From Detroit to Grand Rapids, MINT Artist Guild youth honors heroes with first traveling exhibit

In trying times like these, we all need champions. Those courageous individuals whose actions cast light into darkness make us believe we too can be brave; we can overcome. 

During the pandemic, 12 young artists from Detroit’s MINT Artists Guild have painted a collection of such heroes—the famous, the imagined, and the unnamed—whose stories inspire them to stand tall in the face of trouble. The 15 small portraits compose the guild’s first traveling art exhibit, “Heroes: Now and Then,” currently on loan at the Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM) through May 22.

“My work is in a museum; that’s crazy,” says 17-year-old Vianca Romero, an Oakland Community College student, and 2020 guild summer artist. “I’m blown away.” Her acrylic painting of Willem Arondeus, an openly gay World War II hero who fought to hide the identities of Dutch Jews, is a highlight to the collection. 

“What he did in one day (participating in bombing the Amsterdam public records office) saved over a thousand people,” she says. Facing execution for this, Arondeus’s last recorded words were, “Homosexuals are not cowards.” He’s someone to look to, she says, “especially in a time where it's important to speak up and not just sit back and be a bystander.”

William Arondeus by Vianca Romero

Amid the pandemic, the heroes theme is a powerful one that resonates within the GRAM community, says Emily Jarvi, school experience manager in the museum's Learning and Creativity department. It’s particularly relevant, she says, because the portraits represent both real and imaginary heroes.

“From nurses on the frontlines of COVID-19 to pop artist Keith Haring to medical research hero Henrietta Lacks and protesters standing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, the theme, she says, “asks us to reflect on subjects in the gallery as well as the heroes in our own lives.”

Vickie Elmer, co-founder and executive director of MINT, says the diversity of portraits is something she was surprised and delighted to see. The MINT nonprofit studio in Detroit’s Palmer Park teaches young people, 13-21, how to create art and seriously pursue art as a career. Year-round opportunities include entrepreneurial skill-building, artmaking classes, and mentoring from professional visual artists. 

The studio’s summer jobs program partners with Grow Detroit’s Young Talent to employ dedicated creatives ages 14-21 through July and August. Youth are paid to nurture their creative skills, explore their artist identities, practice job readiness and give back to the community. Many of the paintings created by summer workers are donated to beautify local nonprofits through MINT’s Paint Detroit with Generosity campaign. 

The 2020 summer group chose themes of “heroes, hope and hard times.” 

Hard times were certainly here. Art classes and workshops at MINT, like everything else, had gone mainly virtual. The studio worked to ease the transition by delivering art supplies to students at their homes and focusing on self-care and lessons. Still, artists were physically isolated, navigating the pandemic as well as civil unrest, just trying to create beauty from their bedrooms and backyards. 

“It was so inspiring to me,” Elmer says, “to see the wide variety of heroes—from the past, from today, civil rights, women's rights— that came forth from these young people, who are themselves in trying circumstances: learning to work remotely, dealing with COVID, and maybe in some cases, losing people they cared about to the disease, too.”

Activist Nurse by Oluwaseyi Akintoroye.

As portraits trickled in, Elmer lined them one by one across the table in MINT’s studio. She got that “shivery a-ha moment.” There was something special here, unique yet universal, that needed sharing. Whether freshly authored or historically researched, each image represented shared pain and real hope. 

The “Heroes: Now and Then” exhibit debuted at the Scarab Club in Detroit from Sept. 2  through Oct. 10, 2020. From there, it showcased two weeks at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.

“I've never had my artwork hanging somewhere significant,” says Romero, who’s recently become a MINT board member.  “The arrangement was so beautiful.” But having it travel to the GRAM, she says, has been an OMG moment. “I’ve been working at this [art] my whole life, and to see some traction building finally, and so fast, it definitely encourages me to keep going.”

That’s the goal at MINT. 

In a year when small nonprofits have struggled to survive and grow, the guild has brought new opportunities for exposure and employment to local young artists. Thirteen summer workers were hired by the nonprofit in 2020, up from 10 in 2019, with plans to grow this year. 

During COVID-19, MINT employed 6 professional teaching artists to workshop with youth workers, who put on 7 weeks of summer arts and crafts in Palmer Park supported by the Detroit Pistons, and painted 25 art pieces for local nonprofits, whose partnerships helped them supply the Detroit area youth with more than 5,000 free art kits. 

Superhero Doctor by Natasha Guest.

The studio launched the Youth Arts Competition in 2020, giving away $2,450 in cash prizes. In addition to the hero exhibit, MINT summer workers created Detroit-themed coloring pages, digital artwork, and various community art projects.

“We did a lot last summer,” Elmer says. She’s working on spring fundraising ideas and hoping local communities will support the guild’s growth this year.

“Art is one of the most powerful forms of communication and expression,” says Jarvi. The MINT exhibit encourages youth at the GRAM to create some of their own hero portraits, she says. The museum has included the exhibit, open in-person to the public, during virtual school tours. 

They’ve also partnered with the Grand Rapids Public Library to offer hero-based reading lists for adults and youth, with suggestions like “Disability Visibility” by Alice Wong and “March,” by John Lewis. The education component suggested by Elmer was a good fit for the GRAM that often pairs literacy with art, Jarvi says.  

This exhibit represents so many cultures and countries, Elmer says, that she hopes it changes people’s perspective of what it means to be from Detroit. She also wants viewers to consider the heroes near them.

“Whether it's somebody who brings your keys when you’ve lost them, that's a small heroic act. I really believe it makes us all better people when we can acknowledge there are heroes around us, “ she says, “and a little hero in us as well.

Women Save Themselves by Jessia Fligger.

MINT is working to inspire one more Michigan audience with their portraits before bringing them home to Detroit. After sharing them with local audiences once more, they’ll look to find ways to turn the collection into new art like postcards and prints. 

After seeing many different representations from her summer co-workers, Romero says she thinks a hero is anyone willing to put others before themselves. 
As a budding artist, she finds hero qualities in Detroit-based visual artist and muralist Sydney James, who she workshopped with at CCS in the past and MINT last summer.

“Her work ethic, her style, her confidence, everything about her just,” Romero says, “inspires me to want to help myself, to help others and accomplish something with my art. I hope we can see another traveling exhibit to show there are artists here who want to be seen and heard.” 

Heroes: Now and Then can be viewed at the GRAM through May 22. Details at https://www.artmuseumgr.org/exhibitions/heroes-now-and-then

MINT is actively recruiting young artists for their 2021 Creative Summer Jobs program. Any creative Detroit youth ages 14 to 21 interested in being considered should register with GDYT.org ad email us at [email protected]. The deadline is May 1.

Read more articles by Sarah Williams.

Sarah Williams is a freelance writer and photojournalist based in metro Detroit. Her work focuses on individuals and nonprofit organizations investing in their communities through arts and culture, holistic healthcare, education and neighborhood revitalization. Follow her on Instagram @sarahwilliamstoryteller 
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