OWOSSO — Local entrants in the ninth annual ArtPrize contest in Grand Rapids found inspiration for their artwork from a wide variety of sources; including war in the Middle East, waterfalls in the Upper Peninsula and a quest for self-understanding at a challenging period in life.
Jordan Noble, Catherine Tonning-Popowich and Gary Mulnix, all from the Owosso area, have their work displayed at what organizers call the most-attended public art event in the world.
ArtPrize — which opened Wednesday and runs through Oct. 8 — expects to draw more than 400,000 visitors from more than 40 countries and will award more than $500,000 in prize money to artists through both a public vote and an art jury’s selection. The event is free to attend. For more information, visit artprize.org.
Noble acknowledges that at first glance, “Underwear” may seem shocking to some viewers. She hopes viewers will take a closer look and move beyond that first, emotional reaction, into a more intellectual response.
“Underwear” consists of photographs of eight different womens’ rear ends. Their front sides, including faces, are not pictured, and their names are not shared. They were chosen after responding to an open call Noble made.
Free of computer photo editing, the women — between ages 18 and 57 and representing a number of different races and ethnicities — show off curves, as well as blemishes, framed only by their favorite pair of underwear.
The photographs are accompanied by short excerpts from interviews conducted by Noble, wherein the models comment on their concerns about body image, sexualization and identity in America today.
“I wanted to create a project that would make you say from the outset, ‘This is a sexual piece,’” Noble said. “After all, I photographed the rear because it is a hugely sexualized part of our bodies.”
“But then you realize that they’re showing their personalities with their underwear. Some are wearing thongs and some are wearing comfortable, lounging-around briefs. And then you read what they have to say, and it’s very powerful. So, I hope to get people thinking,” she added.
Noble, 23, of Owosso, first conceived “Underwear” as an independent study project while pursuing an undergraduate degree in journalism at Michigan State University. She said it was born out of frustrations stemming from an introspective period in her life that took place about two years ago — having her first boyfriend.
“That experience caused me to begin really trying to understand how I perceived my body, how society viewed it, how my boyfriend viewed it and how God viewed it,” she said. “I was trying to figure out where I fit in.”
After obtaining a bachelor’s degree, Noble entered Michigan State University’s journalism master’s degree program. There, faculty caught wind of her project and convinced her to submit it to ArtPrize — an event she had never even been to before, much less considered entering.
“I told them, ‘I think I’m too busy preparing for finals,’ but they twisted my arm. I’m very grateful they did, too, because I’m thrilled to be a part of this for the first time,” she said.
With her work on display, Noble said, she feels a sense of pride, as well as humility and encouragement. Not only did she find the answers she was looking for, she said, but she graduated with a master’s degree last spring and recently was married to her first boyfriend. She hopes to turn “Underwear” into a book someday.
“It’s not a clear-cut answer, but one point that was very powerful to me were that I was not alone in my insecurities,” Noble said. “The women who were photographed and I built a lot of camaraderie and it was a very cathartic experience to take their pictures. They gave me a lot of wisdom.”
“Underwear” can be seen at Cerasus Studio, 120 Division Ave., S Suite 126, in Grand Rapids.
In his latest ArtPrize display, Gary Mulnix uses a familiar medium and subject to tell an unfamiliar story.
Mulnix, 58, of Owosso Township, is entering ArtPrize for the fifth time. A sculptor and pastel artist, he has previously used ArtPrize to showcase his love of botanical form and texture — as is the case in past ArtPrize entries such as “Corn Field” and “Sunflowers,” both bronze sculptures.
Mulnix’s 2017 entry, “Demascus Jasmine,” is also a bronze relief sculpture, but unlike the others, it is not inspired by plants that are grown in Shiawassee County. Instead, it was influenced by the jasmine flower, which is considered a symbol of Syria’s capital city, Demascus.
