"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers


Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

This requirement turned out to be fortuitous for engaging youth, as these writing centers create space for young people to exercise their imagination and writing. Now there are not only two more locations in San Francisco but also many more around the globe that have been motivated by this distinctive arrangement, including nine that are part of 826 National, which was later founded in 2008. One of the chapters is 826michigan with its two locations in Ann Arbor and Detroit, both of which rely on volunteers.

These 826 chapters and other like-minded writing centers are featured in a new book, Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire: How 826 Valencia, and Dozens of Centers Like It, Got Built -- and Why, edited by the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers. This extensive volume showcases these individual centers through myriad photographs -- including many full-page spreads -- and Q&A-style descriptions of the themes and designs of the individual centers, including who designed them, what the spaces and stores are like, and what one-of-a-kind themed products they sell. Not all of the centers are affiliated with 826 National – some are simply inspired by 826, and they are located around the United States and world, including in the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, England, and Canada.

A Thread of Jewels: The 6X collective's "Mistaken for Strangers" fills the A2 Art Center's Gallery 117 with wearable art


Brooke Marks-Swanson, Yellow Furrow

Brooke Marks-Swanson, Yellow Furrow, knit leather, oxidized silver 

The contemporary jewelry-making collective 6X makes interconnected, wearable artworks. The six-member group of Midwesterners explained their approach as part of its February exhibition at the Ann Arbor Art Center: “Ties, which may not consciously be acknowledged at a simple glance, are visible upon further consideration of approaches to concept, material, and process.” Thus, the title of the A2AC exhibit, Mistaken for Strangers, in its Gallery 117 space references the connectedness of their creative processes, which may not be immediately recognized by viewers. 

A2AC moved its Gallery 117 from the second to the first floor, allowing easier access for visitors who may have not been able to use the stairs previously. 6X has created a dynamic installation that emphasizes the collective’s desire to form relationships between their varied works. The group accomplishes its goal to visually connect seemingly disparate formal approaches, with two towers of open white boxes standing in the center floor space, each box containing a piece of jewelry, and additional pieces displayed on top of the boxes. 

A quote by Nadeem Aslam prefaces the gallery wall text: “Pull a thread here and you’ll find it’s attached to the rest of the world.” The concept of the threads that connect us is enforced visually not only by exhibiting the artists’ disparate works together but also through a two-part installation of white thread. The loom-like threads are suspended between two walls in one corner of the gallery, and a two-panel installation hangs from the ceiling above a series of pedestals displaying the artworks.

Melis Agabigum, When the Wind Blows a Song of Silence

Melis Agabigum, When the Wind Blows a Song of Silence, copper, sterling silver, enamel, cotton cord, beeswax

Melis Agabigum’s works examine “loss, repetition, and the notion of burden that individuals carry from their relationships.” Agabigum, originally from Michigan, currently works in Richmond, Indiana. She is both an artist and educator. She received her MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Intermedia: Jewelry/Metals, Installation Art, Sculpture, and Fibers, and has taught courses at universities across the country, including the University of Michigan. Agabigum works with soft sculpture in her jewelry-making, creating delicate and detailed forms from materials such as cotton, beeswax, and metals such as copper and 14K gold. Her compositions often echo forms of the human body, which serve to “explore the unseen tether of the physical and emotional weights that affect individuals in how they perceive their connection to others, their bodies, and space.”

Rachel Andrea Davis, Mourning Brooch #9

Rachel Andrea Davis, Mourning Brooch #9, found wood, eggshell, gold leaf, watercolor, nugold, steel, from the collection of Zaque Harig

Rachel Andrea Davis is an artist and educator who has a Master of Arts from Kent State University and is pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. Davis creates her works from found materials such as wood, which forms the substrate for her Mourning Brooch series. Davis frequently employs materials such as freshwater pearls, gold leaf, watercolor, NuGold, steel, ebony, fibers, and hair as compositional elements that contrast visually against the natural wood.

