Kenn Vidro wants people to be happy when they see his art. Case in point: When one of his pieces was stolen at ArtPrize last year, he just hoped whoever made off with it liked what they were getting — part of his “Pop goes Grand Rapids” series, which features playful groups of cartoon characters at Grand Rapids landmarks.
“I’m pretty free (with my work) anyway,” he said, joking that if the piece never got returned, he could always just make another. “I mean, I understand that probably isn’t the right attitude. But I thought, well, if somebody really wanted that bad enough, you know, maybe that’s meant to be theirs.”
It was back in 48 hours, Vidro said, when someone contacted the police and told them they had it in their apartment. They didn’t know how it had gotten there, he said, after a party the previous night.
This all captures a little bit of the whimsy in Vidro’s work. He’s a retired art teacher in Grandville who spent decades in Rockford schools, and he describes his work as cartoon and fan-art based. When he was a kid — one of seven — he was “always the one with the crayons.” His mom was always impressed with his work, and he loved the feeling of someone taking an interest in what he’d drawn.
Vidro has had a long career, but his favorite piece was a recent commission that came through Peter Secchia, after the late Grand Rapids statesman and philanthropist saw his work and hired him to design the front of a pamphlet for a Parkinson’s disease fundraiser.
The final work, drawn like a comic book’s cover, featured fundraiser guest of honor Kirk Gibson — the Michigan State football and Detroit Tigers baseball alum — standing over his opponent “Parky” in the boxing ring, the two of them drawn in obvious reference to Muhammad Ali’s victory over Sonny Liston.
“I would probably say that was my proudest moment,” Vidro said, because it was such a remarkable bit of attention from someone who knew him only through his work. Who doesn’t like seeing their passion grow big enough and important enough to catch the public’s eye?
Vidro’s work will be in ArtPrize again this year, in five four-by-four-foot paintings called “The GOOD, the BAD and the NOT SO GOOD LOOKING.” It’s another set of character panels, with five total — two featuring heroes, two featuring villains, and another featuring characters that, in Vidro’s words, are “not so good-looking.”
“I’m very, very happy when somebody stops and looks and says, ‘this is nostalgic,’ or ‘this just makes me smile,’” Vidro said. “And that’s kind of how I almost paint that way. I’m a very animated person. I’m very much that way, and to share that joy is a cool thing.”
Before Nick Nortier made his mark in Grand Rapids’ art scene, he was just a kid reading comic books, walking with his friend to Argo’s while his mom was still at work.
It’s the Spiderman series that stands out to him now — “pretty much every variation,” he said, from Spectacular Spiderman to Amazing Spiderman to Spidey Super Stories.
It’s the small push that brought him to a passion that’s buoyed him for the rest of his career. At Grand Rapids Community College, a short experiment with architecture (it was not for him) eventually led him to a drawing class.
He loved it. By 2013, he was graduating from Kendall College of Art and Design with a bachelor’s degree in illustration — hoping to find work illustrating kids’ books and comic books.
The move was a gutsy one, and it wasn’t always obvious that things would work out. Graduating in 2013 was better than graduating in the late 2000s, in the depths of the Great Recession — but he was still an artist trying to find work. For a while, he had to make ends meet as a waiter and a bartender before he got his first mural in 2015 (and he still went back to tending bar in 2017 for a little while).
“The pandemic was definitely a scary time, because I had three decent-sized clients lined up, and then all of that fell apart. I was laid off for a few months,” he said. He was lucky that two of those projects were exteriors, and that he could soon get back to work.
That work, nowadays, is all over town; he does illustration and printmaking, but it’s his murals that you’ve probably seen. He painted an owl, wings swept wide, soaring into the marshy brush on the walls of Division Avenue Arts Collective. He has a blue heron, in startlingly white-and-orange profile, on the wall at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
One of his favorites is one he said is a little silly — at Condado Tacos, he painted a three-eyed bear in a button-up shirt, holding a platter with a single taco and hoisting a beer. It’s a nod to Grand Rapids’ brewing scene. It’s also a chance for him to do something off-the-wall. And painting the mural was a social activity, too.
“It’s because there’s eight or nine of us all working on our murals at the same time, all in the same restaurant,” he said. “Just the interactions that all of us got to have with each other was a ton of fun. It was just really inspiring to be around that many people who were super passionate about what they were working on.”
It’s good the pandemic is mostly past, and it’s good that Nortier has a lot of work these days. He always keeps coming back to his artwork, he said, because he must. He just doesn’t have another choice.
“I think a lot of creatives are this way. If we’re not making something … (or) drawing or painting or making music or singing or something like that, then there’s just kind of something that’s missing in our lives. That, for me at least, has led to a lot of depression in my life,” he said. “If I don’t do these things I kind of start to sink. I kind of have to keep my mind up.”
Mandy Cano Villalobos
When Mandy Cano Villalobos, an art professor turned professional artist, first picks up the phone, she can’t chat — the kids have to go to summer camp.
About 45 minutes later, she’s just back from the trip. Her 6-year-old, the youngest, didn’t make it.
“She couldn’t go to camp because she didn’t have any shoes,” Cano Villalobos said, with that edge-of-sanity tone that parents probably find familiar. “How can she lose five different pairs of shoes? Two of them in the last two days? What is that?”
Cano Villalobos is living at peak life right now, quitting the adjunct art professor circuit and going full-time pro. Since late last year, she’s landed a string of opportunities from New York to Mexico City. It’s a little bit overwhelming.
But, she said, it’s been worth it. The former Calvin University art prof is now succeeding as much as she’d dreamed she might. And even though her schedule is full — extremely full — the balance between her life with her family and her work around the country is thrilling. She uses words like “triumph” and “community” when she describes it (she said she’s lucky to have a wonderfully supportive husband).
