The Tanglefoot open studio event and fine art sale officially enters adulthood this weekend. For the past 18 years, with one exception, the artists who create their work on the upper floors of the Tanglefoot building, 314 Straight St. SW, have opened their studios to the public on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The event offers a holiday shopping alternative, a peek behind the scenes of the creative process, and a chance to buy original work by established artists directly from the artists themselves.
Like many 18-year-olds, the Tanglefoot event has gone through its share of growing pains over its lifetime – including a small studio fire that set off the sprinkler system and caused enough water damage to the building to force the artists to relocate their sale in 2000.
However, thanks to lots of nurturing – not only from the artists, but also from their landlord and city officials – the event has grown into a fine, upstanding young art exhibition and sale.
Stickiness of Good Art
The longevity of the Tanglefoot event and the staying power of the founding artists’ studios challenge conventional wisdom about artists.
“I think any building owner wants to rent to people who are responsible, who are going to pay the rent, and who are going to stay around – not a whole lot of attrition," observed Elaine Dalcher, a landscape and still life painter who has been renting space in the historic Tanglefoot building for 20 of its 120 years.
Responsibility. Stability. Consistency. Most 18-year-olds are struggling to develop these characteristics. And they're not the first traits you might assign to a group of artists with a do-it-yourself ethos, either.
But as Dalcher says, ‘There are some of us are out here – and we have been for years.”
A mutual respect between the artists and their landlord, Tanglefoot Co. owner Joseph Skendzel, is the foundation of the Tanglefoot arrangement.
“Joe has gone out of his way to help us,” Dalcher added. “There have been a lot of things that the fire department has wanted us to do over the years, and he has complied 100 percent. He could have just said, ‘No, just skip it. Move out.’ But I think he likes having us here.”
Dalcher invited painter and ceramicist Michael Pfleghaar to join her as a studiomate soon after signing her first lease on her studio at Tanglefoot, and he’s rented studio space in the building ever since.
According to Pfleghaar, affordable art studio space in Grand Rapids is becoming more difficult to find, which makes Skendzel’s longtime support even more important to the artists at Tanglefoot.
“It seems like all the warehouse spaces in the area are being developed for mixed uses: Design studios, residential apartments, high-end galleries, etc.” Pfleghaar said. “So finding a space that’s affordable is kind of hard to come by.
“Fortunately, Joe has been a great advocate. He’s bent over backwards to help us get done all the things that needed to get done to make this sale happen.”
For his part, Skendzel doesn’t particularly see himself as a champion of the arts community. He’s just trying to be a good landlord to his longtime tenants. Skendzel purchased the building in 1988, so Dalcher and Pfleghaar have been his tenants for nearly the entire time he’s owned the building.
“As the building owner, I’m just trying to help them out as much as I can,” Skendzel said. “It’s always an enjoyable treat for everybody when they put on their annual sale.”
Skendzel also owns the Tanglefoot Company, a 123-year-old business that still utilizes part of the building to manufacture non-toxic trapping products for use in insect control. Back in the 1880s, when Grand Rapids claimed to have led the world in flypaper production, Tanglefoot Company occupied the entire Tanglefoot building.
While business has been picking back up in recent years, thanks to increased demand for green products (adhesive pest management is seen as an alternative to pesticides), Skendzel doesn’t think the company will be expanding into the artists’ studios any time soon.
“The Tanglefoot Company is how we make money,” Skendzel said. “Being a landlord is just a side thing. That being said, it really is a pleasure to have these artists here. They’re such delightful people.”
"We didn't start the fire"
This weekend’s open studio event and sale will be the first community arts event at Tanglefoot since area artists met with representatives of the Grand Rapids Fire Department and Second Ward Commissioner Rosalynn Bliss at the UICA back in September. The meeting was called to discuss ways the two entities can work together more effectively.
Pfleghaar and his partner in Tanglefoot Studio, photographer Tommy Allen, have taken the lead in working through the approval process with various city departments – a fairly recent development in the history of the Tanglefoot event.
“It’s almost felt like these kind of events have been discouraged in some ways in the city, but things are changing now,” said Allen.
Printmaker Alynn Guerra, who participates in her second Tanglefoot open studio event and fine art sale this weekend, elaborated.
“In the past, there hasn’t really been dialogue between artists and city government,” Guerra said. “You could do something underground, but if you asked for approval, ‘No’ was ‘No,’ and there were no explanations. But now, it’s clear to the artists why there are strict rules that apply to hosting public events in our spaces. Now, there’s dialogue.”
Facilitating that dialogue is part of the function of city government, according to Bliss. She sees the creative class as a key piece of the city’s long-term economic viability.
“To me, the arts community is an economic engine,” Bliss explained. “Supporting and encouraging the arts community means giving them the freedom to create, and a lot of that means being more sensitive and seeing different perspectives.
“It doesn’t have to be an adversarial relationship,” Bliss added. “Everybody wants safety, so how do we do that in a way that doesn’t prevent artists from using these spaces? In most cases, we can figure it out.”
Curt Wozniak is a writer with People Design in Grand Rapids. He writes about art and design for Rapid Growth. He last wrote about the ActiveSite project for RG.
The artists of Tanglefoot
Elaine Dalcher and her paintings
Tommy Allen, Tim Gunnett, Michael Pfleghaar
Tommy Allen in Gumby shirtAll Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved
Alynn Guerra, Carlos Aceves, Fernando Sanchez