The Rapidian Home

[REVIEW] (a)wake: Local women artists' exhibition for Women's History Month

A review of the 11 woman show "(a)wake," a strong collection of site-specific work for one weekend only during Women's History Month.
Underwriting support from:

Photo essay by Denise Cheng


This past weekend, the site-specific exhibition entitled "(a)wake" opened...

...and closed.

The exhibition was a collection of works by 11 local artists, installed on the fifth floor of what was previously Steketee’s. “(a)wake” was organized by the women themselves and lead by Maureen Nollette.

“I love an opportunity to show work in a place where I live that is not attached to an institution or an event,” noted participating artist Shelly Klein.

As a play on words, “(a)wake” was the artists’ rebuttal to a recent Newsweek article listing Grand Rapids as a dying city.

“In response to whispers of Grand Rapids' decline, we decided to hold a wake that celebrated the life of the arts community,” said participating artist Mandy Cano Villalobos.

True to their aim, the show was a collection of some of the strongest work happening in the area. It felt quite similar to “2nd Fridays” open studio nights in the Chicago Arts District and was a powerful challenge to the local assumption that art being made in West Michigan is not worthy of a formidable prize.

Works like Kate Silvio’s "It’s Never Where You Think It Is” and Miriam Slager’s “One Gallon Strip” held closest to the “site-specific” claim of the show. Each piece worked with the existing marks on the exposed wood flooring. Silvio’s “x marks the spot” expression, for example, was positioned specifically at the point of an arrow painted on the floor decades ago.

The building owners gave the artists broad permission to manipulate the space physically. Slager seized the opportunity and divided the entire space visually at an angle with a sharp-edged strip of shiny polyurethane running unassumingly from one corner of the floor to the other. During Friday’s opening, a mop sat along the wall, and I wondered briefly with fellow visitor Kevin Buist if this was intentional- a part of Slager’s installation. We were reading too much into her work; the mop was gone by Sunday afternoon’s closing reception.

I should have known; Slager typically is not so obvious about the themes of repetition and hard labor that run through her work. The meaning was so subtle that I had a hard time making that connection, but I also have to confess that it was one of the pieces that kept fascinating me. Her sharp lines and clean materials make the viewer aware of our more organic surroundings.

Maureen Nollette’s “wax paper quilt” was an 8’ x 16' “quilt” composed of wax paper squares and rectangles similar to the log cabin quilt pattern. It hung in front of a swath of windows, draping onto the floor and crinkling just so from the work needed to stitch together so many bits of temporary material. The interaction between the natural light and the wax paper material created an ethereal quality, elevating the simple materials and "woman's work."

“As a woman making [art]work in the context of third-wave feminism,” she explained, “I employ a dense accumulation of materials and labor-intensive processes to emphasize the notion that time spent waiting—time in between the larger, more notable experiences in life—does amount to something of value.”

In contrast to Nollette’s successful approach to speaking about women’s issues, Margie Erlandson’s collection of used purses failed to capture my imagination. Both the grouping wrapped tightly in airport plastic wrap and the half-filled plexiglass box appeared haphazard, with no noticeable concern for color or composition.

My inability to connect with this piece could have been repaired if there had been a label, artist statements or any identifying marks for the works. The only identifying labels in the entire exhibition were uneven, hand-scrawled titles next to Michele Bosak’s pieces, and a statement on a full sheet of printer paper pasted to Alynn Guerra’s installation, neither of which were successful in labeling the work without distracting from it.  I later learned that the lack of identifiers and statements was a missing detail in the flurry of planning.  Although more had appeared when I returned for the closing reception on Sunday, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much this missed detail was stopping me from connecting more deeply with the work.

Shelly Klein’s collection of five paintings did seem to be an expansion from earlier work. Earlier work I had seen had always seemed to be cheerful, playful and approachable. It was clear that this new work had a darker edge, with black clouds and shared burdens showing up as themes in what felt like extremely vulnerable and (therefore) brave work. Klein was kind enough to share her statement with me after meeting at the show closing, and the statement reveals that she is, indeed, moving towards being more straightforward about the themes in her work:

“I’m interested in sadness. Its daily management is the subject of my most recent work.

The only way to truly enjoy anything is to temporarily forget about any shame, heartbreak, guilt, regret, or outrage associated with that thing. If we can ignore the sometimes unspeakable consequences of many of our actions, we can enjoy experiences as they happen. It’s a trade. It’s the way we buy happiness.
A person can never really forget, though. Darkness always comes creeping back in. It takes different forms, but inevitably it reappears.
I’m not sure if we should try harder to forget or to remember. I’m not sure if being happy is okay when there is so much sadness connected to the things that make us happy. I’m not sure if I care too much or not enough.
By exploring these themes visually I hope to get closer to understanding where the balance should be. My goal is to connect with people about our shared and individual struggles with this heaviness.”

This connection between artwork and viewer is of paramount importance if we are to move forward as an art community in Grand Rapids.

Walking through the space several times in one weekend, I spent most of my waking hours over the course of three days thinking about access and inclusion, conversation and critique. Despite the hesitancy by some to talk about the work and the forgotten consideration of labels and statements (promised to be remedied in next year's show), the exhibition captured my imagination and proved that Grand Rapids has a remarkable talent storehouse that needs to be recognized and connected to more of its residents.

It’s important, perhaps more importantly now as we are being opened up to the general public in Grand Rapids like never before, to make sure that we create ways for the viewer—whether he or she is familiar with local artists or not—to access the conversation. It’s important that we not be afraid to join in this conversation, even when we don’t know the right answers and even when we don’t solely have praise to give.

If this spring’s exhibition is a foreshadowing of the season’s shows, I look forward to what other opening nights will say to me. And I hope you’ll join me in the conversation.

The Rapidian, a program of the 501(c)3 nonprofit Community Media Center, relies on the community’s support to help cover the cost of training reporters and publishing content.

We need your help.

If each of our readers and content creators who values this community platform help support its creation and maintenance, The Rapidian can continue to educate and facilitate a conversation around issues for years to come.

Please support The Rapidian and make a contribution today.

Comments, like all content, are held to The Rapidian standards of civility and open identity as outlined in our Terms of Use and Values Statement. We reserve the right to remove any content that does not hold to these standards.


I went to see the show on both the opening night and Saturday, and I was disappointed that the computer looping a video of (presumably) a stubbly man applying lipstick was no longer there on the second day.

Not that it elucidated much for me, but it was the most mesmerizing part of the piece and provoked me to think. Asking from a non-artist perspective, is it the norm for components to be removable like that? Was the piece supposed to have the same impact on me with a missing component?