Historic local women celebrated through alley activation in Downtown Grand Rapids

Mary Dupuis, Staff Reporter

Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. (DGRI) has announced a new public space activation project created to bring new life to downtown alleyways through a celebration of historic women leaders in Grand Rapids. 

The Women’s Way Initiative was organized by DGRI through collaboration with the City of Grand Rapids, the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council (GGRWHC), Lions and Rabbits art gallery and numerous others. 

The initiative is centered around five alleyways throughout Downtown Grand Rapids where local artists are painting murals of historic women leaders who made a significant contribution to their community. 

In addition to the murals being painted, the alleyways will be officially named after the women and marked with commemorative street signs. 

On the mural itself will be a biographical plaque about the woman and in the surrounding alleyway will be planters, lighting and movable furniture for seating. It is the hope of DGRI that soon they will be able to host pop-up programs in the alleyways and draw more people to the space. 

The idea for this initiative came about in March of 2019 during DGRI’s public art project inspired by the book “Rad American Women A-Z” written by Kate Schatz. Through working with Schatz throughout the duration of this project, DGRI Director of Public Space Management Kimberly Van Driel was moved to create an entirely new initiative. 

“Last year when we did the Rad American Women project Schatz mentioned to me that she has traveled all over the world and nothing is named after women,” Van Driel said. “That really resonated with me which, in turn, led me to wonder what we could do to change that.”

DGRI Director of Public Space Management Kimberly Van Driel took the lead in organizing this initiative and felt that with the growing trend of alley activation this would be the perfect chance for women to reclaim alleyways and celebrate local women in the process. 

“It is important to acknowledge that alleyways have a predominantly negative history with women, and that is one of the reasons why we’re doing this,” Van Driel said. “We’re flipping the script on the narrative and taking ownership.”

Once Van Driel had the plan for the initiative set, owner of Lions and Rabbits art gallery Hannah Berry said there were many partnerships and extensive amounts of research put into choosing which women to paint and also where to paint their murals. 

“These women were selected by the Greater Grand Rapids Women’s History Council,” Berry said. “Working alongside their partnership, Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. was able to pick certain women for certain locations. There have been massive research partnerships. From the Grand Rapids Public Museum to even some of the families surrounding these women, there has been instrumental help in the historical recording process.”

Each woman chosen will have their mural painted in a place where they have a specific relationship to the business or location.

“One mural is of Angeline Kelsey who was a teacher and a Citizen of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. So, her mural is being painted in an alleyway near the children’s museum,” Van Driel said. “Along with that, some of the original native trails in Grand Rapids are still being used today as streets–one of which would’ve dead-ended right through the area that her mural will be.”

Not only is each mural specific to its location, but each local artist was sought out by Berry for their talents or relation to the women. 

Artist Michi Farias was chosen to paint the mural of the Grand Rapids Chicks 1945 All American Baseball Team due to her specialty in painting portraits. Artist Alan Compo was chosen to paint Angeline Kelsey because of his own close relationship with her. 

Each artist has put much time and effort into completing the murals by their deadline of Sep. 15, 2020. Farias said she began painting on Jun. 20 and has been working for five to six days a week for 12 hours a day. 

“I love being able to work outside, and it’s really inspiring that I can paint these women for younger people to see,” Farias said. “I was inspired while reading and researching the Chicks, and I hope that people will learn about these important women in our history through these murals.”

Co-President of GGRWHC Jo Ellyn Clarey said this project is not only meant to be an educational vessel for the community, but also the beginning of an ongoing initiative. 

“In the beginning, women were community builders just as much as men,” Clarey said. “They’re just not as credited for it. So I hope people see that local women made history. DGRI wants to continue activating spaces. They want to get people in areas off the beaten path. People are more cognizant of urban spaces and we can continue to get women’s names into street signs and buildings.” 

Following the completion of these five murals, Van Driel hopes that more will be added each year — initially downtown, but soon branching into other neighborhoods. 

Due to COVID-19 and government restrictions, there will no longer be a large celebration for the murals. However, there will still be small ribbon-cutting ceremonies with the artists and others that helped turn the idea for the initiative into reality. 

Details surrounding the fifth mural are still in the process of being organized. But, here is a list of the four alleyway locations murals are currently underway, as well as which artists are painting them:

  • Local artist Jasmine Bruce is painting the mural of Harriet Woods Hill, who was the first African American Woman to serve as an officer in the Grand Rapids Police Department. The mural is in the alley off Louis St. NW at the northwest corner of GRPD headquarters.
  • Local artist Esan Sommersell is painting the mural of Ethel Coe, who was a renaissance woman, a community activist, musician, actor and civil rights leader. The mural is in the alley off Monroe Ave NW on the northside of 20 Monroe Live.
  • Local artist Alan Compo is painting the mural of Angeline Kelsey “Naw Kay O Say” Yob, who was an educator, community activist and Citizen of the Grand River Bands of Ottawa Indians. Kelsey worked for three decades with Grand Rapids Public Schools in the Native American Education Program. The mural is in the alley off Sheldon Ave NE between the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum and The Apartment Lounge.
  • Local artist Michi Farias is painting the mural of the Grand Rapids Chicks 1945 All American Baseball Team. The mural is in the alley off of Newberry St. NW behind Auto Fixit Body Shop.