G-sync: Ripples of change happen as Marlee Grace circulates back to Grand Rapids for a year

Brain circulation (or better known as the act of leaving, learning from outside, and then (possibly) returning) is a popular emerging topic within circles trying to solve the talent crisis locally. Publisher Tommy Allen sits down with Marlee Grace to talk about her former life here, her adventures on the road, the release of her new book, and an artist residency program.
Most times when Rapid Growth asks folks about Grand Rapids' list of concerns, someone will chime in about the “brain drain” and how important it is to retain folks here who are considering departing our region for other adventures beyond our city limits. 

These talks used to alarm me, too.

That is until I began to survey the reality of city-building by engaging in more dialogue at tables all over the city. It was here a new topic began to emerge that we don’t talk about but deserves just as much of our attention: “brain circulation” or better known as the act of leaving, learning from outside, and then (possibly) returning.

This rotating out and back in is just as important of a topic to discuss as is always trying to helicopter-parent folks whose wiring makes them natural seekers of knowledge and experiences that only the road can provide.

One such person in our community who has boomeranged many times here is former Grand Rapids resident and University of Michigan graduate Marlee Grace, who has always made her mark on Grand Rapids, whether it be on the stage, collaborating as a performer with groups like Amy Wilson’s Dance in the Annex or via her own (and former) South Division storefront project, Have Company.

And while Grace shut down her storefront space in 2016, while it was open, Have Company under her vision would grow to become home to an exciting artists residency for creators outside our community. I cannot think of another person in our modern art history who has shifted the perspectives of outsiders across so many genres, from publishing to dance to the sharing culture to what is possible to create here, than Marlee Grace.

After a few years away, Grace has done a lot before returning to Grand Rapids with a brand new project that is certain to further evolve so much goodness within our creative community that lucky for us, and because of folks like her, extends beyond our city now to all over the world. 

To follow are edited excerpts from our conversation held at her new artist residency program that clearly showcase why this creator defies all labels — even one as limiting as a boomerang. You can subscribe to Marlee Grace’s weekly newsletter here.

-Tommy Allen, Publisher


Tommy Allen: A lot of folks in our community came to know you through your Avenue for the Arts store on South Division, Have Company. Looking back at those early days in Grand Rapids, how did you come to start Have Company?

Marlee Grace: It started actually in a camper. I started this version of it in a camper without being attached to outcomes. I just did it.

TA: Was it thought to be temporary?

MG: I really think I thought I would do this camper version for much longer. I literally didn't think about winter and then when I opened it in November, I was like, “Oh, right. It's going to snow and it's going to be freezing, and wet, and cold,” and then I started thinking maybe this is not what I wanted.

TA: But something did change for you.

MG: Well, I was able to offer in the camper all these zines. But I also had friends like Rose Beerhorst who was making these amazing rugs and they were such an inspiration to me. And as I kept seeing my friends making amazing things and I discovered that people loved what was in the camper, I thought maybe this is something that should just happen all the time. 

TA: That’s too funny because I opened a restaurant in my parent’s trailer when I was in Flint as a child. And while I never opened a pizzeria, you did open Have Company. It is worth noting that while your concept was new and would evolve, it did build off many of the other businesses that kind of laid the groundwork for you and others who would arrive. 

MG: Patrick had Miscellany and before that Alex and Ashley have Hoi Polloi. And before them I believe that it was Rachael and Cameron Van Dyke’s handmade furniture store. I even had Sanctuary, an Outsider Art gallery by Reb Roberts, as my next door neighbors. 

But the best part of opening Have Company on Division was that it was across the street from the most important place in my life, The Division Avenue Arts Collective or The DAAC — an all-ages music and art venue that I was running with others in the city.

TA: I think what you are talking about here is how there was a community for you.

MG: There was very much a community waiting for me and encouraging me. However, in some ways there was already a built-in audience from me from being a performer, a dancer, and as an organizer who had already produced this thing called Sass Fest for a few years prior to arriving at Have Company in 2013. 

TA: Fast forward to 2014, applying your observational skills, you would go on to add an artist residency program to Have Company’s mission that would go on over time to strengthen our arts community to other cities as you welcomed 50 artists to our city via your program. 

And then in 2016 it was over as you closed Have Company and departed Grand Rapids. 

Some would be frightened over such a talent leaving the city 
like you did, but, honestly, I don’t subscribe to “brain drain” fears and have an alternative belief that brain circulation is a good thing for the health of our city.

MG: I don't know if I did as good of a job observing when I was running Have Company because it was really fast-paced. 

I did find that when I left I was able to place the focus on my writing and creative practice, writing two books while I was away.

TA: I think I recall the first one because it was reviewed in the New York Times. (Visit: "A Graveyard? She’s Danced There. Just Check Instagram" by Siobhan Burke.)

MG: It was. From my digital dance project “Personal Practice” (on Instagram) would come “A Sacred Shift.” Then in October 2018, “How To Not Always Be Working: A Toolkit for Creativity and Radical Self-Care” was released by Harper Collins. Pretty much all of the projects I do at this point are about observing the self and observing the self in relation to others.

TA: With all the talk on slowing down or putting down our phones to “recharge" us, I can imagine that this new book is arriving right on time.

MG: I was doing a lot of different jobs for one person when I was here with Have Company. And I was in my 20s. But I’m not saying that now that I'm 30 I've evolved to become this different person. But I will say that being on the other side of Saturn’s return being 30 now, there's a lot of parts of my own identity that have become more clear in how I want to exist in the world.

