West Michigan always felt so far away when I was little. During my childhood, my uncle lived on the opposite side of the state with his family. We only saw each other once, maybe twice a year. The visits were always short but full of joy and entertainment with my uncle at the center of attention. His thunderous laugh was distinctive and genuine. My mother and her big brother had a special bond and I could see this at these rare gatherings even at a young age. Although the two were very different, they had a gift for using their hands to create beautiful things. My mother loved to plant flowers and was a talented green thumb; my uncle was a historian and master of the arts who graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art and the University of Michigan. As an introverted child, this connection affected me greatly in that he fostered and mentored many ideas for expressing myself creatively. I remember him first teaching me about performers such as Marcel Marceau and giving me a book on how to juggle for my 14th birthday. We talked about many artists and types of art, and he introduced me to a broad range of work from Eames to Haring. These influences impacted me to later dabble in graffiti and eventually try my hand as a street performer in Chicago, entertaining the crowds on Michigan Avenue. I grew to associate my Uncle and the west side of Michigan as the "creative hub" and wanted more.
I convinced my parents to let me leave home and attend Western Michigan University where I received a degree in Graphic Design. After that, I moved to Chicago and saw even less of the family. Occasionally my uncle, who taught art at Muskegon Community College, would bring his class over to visit the Art Institute of Chicago. He would always make it a part of the itinerary to meet up at a restaurant in Greektown where we would make the most of our time before he headed back home. Years went by and I moved even further away from the family. I saw and heard less from Uncle except for an occasional prized care package of art books or craft supplies with a heartwarming note. His handwriting was a pristine architectural block print even well into his 80’s.
Like most artists and designers, Uncle was an avid collector. Among his prized agglomerations were El Día de los Muertos skeletons, Mickey Mouse statues, vintage halloween masks and a robust tin-type robot collection. He was against firearms and would carefully remove any guns from the robots. He was deeply fascinated with Asian culture and dabbled in Buddhism. He was able to make a trip to Japan in retirement which influenced his art in later life. The family house in Twin Lakes was outfitted in mid-century modern furniture most of which was procured from various outlet stores and thrift shops. He loved the hunt of thrift diving.
In 2015, I participated in a group art show in Saugatuck, just south of where Uncle lived. I invited him and the family to the opening. I was so nervous at what he would think or say about the work. I had so many scenarios running through my head. This was the man idolized since childhood – how would the art critique and long-term professor of the arts react? His strong voice was relatively soft on feedback as he looked on. We ended in front of the largest piece, an image transfer of an astronaut. He paused, collected his thoughts, and proclaimed that the astronaut looked much like me. I was confused and asked for more. He said, “I see confidence and accomplishment in the posture, and that is who and where you are today.” His words brought back a wave of emotion knowing that he was acknowledging how far I had come from the young introverted kid I once was.