The Fire Barn Gallery is a Memory Now. Long Live the Armory Art Center of Grand Haven.


Cat painting by Barbara Carlson can be painted during a Brushes and Brew Session, the original placed for sale in the Raining Cats and Dogs show.

Maggie Clifford-Bandstra experienced what sounds like a religious experience during summer classes at Ox-Bow, the secretive art school nestled in the dunes of Saugatuck, north of Mount Baldy and tucked in between the channel and Lake Michigan. Clifford-Bandstra came down from the dunes with a vision to give away art to all by installing pop up shows around Grand Haven. The art teacher at Hudsonville High School hardly had been stingy before, her art teaching bordering on missionary in intensity. However, she had caught fire, as artists tend to catch fire in mid-career. In this fervent state, Clifford -Bandstra met Jim Anderson, a man with a mind for business, a singular entrepreneur who can find you just the right kind of wood. Many of the tables in the Armory are his creations, one constructed out of upcycled bowling alley maple.

Anderson was a man with a soul overwhelmed by fresh grieving, but he sought solace in working on his new adventure. Clifford-Bandstra and he soft-opened the Grand Haven Armory as an art center. Since then, the art center on the second floor has been joined by Righteous BBQ, Grand Armory Brewing, Aldea Coffee and Watermarc Productions, a media company. It’s not uncommon for a developer to temporarily allow artists to make use of properties until the rental rates increase. However, with the building at full tenancy, the artists have yet to be evicted.

Speaking about eviction, the last days of the Fire Barn Gallery arrived when the City of Grand Haven took back the space that once housed fire trucks. Chris Protas, the director, made a virtue out of necessity by saying it was great while it lasted but it was never meant to last. That’s classic Chris Protas, a painter who will paint, paint over, paint, paint over, paint, paint over a canvas many times before declaring completion. Destruction lies at the heart of his creative process. However, Randy Smith, board member of the Grand Haven Art Walk, often confided with his base his hope to turn the Fire Barn and additional space in the city hall annex into the art museum Grand Haven has lacked. Thankfully, Clifford-Bandstra secured a space where the energy of the Fire Barn Gallery could transfer.

Tuesday, May 10 showed this space in high gear. Barbara Carlson had partnered with the Harbor Humane Society and twenty-one artists with connection to the Grand Haven Art Walk to produce a show titled, “Raining Cats & Dogs”. That’s classic Carlson, thinking of others when she’s launching an art start-up called Brushes and Brews, a painting class with beer from the taps downstairs. Carlson also plans art events and festivals, and has returned as the director of Grand Haven Art Walk for 2016, the seventh year. Maybe its her education as a yoga instructor that causes her to be the very soul of generosity?

It’s a good show that deserves to travel and be imitated by other chapters of the Humane Society. Marlan Cotner always surprises, and her dog caricatures delight as much as her caricatures of everything else under the sun, from animated olives in a sea of gin to tastefully eroticized housewives preparing dinner for their partner, cooking at home alone of course. In this show, Christa Barnell continues her experiments with complex canvases combining recognizable elements and elusive abstract signifiers. For the cause, Magda Smolenska emerges, hopefully permanently, from the horrors produced in the “Hobo Art Lab” series I can barely regard without wincing. And it has hung on the walls of Odd Side Ales for years. The series sells. I don’t get it. I don’t want to get it. She offered a series of works as profound as any images on the walls of the Lascaux Caves, before the hobos and even before the Christian crusaders or the pilgrims of Charlemagne’s era. Now, who will talk to Amy Wilkinson and tell her never to sell any of her works for twenty-five dollars again?

Surrounded by all this excellence, Mike Coleman, principal of Second Avenue Arts, chose the Armory Space to pop up an exhibition of artists that he knows and loves and sells. Coleman has sold numerous canvases from his line-up by offering art lectures in the homes of collectors. It’s working so well, he’s going to need to look at some portfolios and make new friends. He brought to light some rare birds, including a canvas by Steve Kurtz, a talent known more his sculpture and hand made kayaks than paintings. That painting caused me to stare and mutter to myself for a length of time that made me feel disquiet.

Tuesday night, he offered a table of Armory Brewing Company growlers and small glasses and talked technique and history with guests, illustrating his points with items from the work of Rich Beerhorst, Tyler Loftis and Mariangela Fremura, to name a few. Coleman knows his paints, a graduate of the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture.

To add one more ring to this two ring art circus, a man educated at the Omega Institute in New York State taught a seminar on meditation in the painting classroom. The collisions in this multi-use space, which also has a stage for traveling acts, can be enjoyed by visiting the Armory at 17 South Second Street, Grand Haven. The traveling acts are leading West Michigan musicians, including Delilah DeWylde and the Lost Boys and A Northern Song. Let’s hope the City of Grand Haven never writes a zoning law mitigating against creative density.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: