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Flex Gallery and the work of Dave Battjes

Zachary Trebellas, curator of Flex Gallery, sits down with Grand Rapids artist Dave Battjes to discuss his work.
Dave Battjes. "What Makes You Happy?" Ink, hardware on canvas. 2021

Dave Battjes. "What Makes You Happy?" Ink, hardware on canvas. 2021 /Zachary Trebellas

A mural in progress on the side of Five Star Realty in Grand Rapids' East Hills neighborhood.

A mural in progress on the side of Five Star Realty in Grand Rapids' East Hills neighborhood. /Dave Battjes

Battjes inking the letter 'R.'

Battjes inking the letter 'R.' /Dave Battjes

Created to provide greater access to public art, Flex Gallery is a wearable, rotating exhibition space located on curator Zachary Trebellas' left arm. The mobile art space has to date hosted twenty-five custom armbands created by local, regional, and international artists that were exhibited in runs of two weeks each. Flex Gallery is curated with no limitations other than the dimensions of the canvas armbands which Trebellas supplies to each artist.

To commemorate the recent end of its fifth season, I’ve interviewed three of this year’s artists about their creative practices. Below are the responses of Grand Rapids artist and letterer Dave Battjes.


Zachary Trebellas (ZT): Your brand feels incredibly positive, and the armband speaks to that voice. How did you come to embrace positivity in your work?

Dave Battjes (DB): It was never a conscious decision. It’s just a big part of my personality to strive for a positive and optimistic outlook in the future. I think that’s really helpful as a creative person to think that way: that there’s always something better and that you can make it.

ZT: Do you have a particular letter or set of letters that you like to illustrate?

DB: I do gravitate towards the capital 'R’ often, with its unique shape. That diagonal leg offers a lot when you’re combining letters. Does it swoop down? Kick forward? Do you wrap it backwards? 'R’ has a lot of the elements of the other letters in the Latin alphabet, so you’re playing with everything at once: the straight lines, the curves, the diagonals.

ZT: Over the last several decades, businesses have switched from hand-painted signs to printed ones. Do you think that anything has been lost during that transition?

DB: For sure. In the visual sense, heart and soul were lost because you don’t have the natural imperfections from humans being involved in creating. It becomes digital, so it’s all perfect all the time. Perfection is a pursuit that no one should go down, right? It’s homogenized. Perfection is the absence of creativity, so I think in that sense a lot was lost.

Furthermore, it was a huge loss in community. Sign painting alone was a huge business; tons of individuals were sign painters. All of the signs that you see now [would have been] hand painted up to the early eighties. Once vinyl came out, the [hand painted sign] industry fell and basically became a niche industry and was virtually dead. Now, there’s a resurgence, and it’s much more of a niche, hip kind of thing. Either way, that community at the time was lost.

You have the idea of small businesses supporting small businesses. In that type of economy, everyone’s working together. If you take something as big as sign painting — tons of people in the community were doing it, and you suddenly take it away with the invention of vinyl, people now have to quit that job and go into something else…[then we] don’t have a community in the neighborhoods like [when] a sign painter would go around. Because a sign painter is working from shop to shop, and there’s a relationship there.

I think that’s part of why sign painting has become a bigger thing today. That’s something people are searching for. We want more community. We want to support our neighbors. [Hiring a sign painter] is a sign that you’re doing that. You’re supporting your community by working with a small business. I think there’s more of that now than there was ten years ago.

ZT: What would you change about Grand Rapids to help artists thrive here?

DB: There are so many different things that could be done to make arts better in Grand Rapids. Just like any city there are art circles here. It’s not a giant community of artists that all work together, it’s little pockets of artists. They feed off of each other within their little circles. If they could instead work with other pockets, some big cultural art shift would occur and be amazing for art in Grand Rapids. It would create so much accessibility for everybody.

Let’s say there’s this group of people who hang out a lot together and like painting waterfalls. Then there’s this group of musicians who play punk music; they should get together and see what happens.

ZT: Yeah, punk waterfalls, man.

DB: Punk rock waterfalls, exactly.

ZT: I agree with that. Sometimes I naïvely think that the art community is fully connected, but I forget that there are many different communities within it. As soon as I talk to someone who’s ten years older than me, they know all these artists that I’ve never heard of. I think, “Oh right, the scenes are generational.” Then I start to think about how many other ways groups are divided up.

DB: There’s just so many, and I think it’s easy for a lot of artists to feel that maybe there’s not as much happening in Grand Rapids as they’re [actually] is. Cause there’s a lot happening here, but you get stuck in your art circle. There’s so many ways that these circles happen. It’s generational. It’s gender. It’s racial. It’s economic. It’s style. And it’s easy to get stuck in them. I have no idea how you get the circles together. How you get more interaction and growth, but that would be amazing.

ZT: Now, I think this is something that the general public doesn’t always grasp, so can you explain how making artwork improves your life?

DB: I think that oftentimes, it’s difficult for us to communicate that with people. For me, it’s definitely a release. It’s therapy. It’s desire. It’s need. It’s the reason to keep going. It’s dreams, the future. It’s all of these things.

It’s a constant. It’s as much a part of me as waking up in the morning and taking a shower...It’s a part of my life, and it’s not something I could ever cut out. I can’t turn it off. I can burn out by doing it too much and want to take a break. But when I’m taking a break, all I’m doing is filling my life up with the other things that I enjoy, that feed my creativity, that make me want to continue to create. I go for a walk with my dog because it’s great for them, but also going out and smelling the crisp, cold air, hearing the crows flocking around the tree in my backyard making wild noises, stepping in the slushy snow at the edge of the road — all of these things, they’re such great tiny moments that I enjoy. The collection of them becomes big burst of creativity. They fill me up with this power to keep going and creating more.

ZT: Has the way that you make work changed since becoming a father?

DB: Trying to find time to create and do stuff for your career is really difficult once you have kids. But you also get to have the enrichment of teaching art to your kids — teaching how you can be creative and blend colors and just be wild. I’ve definitely become less strict on myself. That’s a huge benefit of being an artist and having children. Before having kids, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get things right. But now I get to make art with my kid, and it’s all about failure, about doing the wrong thing. So I’ve ended up becoming a lot less harsh on myself. I allow a lot more failure and looseness.


You can learn more about Dave Battjes and his work at his website. Furthermore, his murals can be seen on walls around town. Discover their locations here.

Flex Gallery has been featured in Hyperallergic and Temporary Art Review and was exhibited at the UICA in summer of 2017. Its sixth season will run from January through April 2022.

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