Artist Paints Forgotten History Along the Grand River

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Alan Compo with his ArtPrize 10 mural, which is part of the UICA Outside exhibition.
Alan Compo with his ArtPrize 10 mural, which is part of the UICA Outside exhibition.

Growing up, Grand Rapids artist Alan Compo was surrounded by art all the time. He attended Grand Rapids Community College and took art classes, but most of his learning about art came from Native American artists.

“I wanted to be an artist my entire life,” said Compo. “It wasn’t until recently, within the last couple of years, where I realized to just do it is the only way it’s going to happen.”

Compo, who is from the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians, always tries to put his heritage into his art.

“My thing is that I love to paint my contemporary style,” said Compo. “We’re not all canoes and whatever, like back in the day; we’re nowadays. I like to blend old stories with now, in sometimes a fun style, but a respectful style.”

He loves the old traditional paintings but he wants his community’s story to continue. And that’s exactly what his ArtPrize mural is doing.

Located on Pearl Street near the Grand River, his mural is based on the Grand River Ottawa Bands.

Alan Compo's mural is part of the UICA Outside exhibition for ArtPrize 10.
Alan Compo’s mural is part of the UICA Outside exhibition for ArtPrize 10.

“There’s a lot of Ottawa Bands’ [history] on this river,” said Compo. “The river was actually used by most natives because it was like the expressway back then. This area was like a meeting spot for all the tribes to come together and be social. So that’s always an inspiration for me when I’m down here, because it’s kind of amazing to imagine all of the people that were back here and to hear some of the stories.”

Compo’s mural starts from the top of the steps leading down to the river. He also got to paint in the tunnel next to the river and that painting has a rich story as well.

“The inspiration behind it came from a story about a plum orchard that was here and the native women were always seen coming down to,” said Compo. “It was along the riverbanks and they probably came here for sanctuary or just piece of mind.”

He says the story of the plum orchard is one of those stories that probably got lost in translation throughout time.

“The city basically built itself over [the plum orchard],” said Compo. “The story goes that it was burned down, and who knows if it was to stop them from coming or if it was for progress [of the city], but I just wanted to bring it back.”

Alan Compo's work is ground in his heritage as a member of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.
Alan Compo’s work is ground in his heritage as a member of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians.

His painting includes three different plum trees, in red, yellow and purple, and they are all in circles, just like in the stories he was told about them.

“I wanted to recreate that scene and just honor those women back then and the women of today that still bring a lot of traditions and are still around and that are living today,” he said. “To be able to put it in this spot, on the river, is awesome.”

This is Compo’s first year participating in ArtPrize and he said he wants to try and be at his site as much as possible during the next two and a half weeks.

“I want to be there to be able to help explain my art if needed,” said Compo. “I would like to be there to show some of my points of view on some of the things. I would like people to feel a connection to this place. I want people to know that we are still a community and that there are pieces of us still here. I want people to search out stories and not be afraid to tell people your own story.”

Compo’s mural is part of the UICA Outside exhibit. ArtPrize 10 takes place from Sept. 19 – Oct. 7.

*Photos courtesy of Jordan Kopsky

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