“I don’t usually do this kind of thing,” Mulnix said, “but there were a few chance encounters I had that really brought to light some terrible things that have been happening in Syria and around the world that made me very emotional. … The only real help I could offer was to make art.”
A little over a year ago, Mulnix said, he was eating alone at a restaurant in Vermont while attending a wedding when he happened to meet a group of three people with Syrian roots — an internationally known composer, his wife and a friend.
The four became friends, bonding over their shared love of art. And when the composer told Mulnix of troubles his parents were having as a result of the ongoing Syrian civil war, it greatly affected him.
“He said he was working on a piece called ‘Jasmine,’ which is wife’s name, and it also had to do with the flower,” Mulnix said. “It’s been in my mind ever since, like I needed to make this peace with myself.”
A few months later, Mulnix said, he boarded a plane bound for New York and happened to meet a Wall Street Journal reporter covering Syria. They talked for the whole ride there, Mulnix said, and by the time they landed, he had the inspiration he needed to make his sculpture.
Mulnix said he is stunned and shocked by terrorist groups including the Taliban and Islamic State, who have destroyed priceless works of art in Syria and other Middle Eastern countries.
“We all have to fight back,” Mulnix said. “I think the war in Syria has been pushed aside with everything else going on in the world. People are being killed and we can’t forget that.
“This travel ban on Muslims really gets me, too,” Mulnix added, referring to Executive Order 13769, which in effect suspended the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States indefinitely. (The order has since been blocked by various courts.) “I hope that if someone of a Muslim faith sees this, it can counteract that negative stuff. It feels kind of naive, but it’s how I feel.”
“Demascus Jasmine” can be viewed at First (Park) Congregational Church, 10 E. Park Place, Northeast, in Grand Rapids.
“SCENES FROM THE GREAT LAKES”
For the first time in several years, Catherine Tonning-Popowich took a deep breath and a look around her surroundings. There, she found inspiration for her ArtPrize entry.
“Scenes from the Great Lakes” consists of three acrylic paintings, 22-by-14 inches apiece, inspired by photographs Tonning-Popowich took of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula and Lake Huron from a perspective in Canada.
“This whole experience has been a lot of fun,” said Tonning-Popowich, of Owosso. “I’m entering ArtPrize for the first time, and I’m showing with my daughter, Kate Meyer, who is doing this for the fourth time. So, that means a lot.”
Tonning-Popowich, a native of Grandville, said she has moved more than 13 times with her husband, who works for General Motors. Their travels have taken them to several different states, and by the time they moved back to Michigan in 2001, she decided she needed to reacquaint herself with the area.
So, she took to photography. Now, Tonning-Popowich said, she makes an annual trip around the state every fall to photograph various beautiful sites.
“I like Michigan a lot,” she said. “I have to have lakes. My brother lives out in Colorado and is always saying we should retire out there, but I don’t think I could trade the mountains for the lake. There’s something here you can’t get anywhere else.”
Tonning-Popowich offered a piece of advice to novice photographers: Look around. One of her paintings, which depicts a photograph she took of leaves resting near a waterfall at Copper Harbor, was not what she had originally came to the area to shoot. But upon closer inspection, she realized she had captured something beautiful.
“We were going to take pictures of waterfalls, but the waterfall level was really low. When we got to Copper Harbor, the falls were just a trickle. And I looked down and i saw these leaves, and I thought, I’ll just take a picture of this,” she said. “It paid off.”
She said it was an unforeseen trial to replicate the natural beauty of the area in her work.
“The brightness of the sunset, trying to get that, halfway through I thought, ‘What was I thinking?” Tonning-Popowich said. “The darkness of the silhouettes in the trees were also tough. Some artists think, if you have a photograph, why would you paint it that way? But to me it’s a fun challenge, getting the light and the dark as accurate as it could be.”
Tonning-Popowich’s work is on display at One Trick Pony Grill and Taproom, 136 Fulton St., East, in Grand Rapids.