Joshua Kosker, Cubic Tangelo Cluster

Joshua Kosker, Cubic Tangelo Cluster (pendant), 2016. Tangelo peel, plywood, sterling silver. 2.5" x 4" x 2" (30" chain)

Joshua Kosker is an artist, jeweler, and educator based in Bloomington, Indiana. Kosker’s artist statement notes his atypical approach to jewelry-making, which “fuses traditional craft practices with experimental materials and processes.” Furthermore, his practice draws “from unexpected, commonly found, and often impermanent materials,” and explores concepts of time, place, materiality, object and the body.” Kosker includes works from his Tangents series, which feature geometric forms in vibrant orange hues. These pieces are created from preserved Minneola peels, a variety of Tangelo. He “cures” the peels like animal hides, then uses them to create his designs. Though Kosker’s exploration of the Tangelo extends beyond what is shown in this exhibit, the works at the Ann Arbor Art Center represent his unique approach to object-making, which addresses themes of consumerism and preservation. Among the works shown at the gallery are square tangelo earrings, pendants, or circular tangelo earrings, some with produce stickers, others without. In one work, Kosker wraps a Tangelo-shaped metal object in PLU (produce sticker) codes, tying his series firmly to commercialized production.

Brooke Marks-Swanson is based in South Bend, Indiana, and works primarily with textiles and metals. On her website and in her artist statement, Marks-Swanson notes that she “speaks of her Midwest roots through a universal language of textile and metal wearable art.” Marks-Swanson has exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and internationally, and has been the recipient of numerous awards and museum purchases. She creates her wearable artworks with materials such as leather, pearls, silver, gold, Japanese fibers, and copper. Her works frequently employ the circle as a formal element in her diverse creations, from earrings to collars.

Masako Onodera, Memory Vessel #1 & Memory Vessel #2

Masako Onodera, Memory Vessel #1 & Memory Vessel #2, sterling silver, silver plated platter, brass, pearls, thread, stainless steel

In her intricate artworks, Masako Onodera explores what she describes as “the body altered by the tactile and visual characteristics of the object.” Onodera is a Minneapolis-based artist who cites the importance of working with craft techniques in her exploration of fine art. Onodera contributes works from her Memory Vessel series, which explores the idea of object histories. These works are open-faced metal vessels, with delicate decorative elements such as pearls and rose quartz. On her website, Onodera explains her fascination with the object, which can “exist for decades, centuries, or even millennia.” During this time, objects change from functional or “utilitarian to symbolic, from direct use by their owners to a ritual, indirect use.” Her artworks are an investigation into this common occurrence, asking viewers to consider that these objects have and may be worn again. 

Jina Seo, Oddly Familiar 1

Jina Seo, Oddly Familiar 1, copper, leather gloves, thread, fake lashes

Jina Seo presents works from her series Oddly Familiar, which employs everyday materials to explore her common themes of “the relationships between body, clothing, sexuality, fetish, and space.” Seo teaches Metal + Jewelry at Missouri State University and has exhibited both in America and internationally. In her artist statement for the exhibit, Seo elaborates on her process behind this series: "Through deconstructing and reconstructing materials into symbolic forms, I uncover the hidden intimate and sensual power of humanity. It is a moment when ordinary objects become surreal and uncanny in order to redeem the socially constructed expectations and perceptions."

Seo uses recycled leather gloves frequently in her compositions, which create a direct connection to the human body that once wore them. Leather is also a material frequently associated with fetishism in contemporary culture. Pairing this material with her bold, surreal compositional choices, Seo is able to divert and disrupt the typical association between material, form, and functionality of an object. 

6X brings a dynamic installation of innovative works that explore issues of the body, time and spatial relations, object histories, and the layers of interconnectedness between the artists’ approaches and execution of their works. The collective features six highly skilled artists with similar conceptual goals. Though their works may seem like unrelated “strangers,” together they form a narrative of commonality, “linking each member through various degrees of separation.”

Visitors to the newly remodeled space will gain insight into the intersection between fine art, craft, and metal-smithing that each artist embraces in their own style.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

The 6X Collective's Mistaken for Strangers is at the Ann Arbor Art Center through February 28.

