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All summer, Fred Quillin has been working on a campaign. He shut off his social life to focus completely on bringing the Grand Rapids Shirt Company (GRSC) a couple of steps closer to reality, made bearable by the conviction that he would soon return with something to offer.
"This is undoubtedly the largest—I consider it an art project—the largest project I've ever embarked upon. It seems as though every two years, I have an adventure," said Fred, who cleared hiking trails two years ago in the Rocky Mountains and initiated a school journalism program four years ago in rural Uganda. "Approaching the summer, I was like, something's going to happen. Every time, it's this four or five month thing [where I] put myself away … It was absolutely this; I had prepared myself mentally for this time of being away from everybody and pursuing this one solid thing."
As an artist and sixth-generation Grand Rapidian, Fred joined his artistic background and pursuit of history to come up with GRSC. His plan is to make history fashionable by screen printing iconic imagery onto t-shirts as conversation starters. Showcasing historic figures, relics (the original city hall) and local institutions (Mr. Burger), Fred hopes the t-shirts contribute to a sense of pride and ownership as Grand Rapidians talk about local history and think about their city's future.
On October 1, Fred launched a campaign on Kickstarter, a social network to crowdsource fundraising around innovative concepts and projects. It features a video where Fred chats up a few historic figures, hangs out at the 40-year-old Mr. Burger, offers incentives for each pledge level and refers viewers to the merchandise site that has a full artist portfolio and additional videos of the Quillins' history in Grand Rapids (see above video). In just the first three days, he raised nearly two-thirds of his ask and is now nearing the $3,000 he needs to print the first batch of shirts.
The excitement extends beyond the city limits, and some former Grand Rapids residents have caught wind of Fred's Kickstarter. In fact, one-third of visitors to the GRSC site are from out of state. Take Jen Lee Reeves, for instance, who lived in Grand Rapids for four years until 2003.
"During that time, I bought my first house, had my first kid, got my masters degree [at Aquinas College]," said Jen, who was a newscast producer at WOOD-TV. She moved to Columbia, Missouri and is the interactive director at KOMU-TV and an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. "I had some pretty important things happen in Grand Rapids, and I just never fully detached from watching the news and what's happened to the community."
When she lived in East Grand Rapids, Jen would often volunteer at the downtown YMCA. By lurking on Grand Rapids forums and taking in the news, she has gathered that there is greater city pride and more opportunities to connect.
Cameron, who is now nearly ten years old, has not been back to Grand Rapids since Jen moved her family to Columbia. "My son is super curious about where he was born…I think it would be cool to have little things that talk about Grand Rapids here and there. I show him pictures, and we talk about it—about the snow—and he's super curious," said Jen, who pledged $50 and is debating whether to order the special edition tie-dye "John Ball is my homeboy" t-shirt for herself or her son.
Meanwhile, Alex Hoekstra, who also has plans to launch his own campaign on Kickstarter, is based in Detroit.
"It's a favorite ritual of mine to check Kickstarter every Saturday morning to see what new projects are getting launched, and I always pay special attention to those taking place somewhere nearby," Alex said. "Fred's project stood out to me because I get something of a thrill out of throwing a little love behind projects with vision, and that's something I think Fred's got."
The Grand Rapids Historical Commission sensed Fred's vision earlier this year and invited him to be the first member-at-large of the 13-member committee, charged with collecting, preserving, publishing and disseminating the history of the city. It will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year, and Chair Diana Barrett embraces any approach that tickles the public's curiosity about Grand Rapids.
"I grew up in the school system when history was dates and wars," said Diana, who is also the voice behind the Glance at the Past podcasts archived on The Rapidian. "I do think that stories—even just little stories—stories attract people, and it's a good door to open the road to history."
Although intimate with GR history, Diana hesitates to suggest a specific route for GRSC.
"I know he's interested in his grandfather, who's a boxer, and he's a West Sider. I think the East Side has gotten a lot more attention than the West Side," Diana said. "But I think for somebody to get passionate about [history], they have to have an interest on a particular thing. So to say, well, Fred ought to do this, he might not have any interest in something, but I do wish he'd do the West Side, and I know he has an interest there."
Fred does have 30 more designs waiting in the wings, and depending on if he raises money beyond his initial ask, he plans on releasing several more designs. Receiving above the Kickstarter goal is not unheard of. On the Kickstarter front page are featured projects, some of which have raised thousands of percent their goal.
"I would hope someone could identify with the mission of the Grand Rapids Shirt Company," Fred said. "I would hope that they could feel the passion that I've put into this through the video and through the products and that they would want to support that and allow that passion to continue further with the advancement of this project."
Disclosure: The author has pledged to the GRSC Kickstarter campaign and is a friend of Fred Quillin.
Former citizen journalism coordinator for The Rapidian. Bicycle commuter, experimental cook, aspiring athlete, wannabe programmer, infrequent pianist, language lover, tupperware fanatic and tea junkie. A proud Midtownie but a West Coast girl at heart.
Reports on: Tech, Midtown neighborhood, anything that catches my fancy, &c.