COLLABORATORS, BOOTSTRAPPERS & FOOLS
THURSDAY MARCH 8th, 2012
PHOTOS COURTESY MICHIGAN HUMANITIES COUNCIL
Like the miners and loggers that came to the U.P. in the late 1800’s, Upper Peninsula artists and organizers get by on a can-do attitude, collaboration and the ability to produce results with the most meager of resources.
While there are not any arts organizations that serve the entire Upper Peninsula, the Marquette Monthly comes closest, with distribution in Munising, Marquette, Houghton and the rest of Copper Country (the Houghton and Keweenaw county area). Citing the Pine Mountain Music Festival, Pat Ryan O’Day, owner and editor of the Marquette Monthly, says, “There are a lot of individual organizations that have a local focus but work together really well.” Ryan O’Day also said that the lack of peninsula-wide organizations is partially overcome by the strength of the volunteerism in the area. “There are a lot of volunteers that step forward to help groups like The Lake Superior Youth Theatre. It’s the only way they could’ve made it. I’ve always thought that more is done around here through volunteerism than any other place I’ve lived.” Her comments were underscored by a 1986 visit from a Kellogg Foundation representative who told her, “…Don’t ever think you live in a resource-poor area because there is so much strength in the volunteerism and the ability of people to work together.”
The group that Ryan O’Day mentioned, The Lake Superior Youth Theatre, has also benefitted from the experience and resources of more established organizations. Nikke Nason, Arts Administration Director for the City of Marquette, who helped bring theatre programming to Marquette youth in 2001, said that the City of Marquette Arts and Culture Center initially funded the Lake Superior Theatre in 1998 and eventually helped them become their own 501(c)3 organization. Now, the Lake Superior Theatre is returning the favor and helping bootstrap the fledgling Youth Theatre as it too is spun-off from the Marquette Arts and Culture Center. The Arts and Culture Center also played a similar incubator role with The Marquette Symphony Orchestra, helping them get on their feet in 1996.
One of the most unique creative resources in the Upper Peninsula is not an organization per se, but a one-woman force of nature. Since 1996, Mary Wright has involved thousands of unsuspecting people in her community-wide projects that have included decorating ice shanties, carving totem poles and painting stories about their grandmothers on old doors.
There aren’t any traditional job titles for Wright. In a recent interview, she claimed the most appropriate title was “Fool… Because that’s what I have to be to take on some of these projects.” Dave Hagley, a longtime friend and collaborator, was more generous saying “…she is a community organizer for the arts.”
What makes Wright’s projects so powerful is that they focus on the work of individuals who would never consider themselves artists. Instead, her participants are area residents who are able to connect with one of her projects on an emotional level. Working with Wright, they find that the arts can offer an outlet for an emotion that they never knew how to express before. Wright takes responsibility for generating the initial project idea, coordinating all of the materials and providing a healthy dose of artistic support. Then, she waits for someone to walk or drive by.
Hagley related a story about Mary during the early days of the Heritage Family Tree Project, a 1999 undertaking in Marquette, which enabled families to create totem pole-like constructions portraying a story from their family histories. Once Wright and her team had all of the materials ready-to-go in Marquette’s harbor, people were reluctant to join in. However, Wright didn’t put up with that for long. “I was with her right down in the parking lot while she chased people down to get them to participate in the project… literally chasing after cars,” said Hagley. Once Mary got a few initial people to start work on a log, Hagley continued, “…they ended up with 500 people. They were down there painting, branding and carving. What really got me was that some of these people were so moved about it they were just crying… about their grandfather who just died or their father who just died. And this was a tribute to them. It was quite astonishing the effect it had on people.”
Wright has also collaborated with other arts groups throughout the U.P. and Canada. For instance, The Story Line Project was a project commissioned by the Pine Mountain Music Festival. Wright’s role in the project focused on working with Upper Peninsula families to transcribe stories of perseverance during the mining and logging days. These stories were then transferred to small pieces of fabric and hung on a clothesline in Michigan Technological University’s Rozsa Center. Meanwhile, the Pine Mountain Music Festival used the project to highlight their premier of Rockland, an opera based on the story of a copper mining strike in Ontonagon County where two Finnish miners were shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1906.
The next challenge for U.P. arts groups is to reach out to the two-thirds of the Upper Peninsula residents who don’t live in one of the major metropolitan areas. Nason, who is very positive about the Lake Superior Youth Theatre’s impact on the Marquette community, says that there are lots of people that reside in areas too remote for organizations like her’s to serve. “There are many kids in these rural areas that won’t see their first play until high school or even college,” says Nason. Despite this lack of exposure, the arts groups are doing their best to encourage participation. The first production of the Lake Superior Youth Theatre, stages March 9th & 10th, with a presentation of Annie Jr. involving a cast of 85 area performers.