High on Books: Shelly Smith's "Reads & Weeds" podcast cultivates the best sentences and strains


Shelly Smith

Photo by Moni Jones/Her & HIm Studio.

A love of the written word, cultivated cannabis, and the buzziest broadcast medium inspired Ypsilanti-based comedian Shelly Smith to start the podcast Reads & Weeds.

Smith had appeared on other comedians’ podcasts as a guest but, she says, “I wanted to do more than sit around and talk -- I wanted to do something more intentional. Some friends talked about doing a book club and it dawned on me that a podcast, revolving around cannabis and books, was the perfect cross-section of my interests.”

The upbeat, irreverent Reads & Weeds is a delightful listen. There is fun banter about topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to self-publishing books to women in prison to back tattoos. The show features a variety of co-hosts plus fellow readers who stop by, which makes for a riotous atmosphere. Smith’s childhood friend, Kris Walton, handles the technical aspect of the show in addition to occasionally co-hosting. Walton joined Smith on an October episode discussing Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which joined an impressive list of eclectic books that have been discussed on the podcast. 

“One of the books we read, Smoke Signals, is all about the socio-political history of cannabis,” Smith says. But all the reads aren't about weed. Other books include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, and The Illusion of Money by Kyle Cease.

Interlocking Parts: Hi Potent C and Dyelow's "War Medicine" highlights the KeepItG Records collective's creative bond


Hi Potent C & Dyelow, War Medicine

Hi Potent C (left) and Dyelow at WCBN-FM. Photo by Herb Read.

The Ypsi-Arbor hip-hop collective KeepItG Records isn't just a rap crew with a tight handle. The various MCs, producers, musicians, and filmmakers treat KeepItG like a band, with scheduled practices, interlocking their skills and lifting each other up to create audio and visual art.

"The entire KeepItG Records meets and rehearses weekly, and each individual sets up their personal studio time around what’s going on for them at the time being," said rapper Hi Potent C, who has a new album, War Medicine, with KeepItG producer Dyelow. "A lot of the music gets made on the spot, but everyone is always cooking up something on their own time, too. For this specific project, we did a lot of the outlining in person in order to make sure we were sticking to the theme and storyline. From there it made it easier to fill in the blanks separately because we both knew what was needed and expected."

War Medicine is a loose concept record that takes some cues from Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 album, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, and Prodigy’s 2017 LP, Hegelian Dialectic (The Book of Revelation). Lamar's album recounts his rough teenage years in Compton and Progidy's record is named after the philosophical model that posits thesis, antithesis, then synthesis -- or problem, reaction, solution -- is the way to determine "truth" or "the way."

"The personal ins and outs of living and not only the 'good side,'" is how Hi Potent C describes War Medicine's theme. "At the same time, keeping familiarity with people by showing them how to keep your head up no matter how unfavorable things might be going, because we all need that motivation from time to time."

Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan leads readers on a high-speed chase across the United States in his new thriller, "The Good Killer" 


Harry Dolan, The Good Killer

Author Harry Dolan’s latest novel is different from his earlier novels. 

The Good Killer is more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery.

And that’s not a bad thing. 

According to the 53-year-old Ann Arbor author, it was the best thing about writing this book. 

“The central character is not a detective who’s trying to get at the truth,” explained Dolan. “There are crimes that take place, and there are secrets that are revealed at different points in the book, but it’s not structured as a mystery. It was interesting to see if I could write a different kind of story. I hope that the novel works as pure entertainment. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s a book about love and loyalty. It’s about characters searching for redemption.”

In The Good Killer, published by Mysterious Press, former soldier Sean Tennant and his significant other Molly Winter are a couple living under the radar in Texas. One day while Molly is at a yoga retreat in Montana that allows no communication with the outside world (cell phones are confiscated), Sean is a shopping mall when Henry Alan Keen snaps and shoots everybody in sight. Before the body count can rise, Sean stops Keen and helps the shooting victims. 