And I think a lot of that is from observing and doing so in a slower way. I am really looking at myself, asking where is it my responsibility to do a better job?

TA: That is a powerful driver. What were some of the pressures you felt fell away once you started to focus on you and your eventual new life post-Grand Rapids?

MG: There's always an economic pressure for me to be an artist and also a small business owner. It was really intense. Now I'm offering online courses (and I am on my second time around with this) and it's so amazing. I really like teaching … and in real life, too. In fact, I just taught a class at Dance in the Annex (DITA) in Grand Rapids and it felt great. 

TA: What are your online classes like? 

MG: In my online class we talk a lot about how is rest is integral to being able to make money and how. And that's what “How To Not Always Be Working” is all about: How do we pay attention to the different parts of our lives that do feed all the areas of our lives that can make us money or help us work? 

TA: Maybe tell us a little about this book because I think that it's really for everyone, correct? 

MG: I always say, this book is not just for everyone as much as it’s apparently for anyone. 

TA: Explain this a bit more?

MG: “How to Not Always Be Working” started out in 2015 as a zine that I created and sold at Have Company. In those years as I was creating the book it became clear that I was always emailing, always planning, always doing stuff, and it wasn't equaling to me making more money.

I had a lot of fear when creating this book that it might only be for people like me. But I've been excited by people who are really different than me who have picked it up. I have heard from all kinds of different people who I was maybe afraid the book wouldn't be for who are just like, I got so much out of it.

At the end of the day, it all goes back to that observation point. This book asks that we be gentle, to pay attention, and focus on your life to figure out where there are imbalances and how can you rearrange them to be different. 

TA: You appear to be asking us to pause and organize our lives — a theme quite popular at the start of a new year.

MG: How can you have better boundaries with your boss and tell them: No, I can't go home and keep working on this? So the book is for people who have bosses, are their own bosses, or are wanting to be their own boss. 

TA: Your Instagram "Personal Practice" showcased to viewers the unexpected joy of dance and the delight of the everyday ritual. Were there any unexpected results from writing “How to Not Always Be Working?”

MG: I think the overall thing that happens with most of my writing is that it makes people feel less alone. That's the common reaction people have to my writing. This is true whether it's the weekly newsletter I send out, or the way I write on Instagram, or when people buy my book. They just read it and are like: Oh, my God, I really thought I was the only person who felt this way.

You know I've never been afraid to just say what I'm experiencing. I sometimes forget that a lot of people are really afraid. So I think that's sort of my gift to the world. I don't like to call it oversharing, I just call it sharing. I share my experience really vulnerably and then other people can relate to it. But I think, again, this is rooted in the fact that my work has always been self-published and self-produced. 

TA: And now you are back to Grand Rapids for a special one-year project that you recently kicked off as The Center Residency and Visiting Artists Program.

MG: After living in California’s Point Reyes Station in this tiny cabin, things started to shift for me again. And so after the New York Times piece came out and the Harper Collins book deal happened, I discovered more and more people came to know who I was and experience what my work was about.

And then this opportunity to return to Grand Rapids came up where I could have a house in the arena to open another artist residency.

TA: This seems like a natural fit for you at this point after Have Company’s residency.

MG: A huge part of my practice is about hosting artists and giving them space to make art. It was my favorite part when I owned Have Company. 

Having hosted over 50 residents over three years, I was able to observe their lives be changed as I watched my life change as well. In fact, a lot of these former residents have remained some of my greatest friends and collaborators to this day.

TA: Your life is quite remarkable in how open you are about sparking joy in other creative’s lives or practice. Some may read this and inquire about your own privilege in making things happen. How do you respond? Is there any experience or wisdom to share on this topic from your own journey?

MG: I've been out and queer since I was 15. And with Have Company, I learned a lot about what it meant to be intersectional and inclusive. 

I know I didn't do a great job during the first few years I was there. I felt like it was a really white space. I was fortunate to be called out by my friends and collaborators who were like, “Hey, like a lot of your residents literally just look like you. And that's not an example for people who don't look like you to come.” 

And so in the last season of Have Company it looked really different. My life looks really different now and that's due to a lot of inner work to de-center my whiteness and what it means to be anti-racist. Not just in thought, but in practice.

TA: De-centering takes time and lots of observational skills. Thank you for sharing just a bit of a much larger topic that we continue to explore and understand in our community. Before we wrap up, as you look at this year before us and your pop-up artist residency …

MG: … I love that. Thank you …

TA: ... Well since the residency is only a year-long commitment for now, how is this challenging you to continue to move forward and what is it that you need ultimately to be successful? 

MG: As soon as you said what “you need” my first thought was like, I need like spaciousness to do my own work. I'm working on a new book. I'm teaching my online classes. I'm planning a West Coast dance tour with a friend. And I'm gonna be in upstate New York for most of May teaching there. 

So I need to focus on my own art practice as well as my own business and facilitate this artist residency. 

And so I think what is already starting to happen is to be surrounded by people who naturally want to interact with residents, to hang out with them, and to want to do things in the house.

I think one point of “How to Not Always Be Working” is not to teach folks how to only work four hours a day so one can be rich and go on vacations. Rather, it’s about how do we give back to communities that need us monetarily, who need our time, our love? We can't do that if we are running around all the time burned out.

And so right now, I think my success is about how do I make sure that I'm able to give really generously? How can my success, my love for myself, my acceptance of myself, serve others?
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