When one asks “what makes an artist?” it may be philosophical, snarky or pretentious. Regardless of the question’s intent, the “FUN” exhibit at the UMMA Irving Stenn Jr. Gallery (May 14 – Sept. 9), provides the answers: a community, craft materials and a sense of freedom and fun. 

Throughout the summer, patrons of the window-filled exhibition space in the center of campus turned basic materials into massive sculptures. The project began as the brainchild of UMMA curator for Teaching and Learning, Grace VanderVliet. Years ago, VanderVliet had a vision for the gallery, “I would turn it into a gathering space for families,” she said in a phone interview with The Michigan Daily, “and I would invite people in to practice having conversations about life, around art, using art.” 

This vision turned into a class led by the Lloyd Scholars for Writing and the Arts Art Director, Mark Tucker. The gallery space was a blank slate until VanderVliet asked students to create a sculpture reimagining an UMMA collection work of their choosing. From there, with a paper-covered floor and masses of paper, glue, wire, staples and paint, the project expanded and exploded. Students became resident artists alongside VanderVliet, Tucker and the UMMA team, joined by brief artist residencies from community members of all ages.

Throughout the summer, museum visitors and volunteers compiled the sculptures. The community artistic process went through Aug. 26, long after the spring-term students had finished their course (though some students stayed to watch their pieces grow). Months of novice artist work went into each piece of cardboard, wire, paper and paper mache. Children painted base layers of the paper mache and teens twisted wires. Everyone was an artist with a mission. If a child was too young to aid in the project, they created theatrical art with homemade costumes. Every one devoted themselves to creating something “bigger than we could make on our own,” VanderVliet said.

Today, with the paper off the floor and the sculptures complete, the gallery lacks the stiff, unchanging feeling of many museum exhibits. It exudes pure fun, creativity and curiosity. Museum visitors enter the space under a large, homemade arch of colorful paper scraps and a collaged three-dimensional word: “FUN.” “PLEASE TOUCH,” a sign reads. Visitors are encouraged to interact with the sculptures; sit in the gigantic cat’s lap, lightly pull on the billowing mesh limbs of modern sculptures and touch the wire of a seven-foot silver human. Visitors can also label each sculpture with a miniaturized picture of its inspiration, further connecting with the pieces’ creative origins and material creation. The exciting, open space allows visitors to explore the UMMA’s traditional galleries with newfound comfort, curiosity and bravery to ask questions.

At the space’s entrance lies an enormous, blue tiger/couch devised by senior LSA psychology major Lucy Popovitch, inspired by a Chinese Jin Dynasty stoneware pillow of a similar shape. The sign accompanying the work asks visitors to learn about the work, giving them the okay to sit and climb into the sculpture to see the paper mache interior. On the couch lies a black phone, an addition from SMTD performing arts technology associate professor, Michael Gurevich, who collaborated with students through interactive audio. On this tiger couch, visitors can dial a number to hear various cat noises or record their own, allowing visitors to add to the exhibit.

Across the room is a green, unidentifiable silhouette inspired by Louise Nevelson’s sculpture, “Dark Presence III.” LSA senior Kaitlyn (Xiaoyu) Yi, a communication and media major, was influenced by the original sculpture’s inclusion of New York City street trash to make art with objects gathered on Ann Arbor streets. Getting inside and behind the three-dimensional sculpture, one can see the details of windows and rooftops and construct a vision of a busy mini city while listening to distorted sounds on a bright green phone. The sculpture is a vibrant, celebratory abstraction of a cityscape, which, according to Tucker, “reveals itself” as you walk behind the front view. 

The project allowed students, community artists and visitors to explore their craftsmanship and personal values. LSA sophomore Tarana Sharma recreated Matsubara Naoko’s ink print “Willow” for interactivity, with mesh roots hanging, begging to be explored and billowing in bright blues and greens. Sharma sought to explore the banyan tree, a symbol of wisdom, in an interactive aerial piece. LSA alum Eleanor Chi graduated in summer 2022 and worked with the community to sculpt a towering wire human inspired by Alberto Giacometti’s “Tall Figure.” Chi reimagined the bronze piece in an interconnected, thin wire to reflect the figure’s calmness and openness. Nearby is what VanderVliet called the “teaching method” for student and community artists: the blob. Inspired by Roxy Paine’s machine-created “S2 P2 R AP4” sculpture, the intriguing, gargantuan red blob was a community effort of trial and error, glue, cardboard and paint. “This was completely analog, dozens of people came and helped us,” Tucker said. 

The opportunity for creative collaboration with the community made “the carrot” of the project “built-in” for students. “We didn’t pull the shades throughout this,” Tucker said. Throughout the summer, students grew closer and connected with visiting artists, families learned new things (like how to use a rotary phone or what is inside a sculpture’s mouth), University staff groups collaborated, and strangers connected over their love for art. “FUN” connects people of all ages to art through experience. “We often privilege talking and looking,” VanderVliet said about learning, “but there are many people who learn through making and touching materials and wondering how artists made their objects and wondering about the process.” The project further expanded into the community during the kickoff to the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, when hundreds of people came to see the huge, colorful art outdoors, and the end-of-summer Artscapade, as the art again left the museum walls. The gallery’s walls of windows invite people into a new manifestation of what art can be: community-strengthening, ever-evolving and open to questions and exploration.

Tucker remembers the first day of the student project when “If it wasn’t for you, you knew it right away and you moved on. But nobody did. Everyone stayed,” Tucker said. This summer, as students and the Ann Arbor community collaborated on stunning artworks, and today, as children and adults of every age play with the work, “FUN” proves that art is for everyone. 

Daily Arts Writer Kaya Ginsky can be reached at kginsky@umich.edu.