic outline of a home, outlined in red wire, tops each post. The red wire refers to redlining, the practice of deeming certain neighborhoods “risky investments” for mortgage and insurance companies and other services.
Charland posted four QR codes at the base of each post — the “user-friendly” part of the work. Each code takes the viewer to a specific story of an address or family in the lost neighborhood, from interviews with former residents to blogs, media stories and other historical sources.
“It’s a way to help viewers gather this information and absorb it at their own pace,” he said.
In the past year, many River Trail strollers have taken the time to stop and read Charland’s 2021 ArtPath work, “Being and Autism,” a frank, absorbing and richly detailed description of what it’s like to live on the autism spectrum, painted in white text on the embankment wall under I-496.
“My particular place on the autism spectrum makes me very, very sensitive to visual input,” he said. “I was kind of born to do what I do.”
When Charland was a kid, his dad would open up a freshly laundered shirt each morning before going off to work at General Motors, leaving the throwaway cardboard insert with young William.
“I drew a sequence of early visual expressions on shirt cardboards,” he said.
Although he’s been retired from teaching for two years, it’s unthinkable for him to stop making art.
“I’ve been an artist since my earliest youth,” he said. “What the hell else can I do?”
The positive public response to “Being and Autism” demonstrates the power of ArtPath to stretch the scope and reach of public art well beyond “isn’t Lansing great?” Charland has been contacted by many people who haven’t been diagnosed, but have had the same experiences he describes on the wall.
“As I worked on the piece, people would stop and tell me that they see themselves or a relative in it,” Charland said. “I’m still emailing back and forth with people who have seen that piece.”
Hearing about all these ArtPath artists who knew they were destined to paint when they were still in diapers can be a bit discouraging to older folks who are considering going into art. Take heart, then, from the tale of Michael Magnotta, a metal sculptor who lives and works in East Lansing. Magnotta, now on his second life at age 74, has left a bold mark all over the Midwest with striking work such as his 2022 ArtPath entry, “Atom II.”
After getting a master’s degree in social science at the University of Detroit, Magnotta spent over a decade as a state probation officer in Detroit. He jumped over to the federal court system in San Diego, working again as a probation officer, and was past 30 when he discovered his first artistic passion — photography.
“It’s about seeing,” he said. “You can walk around the block and shoot a roll of 36 interesting and unique pictures.” (He misses those old 35mm rolls.)
Looking for an “alternative” to court work, he studied architecture at the New School in San Diego. It opened his mind to working in three dimensions, but at his stage of life, he wasn’t inclined to spend a decade or more to be certified as an architect.
After 15 years in San Diego, he finished out his time with the Feds in Grand Rapids and Lansing, retired in 2007, and picked up on a lifelong interest in welding and metalwork by taking a course at Lansing Community College.
“The minute I melded some metal together, I knew this was where I needed to be artistically,” he said. “It was magical and I love it still.”
These days, opportunities to display and sell metal sculptures, for both public and private clients, are many.
The Midwest Sculpture Initiative, based in Blissfield, Michigan, had hooked Magnotta and other sculptors up with about 20 communities in Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and beyond.
Magnotta’s spacious East Lansing studio borders a wooded lot and easily fits 12 works in progress.
“It’s dirty, noisy and you’ve got to have every tool known to man,” he said.
On a typical workday, he’ll cue up a favorite track by Miles Davis, lay out some prime pieces of scrap metal and assemble the next piece in his mind.
“Some artists have a concept, an idea, and fabricate the metal to suit the purpose,” he said. “That isn’t the way I work.”
Magnotta has been a jazz fanatic for 35 years. In his yard is a double-bass-shaped abstract sculpture he calls “Rodney’s Bass,” in honor of bassist and MSU jazz studies director Rodney Whitaker.
Many of his sculptures, “Atom II” included, conjure up the mysterious nexus where giant astronomical bodies and minuscule atomic particles seem to converge. In “Atom II,” zippy silver orbs that evoke electrons, planets (or, perhaps, random thoughts) orbit a gorgeous, shiny nucleus of stainless steel. Ductile zaps of force hold it all together, figuratively and literally.
“It’s a visual conversation between the metal and myself,” Magnotta said. “It’s a beautiful thing and I never get tired of it.”