“There’s something glorious in the struggle itself,” she said.
One of those is a performance piece called “Motherload,” in which Cano Villalobos binds together all the “massive amounts of detritus of everyday life,” from broken toys to kitchen utensils, and lugs them around in a massive bound pile on her back. Usually, she does it in an industrial space, where she said it helps put something domestic — like a woman being a mom — right in the middle of something that’s explicitly associated with masculine work.
“I’m really interested in, like, how do I engage with not only my present state, or even the roles of moms, but also the past in the present and the future in terms of like, what are familial roles?” she said.
This is the kind of thing that Cano Villalobos is great at. She has another performance piece called “Polluere,” in which she steps between two bowls — one with water and one with mud. “The purity of the water and its connotation of cleanliness disappears as the mud pervades the body, floor and basins,” her website says. In another, she repeatedly ties knots to mark the passage of time.
Her site also has a long list of other art — a set of cloth balls with colorful stitching, all mounted on rods and all variously named “Cor,” or another with branded pigs’ feet called “Cuzco School.” And with her recent spate of positive attention, Cano Villalobos said she’s still doing her best to balance it all.
“Suddenly there’s a lot of wonderful things happening in my career,” she said. “And so that’s always this really strange maneuvering situation.”
Judy A. Steiner
Judy A. Steiner, an artist based in Ada, has a favorite painting that she finished years ago. It’s dawn over a field, and the grass is waving in the breeze as the sun pokes through the low clouds. There’s a tiny row of people on a ridge in the left foreground, recalling the moment when her father’s ashes were scattered in a West Michigan field.
“He used to work for a farmer, and he would plow that field sometimes,” Steiner said. “He always wanted to be out there.”
It’s a profoundly personal piece, part of a portfolio that’s as wide and dynamic as her interests. One series, recently popular at ArtPrize, captured the city’s most famous landmarks — like Van Andel Arena, the downtown library and Fountain Street Church. But other pieces are still life, or detail work. One piece in her collection is a close-up study, in beiges and browns, of ornate stone column tops.
“It’s just me seeing the world through my eyes,” she said. “It’s not a photograph, it’s not the way anybody else sees it. It’s just the way I see it.”
Steiner is a dental hygienist by day, but spends as much time as she can manage in her studio. She grew up in Byron Center, she said, and fell in love with art early. She’s been serious about it for nearly 30 years now. It’s a place and a space that’s all hers, and her husband is a big help around the house, helping free up time for her to pursue her passion.
“This is just weekends and nights. But I would like it to be full time,” she said, pausing on the phone call good-naturedly across the room at work. “You hearing that, boss?”
Steiner will be in this year’s ArtPrize, with a piece called “Grand.” It’s a four-foot-high oil painting of the Grand River, featuring Grand Rapids bridges.
“I had a really good response to doing the city last year, and everybody really liked it,” she said. “And I wanted to do it from a different perspective, not just the city line, but more focused on the really cool bridges that we have in Grand Rapids.”
Steiner said she never pursued a career in art, even though she loves to paint. But she also doesn’t want a job that confines the work that she does — like, say, a graphic design job would do. She just wants to see the world as she sees it, through her eyes at her studio.
“If somebody else happens to like it, awesome,” she said. “But I like to do it.”
The skeletons, Grand Rapids printmaker Alynn Guerra said, are really only half of what she does.
Guerra’s online shop is full of them: a skeleton riding a bicycle through the desert, wearing a cowboy hat; a print called “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” in which a cat skeleton, draped across the back of an armchair, droops a bony paw down to a dog skeleton curled up on the seat. In “Dog’s Life: Patience,” a human skeleton taps away on a laptop, while yet another dog skeleton is curled on the floor alongside.
“In the Mexican tradition, there are two sides to skeletons. It relates to the Day of the Dead, but it’s also been a very common way to talk about difficult issues — political issues, things that are historical,” she said.
But they’re the part of her work that baffled people for years. At least, until the movie “Coco” came out, and offered a little more insight into Mexican heritage — with its own cast of talking skeletons that grounded the idea for popular audiences.
And, as Guerra is quick to point out, it’s hardly the only note she’s playing. Her printmaking leans heavily on black-and-white, light-and-dark, with just the barest snatches of color — but it’s varied, from a red burst of a poppy flower over black-and-white stalks to a child, peering through a window, watching a bird on the sill.
Guerra spent most of her early life in Mexico City, and only moved to the United States at age 25 — first to Georgia, and then onward to Grand Rapids, where she said she found a community of people who supported her vision for her art and her artwork — a scene that’s only grown over the years.
One of the pieces that Guerra is most proud of is a circular, with a sunrise over mountains. In the center, a woman with snakes for hair is nursing a baby. It’s partly a meditation on how the world sees women; in a matriarchal culture, Guerra said, powerful women are beautiful. In a patriarchal one, they’re monsters.
“This is based on the Mexican mother earth Coatlicue, who instead of a head has two snakes coming out of her neck, a necklace made of human hearts, and a skirt of snakes,” Guerra wrote on her online store. “This all made me think: who decided that fertile and giving mother earth should be turned into a female monster who also eats the sun every day?”
Guerra pursues her printmaking full-time, which she said can be a long and sometimes stressful road to travel. She’s just as much an artist as you’d imagine: income doesn’t always come easy. But she says she’s looking forward to an upcoming printmaking show at the Tanglefoot Building, and she’s glad she gets to be part of such a strong arts scene in Grand Rapids.
“It took a while for (the art scene) to be where it is now,” Guerra said. “But I feel like it’s great for me to witness what it has become, and not just coming here when it’s better.”