The Guild of Artists & Artisans' new Gutman Gallery opens with an exhibit filled with love (and hearts)


Ruth Crowe

Ruth Crowe, She Counted Her Regrets Two at a Time. Photo courtesy of the Guild of Artists & Artisans.

On a standardly gray February evening I made my way through the dark and cold toward Kerrytown. The block of Fourth Street between Ann and Huron is not a particularly active space after five, but tonight was different. Brightly lit, and with condensation beginning to form, glances of color slipped out the storefront windows of the newly opened Gutman Gallery

Operated by The Guild of Artists & Artisans, the Gallery is named for the Guild’s founder, Vic Gutman. A University of Michigan student in the 1970s, the campus asked Gutman to do something about the students who had started hawking their own art on the Diag parallel to the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair. His response was to create the Free Art Fair, which morphed into what is now known as the Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair, and led Gutman to found the Michigan Guild of Artists and Artisans in 1973.

Dorrance Dance brings musicality to the rhythms of life in tap


Dorrance Dance

I grew up studying and loving ballet and modern dance, but I always felt a little “meh” about tap. But after I watched MacArthur “Genius” award winner Michelle Dorrance perform with New York City Ballet dancer Tiler Peck in the Hulu documentary Ballet Now, I realized how wrong I’d been.

Dorrance brings her tap dance company Dorrance Dance to Ann Arbor on February 21-22 -- and trust me, you should be there. Her company’s style calls back to early black American tap dance and also pushes the art form forward effortlessly. Dorrance Dance will perform three works in Ann Arbor: Jungle Blues, a jazz-age inspired piece; Myelination, the titular ensemble piece; and Three To One, a more experimental work featuring only one dancer in tap shoes.

Riverside Arts Center's exhibit "Embrace: The Black Experience" explores the spectrum


Azya Moore, Blue Black

Azya Moore, photo from her BLUE BLACK series.

The artists in Riverside Arts Center's Embrace: The Black Experience grapple with what that multifaceted experience means. They respond with artwork just as varied, from metalworks to photographs and digitally rendered multimedia.

Avery Williamson’s three hanging wall scrolls are abstracted line paintings that employ shades and shapes of brown as the main component of their compositions. Williamson is a multidisciplinary artist who works with weaving, photography, painting, and drawing. She describes her work as an exploration of “the narratives of black women in personal and institutional archives,” where they are “defined by names, occupations or skin color.”

The Happiest Hours: Chasing down affordable cocktails in the Ann Arbor area


Cocktail glass

Photograph by Mihail Hukuna/Pixabay

For local cocktail lovers, finding good cocktails at a reasonable price can be a challenge. Lots of us enjoy a nice evening out, but a few $15 drinks can really add up.

After spending the last decade combing Ann Arbor and the surrounding areas for good drinks that I can actually afford, I’ve found some pretty sweet deals that don’t break the budget:

Before & After Scents: Smell & Tell explores the fragrant world of Brian Eno


Brian Eno

In addition to being an ambient-music pioneer, superstar producer, and cutting-edge visual artist, Brian Eno also likes to exercise his sniffer.

This account of a previous Brian Eno-focused Smell & Tell was originally published February 23, 2018. Michelle Krell Kydd hosts another Eno-themed Smell & Tell on Wednesday, February 19, 6:30-8:45 pm, at AADL's Pittsfield branch.

The temple bell stops --
but the sound keeps coming
out of the flowers.
--Matsuo Basho (1644-1694)

“This one smells like stinky feet!” is not something you want to hear at a perfume-smelling event.

But considering the spikenard essential oil in question was used to anoint the feet of Jesus, perhaps it deserved another whiff.

As the 40 people gathered in the fourth-floor conference room at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library took another hit of spikenard, something akin to turning water into wine started happening. As the molecules of oil on the sampler strips began to evaporate, people began describing the oil as having elements of licorice, red hots, mint, wintergreen, cough medicine, camphor, turpentine, violets, and fruit.

Welcome to Smell & Tell.