Perched upon a stool behind the counter of an authentic 1950s diner -- smack in front of a deer diorama, mind you -- Paul Amenta is a study in enthusiasm and humility. He's a fascinating contradiction. So, too, is the space.
We're in the old Grand Rapids Public Museum at 54 Jefferson St. SE. The deer are just as I remember them from more than a decade ago. It seems strange to be in such close proximity without a pane of glass to keep the wildlife in.
The other dioramas are also just as I remember them -- with the exception of a few that have been cleared of flora and fauna and are strangely empty. These and other spaces are about to undergo "artist interventions," which Amenta describes as a sort of "slippage between existing objects and artist interpretations."
Amenta, the founder and former creative director of the ActiveSite non-profit art organization, and I are talking about his latest project: "Michigan -- Land of Riches" (subtitled, "Re-Examining the Old Grand Rapids Public Museum"). More precisely, I'm trying to get a handle on what makes him tick, and he's not cracking. Try as I might to steer the conversation to learn about his life as an artist, he deftly sidesteps and remains focused on the project. It takes me nearly three hours just to scratch the surface.
Amenta's excitement is contagious, but I have to wonder just how everything will be in place in time for the opening on April 16. Right now, things are rough around the edges.
An Artistic Intervention
"Not a problem," Amenta quips as he starts the tour. First stop, main floor.
Flanked by a flock of taxidermied birds and small mammals mounted in boxes of wood and glass, Amenta resembles a kid in a candy store. The boxed creatures were once used to teach elementary school kids, and each box has a carrying handle. They're quaint and nostalgic and make me want to travel back to the 1940s, when many of the displays were created.
Right now, the boxed flock is stacked several high in the middle of the old museum's main floor. It's one of the artist interventions.
The Grand Rapids Public Museum has given Amenta and his collaborative group of artists access to everything -- from archives to artifacts, taxidermied mice to, well, everything. They have nearly unbridled rein to do what they want, as long as they don't harm the objects or surroundings. The exhibits, including dioramas, have stood untouched since 1996, when the public museum moved to its current digs on Pearl Street. The old building, used for storage, is now coming back to life for the duration of the exhibit.
Amenta has borrowed the exhibit's title from an existing museum display, which is nothing more than a Michigan-shaped cut-out with tiny, color-coded push pins strategically placed to show museum-goers the locations of various geological formations. The display is laughable—devoid of color and texture, except for some small rock samples that were captured while in their prime and mounted on the wall. The display doesn't even begin to convey the awe of geology.
Out of this dreary display, Amenta has mined a huge vein of creativity. The self-described "big-picture" man and about 200 students and more than 30 professors from seven area colleges are engaging the collections in fresh, new ways. Sixty to 70 projects overall.
"I like the poetic nature of the title," says Amenta. "It's flexible and can be interpreted in several ways—it can be ironic or literal." Metaphorical, too, I muse.
"Besides, I'm a sucker for geology," he quickly adds.
A Pop Culture Outsider
Originally from Hammond, Ind., Amenta, 42, moved to Grand Rapids with his family when he was in the sixth grade. Amenta's been a problem-solver all his life. No television or Nintendo for this guy.
"I didn't watch TV as a child, so I often didn't know what the other kids were talking about when they discussed TV sitcoms," he says. "I felt like a pop-culture outsider. Instead, I was super active and always outside. I'm restless and easily bored."
Amenta says he learned to figure things out for himself because his dad wouldn't help him build projects. He studied engineering and mechanical drawing in high school, but took up business at the former Grand Rapids Junior College, graduating with an associate degree in business administration. Perhaps his right brain then rebelled. How could he not study art?
Amenta went on to receive a bachelor's degree in fine arts in sculpture and printmaking from Grand Valley State University , meeting his future wife, Laura, while a student there. Like a number of other Grand Rapids artists before him, Amenta thought the city was nearly devoid of creativity in the mid-1990s. He says that he couldn't wait to leave, and, in fact, moved to Seattle the week after graduation.
Restless in Seattle after two years, Amenta packed up and headed east to New York City to attend grad school, ultimately obtaining a master's degree in sculpture from the School of Visual Arts in New York City. And there, the formerly self-conscious, "introvert-trapped-in-an-extrovert's-body" felt "amplified and right at home."
"In New York, no one cares what you look like, who you are, what you're wearing," Amenta says. "No one cares." Living in a tiny, 300-square-foot apartment that rented for $1,600 a month, Amenta learned very quickly that if he wanted to become known, he had to make things happen.
"Things don't just come to you," he says. "It's up to you to get your work out there. In New York, there are so many creative minds in one place. It's very competitive. You have to have a lot of energy and work hard."
Don't Get Lost
Amenta makes no bones about the fact that he and Laura, 41, returned to Grand Rapids in 2006 to raise their daughter, Eliana, 4, here because of the community's family emphasis, lower housing costs and other amenities. As an adjunct professor at the Kendall School of Art and Design, he uses his New York experiences to instill savvy in his students.
"Students have to 'get it' or they will be lost," he says. "I want to see young artists stay in Grand Rapids, not leave it like I did."
Amenta says that there are so many ideas floating around in his head, he doesn't know which one to work on next. "Up until a few years ago, I didn't know how to relax," he says. "I always had to be something, or I felt guilty."
Once he's focused on a project, Amenta won't allow anything else to intrude. "My credit card payment will probably be late this month," he says.
He may not be aware of it, but that business administration degree serves him very well. Each project finds him wearing all the hats—organizer, copywriter, public relations, curator, you name it. His projects are natural outcroppings of his installations.
"I have to do something like this or move back to New York," he says. "I left Grand Rapids in 1995, and when I came back, the growth was unbelievable. But I always knew there was so much potential here. Now, finally, people are taking advantage of it."
The exhibit runs April 16-May 15 at the Old Grand Rapids Public Museum at 54 Jefferson SE.
Victoria Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee, Wis.
Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Paul Amenta photographed on location at the old Public Museum of Grand Rapids
Brian Kelly is a photographer, filmmaker and ice cream eater. You can follow his adventures on his mind-blowing blog or view a portfolio of fancy photographs here.