Hey, neighbor: Hamtramck arts fest is community love affair

Hamtramck has that special something about it that begs for new definitions. It's traditional, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, filled with families that started in South Asia, or the southern tip of the Arabian peninsula, or in the Balkans in south central Europe. Or the American south. Not to mention eastern Poland (largely) or northwest Ukraine.

Walk or cycle around the city and you'll see landmark churches, restaurant-bars converted into mosques, wedding halls remade into Zen Buddhist centers, union halls now Hindu temples.

Others come here to make art, make music, open galleries and performance spaces. Which is where we come in, talking to two tall and talented Steves, Hughes and Panton, who have organized the Hamtramck Neighborhood Arts Festival, held all day in multiple locations this Saturday, Oct. 20, from 1 p.m until, well, late as you choose to make it. Keep these close: a map and a schedule

Hughes is a Kresge award-winning writer, best known for his Stupor zine series that he began in New Orleans in the mid-1990s, then soon after moved to Hamtramck. He is a founding member of the Public Pool art space.

 is a native of Nottingham, England, an engineer by trade who settled in Hamtramck after spending some time living and working in New Zealand. He runs 2739Edwin gallery and performance space out of his loft.

Full disclosure: I also live in Hamtramck and, in my own meager way, especially compared to the work of these two guys, helped with the planning of this event. I'm also part of the Public Pool team. 

Enough preamble, let's do it. Steve and Steve, take it away:

Walter Wasacz: An easy one to start: why Hamtramck for an arts festival? What makes this place special in this regard?
Steve Panton: To start with it has a long history of having many significant artists, musicians and venues within a small area. Then there's the unique character of Hamtramck itself - the diverse population and high population density just makes it feel different from anywhere else in Michigan. It's that combination that makes it special.

Steve Hughes: Hamtramck is a walkable neighborhood with a dense population, and a thriving community of artists. Lots of the work that's happening here never ends up in a gallery. So this is a good opportunity to discover what artists are up too in their own spaces. It’s also a good chance to explore venues and parts of town you might not think about going to. It’s set up to allow you to walk through the city. Eat, drink, art. It’ll be a great day.
WW: How did the idea of a neighborhood arts festival come about?
Panton: The idea of an arts festival just seemed a very obvious one. Steve Hughes (originally) pointed out that it was really a neighborhood arts festival.

Hughes: Probably it surfaced some afternoon at a bar, when someone said it would be really cool to check out artists’ work right in their own studios. I’ve been doing studio visits for years. When I write about artists for Stupor, I first visit them in their space and talk with them about their work. Studio visits are a special sort of experience because you get a chance to meet the artist in their own space surrounded by their work and have oportunities to ask them questions and sort of discover the thoughts behind their process.
WW: You each represent art spaces in Hamtramck. Tell us a little about Public Pool and 2739Edwin.

Hughes: The Public Pool is a neighborhood art space. We're interested in creating a dialogue between artists and the many city residents who come by our space. We're also interested in art as process of discovery, both for the artist and viewer. I think (the current) George Rahme show talks about this last point. Because part of his show is about the creation of his work and how he builds and makes decisions about it, you can stop by anytime, talk to him and see what he's working on and how it's changed since the last time. Also George is energized by this contact. So it's good for the community and the artist too. 
Panton: 2739 Edwin has been around for about 5 years putting on 4-6 shows a year, typically solo or two person shows. Hopefully, it's a space that gives an artist the room to stretch out and show a meaningful body of work. The idea is to show work that is approachable but questioning.
WW: Tell us about what else is going on in Hamtramck's art scene? Who are some of the key players, places and projects.
Panton: Well, the strength of the city's art scene is in it's widespread nature and the continuing arrival of new participants and venues. But having said that, there're obviously clusters of activity in the northwest of the city around Graem Whyte and Faina Lerman's Popps Packing, and just north of the city where Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart have set up shop with the Power House Project, and other artists such as Jon Brumit and Charlie O'geen (The Floating House Project) joined them. 

Hughes: (Cope and Reichert's) Design99 has been a huge catalyst for the arts in the area, starting with their storefront and moving to their work in the neighborhood noth of Carpenter. Their work is particularly important because it offers ideas about how Detroit can sustain, stabilize and recreate its crumbling neighborhoods. Their work has inspired artists and other good people to move to their neighborhood and Hamtramck in general. They were a defining force behind the creation of our space, the Public Pool. Also they've had a great year, receiving a 250K NEA grant to build the Ride It Sculpture Park, and then a Juror's prize for their work of ArtPrize of 100k. Holy crap. Those are big numbers. 
WW: Give us a preview of what people can expect to experience at this event.
Panton: Well the idea is that people pick up a map from Public Pool or one of the other locations some time from 1 p.m. onwards and wander around the city. The gallery/studio/art project crawl is 1-5 p.m. and there are around 15 locations ranging from major projects, such as those up around the Power House, to artists setting up something on their back porch. Alongside this there'll be music on porches and some performances in the evening.
For me, one of the highlights of last year's event was seeing an older East European woman come out and sing at one of the venues on Klinger. You can't schedule that sort of thing.

Hughes: There’s going to be a huge variety of events. Some artists are opening their houses. It’s a huge privilege to see artists work in their own space and studios. It’s maybe one of my favorite things. To explore and try to understand the ideas behind their work, and see more intimately where and how they’re working. It’s cool. So there’s that, and then of course the galleries will all be open: Public Pool, 2739 Edwin, Popps Packing, the HatchArt headquarters. Also a lot of artist-run alternative spaces will be on view, like the Treasure Nest, Jon Brumit's Sound House, and the buildings around Popps. Then storefronts on Campau (including Detroit Threads and Lo & Behold Records & Books) will be hosting musical events, some running late into the evening. It’ll be a helluva good time. 
WW: I love this declaration, found on your Facebook page: "Our goal is to activate the city’s indigenous talent and create a walkable, neighborhood-scale, art experience on porches, in houses, on sidewalks and storefronts." Expand on that: why is it important to be walkable and to have neighborhood scale? 
Panton: Having something of walkable scale just allows for a far more participatory experience and a far more personal interaction with the venues and the city. It allows for an event that's distributed around the city but still feels local. Plus walking is just good full stop.

Hughes: The organizing concept behind this crawl is a based on a DIY ethic. We’re providing a framework for the crawl but that’s pretty much it. The artists, the storefronts and musicians and galleries are all doing own thing. It’s mostly a neighborhood event for the neighborhood. There’s a lot of great stuff going on all the time and it’s easy to take it for granted or simply not notice. This is a festival that really celebrates our city, and the people that live here. Also we’re trying to set it up in a way that people will feel comfortable walking from space to space.  
WW: Hamtramck porches are a classic local residential design feature. To have musicians perform on them is a brilliant idea.
Panton: I think the idea is to work with what you've got. Hamtramck's got plenty of porches and plenty of musicians.

Hughes: I like the idea of the porch as a stage for the house and neighborhood activity. Porch sitting and barbequing and beer drinking is a great summery activity, even in the fall. I love it also how the structures are lined up to make it so you can look from one porch to the next all down the street. The porches are designed to promote contact between neighbors, not to create private spaces like many suburban designs do. 
WW: Also important in the description of the festival is "activating the city's indigenous talent." This event is really a product of the talent that exists in the neighborhoods of the city, making it an authentic reflection of what goes on here on an everyday basis.
Panton: Right, it's about the everyday.

Hughes: The word "activating" is important. We’re just providing a platform, a framework, a suggestion and the artist/musicians/storefronts/gallery spaces are taking over. It’s going to be colorful. We don’t know what might happen but it’s going to be interesting. Really we’re relying on the artists and musicians to build this themselves. It’s really for them and their neighbors.

Walter Wasacz is Model D's managing editor. You might find him pouring and serving up beer at the next Public Pool opening. 

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.