Ann Arbor Art Fair celebrates 'magic,' connection

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Maggie Ladd has seen it all.

As executive director of the South University Art Fair — one of four juried fairs that comprise the sprawling Ann Arbor Art Fair, which kicks off today — Ladd has survived her share of dire weather: tornadoes, sizzling heat, crushing downpours.

So she's gotten a little apprehensive.

"I'm very superstitious about the weather," Ladd says, "so I don't check. But I got an email from someone last night saying the weather this week was going to be great. So I looked, and," she says, tentative hope rising in her voice, "it appears it's going to be OK."

Still, as Ladd notes, sometimes even bad weather works out for the 1,000-plus artists who throng the City of Trees' principal downtown streets for four days.

"Three or four years ago, when it was 105 degrees?" she asks. "Sales were great that year."

Happily, notes Max Clayton, the weather was fabulous last year.

"I think we were well over 600,000 visitors," Clayton says, who for the past 14 years has been the executive director of the Guild of Artists & Artisans that produces the Ann Arbor Summer Art Fair.

Boiled down to its essentials, the magic of Art Fair, she suggests, is the interaction between fairgoer and artist.

"When you show that work off to friends and relatives and they say it's beautiful, you can tell them why the artist said she did it this way, rather than another. It's that conversation about the art," she says, "which is so exciting."

There was a time, Clayton acknowledges, when some thought the modern online world would undermine the magic and art fairs generally.

There was talk a decade ago that Art Fair would wind down, and young artist wouldn't be replacing the old ones," she says. "But that hasn't happened at all — which, again, I attribute to the authentic experience between the visitor and the artist."

Indeed, several of the Ann Arbor art fairs now have formal programs to bring young, emerging artists into the fun. Here are three of the newer faces — all pleased to be in one of America's oldest, biggest art festivals.

Emily LoPresto

Emily LoPresto and her functional ceramic objects in her Saline studio. LoPresto will be selling her slip cast ceramics at the Ann Arbor Art Fair for the first time.

You're doing alright when you graduate from the College for Creative Studies in May and find yourself in the Ann Arbor Art Fair two months later.

Emily LoPresto, 21 — a ceramics major with a metals minor — makes handsome, functional pottery like coffee cups. But they're not cast on a potter's wheel.

"When I was 17," says the Saline resident, "I developed carpal tunnel syndrome. So I moved away from throwing."

LoPresto's recovered, but she still uses a method called flip-casting. "I dump liquid clay into plastic molds, let it sit half an hour, then dump it out and let it dry," she explains. "It's the same method they use to make toilets."

This is LoPresto's first time with a booth at Art Fair. She got in through the New Art New Artists program run by the Ann Arbor Street Art Fair, the "original" that got the whole fair-thing rolling 56 years ago.

One of the cool aspects to New Art New Artists is that they match each young artist with a mentor.

In that, LoPresto really lucked out. "Mine is Paul Eshelman," she says, "a potter in Illinois. He's been an idol of mine for years."

Sophia Adalaine Zhou

Sophia Adalaine Zhou, who will be in the Ann Arbor Art Fair, photographed on the University of Michigan north campus.

This will be Sophia Adalaine Zhou's second year at Art Fair, and she's thrilled to be back since she did better than expected last year.

"I sold a few pieces," says Zhou, 25, "And somebody's already put in an advance order this year, and will come by my booth — which makes me feel really flattered."

Zhou, who's in the New Art New Artists booth along with LoPresto, deals with straight photography that she alters for a surreal look.

Take her print, "A Story in Progress."

"The image is a self-portrait," she says. "But I removed my head via Photoshop and replaced it with an open book." She laughs. "I splice myself a lot."

Zhou just graduated from Washtenaw Community College, but studied architectural and graphic design, not photography. What little formal training she has came from two high-school courses.

Nor does the Ann Arborite necessarily plan on becoming a professional shutterbug.

"I have a full-time job as a graphic designer where I don't always get to do what I want," Zhou says. "But in my photography, I can do whatever I want."

Derek Smiertka & Chad Ackley

Chad Ackley, right, and Derek Smiertka of Leadhead Glass & Terrariums in Detroit pose with some of the items they will be selling at the Ann Arbor Art Festival this weekend and their dogs.

When Derek Smiertka of LeadHead Glass answers his phone, he's driving from Reclaim Detroit — the outfit that recycles wood from falling-down Detroit houses — back to his new studio in Milwaukee Junction with a new load of wood.

Like many Detroit artists and artisans, Smiertka, 40, and his life-and-business partner Chad Ackley, 31, are all over the reclaimed-material thing. Their surprisingly elegant terrariums (or display cases) are crafted from wood and glass, both of which had previous lives.

"The last time somebody looked through our glass," Smiertka says, "they might have been looking at their kids in the backyard. And that's cool."

This is the pair's first appearance in the Ann Arbor Art Fair, which Smeirtka describes as a "really huge opportunity."

The pair freely borrow from classical design and page through architecture books for inspiration. Their standards are pretty high.

"We routinely take things apart that annoy us," Smiertka says. "The first design off the line often sit in our living room for months as we figure out if we like it or not."

About the event

Ann Arbor Art Fair

Downtown Ann Arbor

10 a.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday