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John Lamb, Published February 06 2012

‘Craftivist’ Strand aims to put art in people's hands

If you go

What: Michael Strand discusses his work in “The Space Between: Art and Humanity”

When: 7:30 – 8:30 p.m., Friday

Where: Plains Art Museum, 704 1st Ave. N., Fargo

Info: Free and open to the public. (701) 232-3821

FARGO - Michael Strand’s newest exhibit opens Friday at the Plains Art Museum, but if you want to see this collection of ceramics, you better go soon.

One by one, the 100 hand-thrown and colored cups on display will leave the museum, taken off the shelves by visitors.

That’s just fine with Strand. In fact it’s the point of the show.

“The Misfit Cup Liberation Project” is the artist’s latest interactive project, designed to take art out of the hallowed halls of museums and galleries and put it in the hands and homes of people to use.

While the mugs won’t cost anything, they don’t exactly come free. Strand wants visitors to go into their cupboards and pull a cup from the back that no longer gets used. That “misfit cup” can be swapped for one of Strand’s new Japanese-style mugs.

Strand, head of North Dakota State University’s visual arts department, says the cups are like cousins, with certain similarities – each uses copper to give some an orangey finish and others a copper oxide green.

When visitors bring in their old tumblers, they will briefly write down the story behind it – how they got it, why they kept it and why are they willing to part with it now.

That interaction and discovery is the real piece of art, not the physical work Strand created.

“It’s the story of the (misfit) cup that I’m interested in,” says the 1987 Moorhead High graduate. “The object isn’t the end. It is part of something else.”

Strand discusses his projects and thoughts on community-involved art at Friday night’s opening.

Blending art, people

Colleen Sheehy, executive director and CEO of the Plains Art Museum, says Michael Strand is part of a current movement, called social practice art or relational aesthetics, based on art interacting with people.

“It’s a very open-ended and collaborative art practice, and I think he’s doing a brilliant job of it,” Sheehy says.

For his part, Strand just calls himself an arts advocate, or more colorfully, a “craftivist.”

Sheehy points out that, historically, ceramics were often used as vessels for food and drinks. While Strand makes beautiful physical works, she says he’s just as – if not more – interested in how those pieces fit into people’s lives, “the social exchange.”

“A lot of artists keep making objects and experiment in different ways, but he’s done it in such a dramatic way. And he’s really sincere about it,” Sheehy says. “It’s not just a trend he’s trying to catch the wave of. He’s really devoted to fostering connections among people.”

And back to himself.

“I went to school to be a potter, and what was no longer satisfying was this cup left my hand and I didn’t know where it went,” Strand says, drinking coffee from one of his own mugs.

He found a new level of satisfaction in 2010 through a project he called Art Stimulus.

The project took him to the small town of Dwight, N.D., northwest of Wahpeton, where he brought one of his hand-made cups to each house in the city of less than 100 people.

Some cups were left on the porches of homes. Some residents invited Strand in.

One of them was Ella.

The elderly woman was almost blind and Strand watched as she worked her fingers over the cup, feeling the textures and character, all the while telling him about her life.

“I knew then that I’d found my life work,” he says. “That five-minute friendship was more profound than anything I’d found.”

Soon Strand had a head full of ideas, all of which involved creating art to fill an individual’s need.

Some were strictly fun, like clay-roake; which has Strand throwing a cup or bowl while the recipient sits in front of him, telling him about themselves and what they will use the vessel for.

Other ideas bring a fun element to more serious themes.

Leading up to the 2011 spring floods, Strand brought 1,000 empty sandbags to area assisted living facilities and retirement communities for those who couldn’t physically help fight the flood.

The participants were asked to express their gratitude and support or words of encouragement. Later the bags would be filled and passed along flood lines, giving the people moving them a brief break from the physical labor and a connection to those who couldn’t be there to help.

The project grew to 9,000 bags, including 63 that Strand painted pink in honor of his mother, Donna Strand, who died of pancreatic cancer in 2007.

A longtime employee of area YMCA child care services, his mother helped instill in Strand that desire for community service.

Now the artist is passing it on through his works.

Another project, EX.change, allows patrons to explain what they want him to create, whether it’s a cup or a whole dining room set. In “EX.change,” the recipient signs up to do a certain amount of community service.

For instance, in exchange for a dinnerware set, a Minneapolis couple is spending 150 hours landscaping around a school and offering fatherhood mentorships.

His cup overflows

“I’ve got a substantial amount of community projects in front of me,” Strand says with a laugh.

His misfit cup project launches Engage U, a student-based production team for other social programs, like a community narrative with artist Jill Foote-Hutton next week at West Acres mall.

Strand is also involved in the Fargo Project, which will improve the aesthetics of water retention ponds in Fargo by working with neighborhood residents. And there’s the ongoing Defiant Gardens work with the Plains that aims to develop public art in the Fargo-Moorhead community.

“I’m probably way too romantic about this, but this is what I dreamed coming home would be like – going out into the community to work,” says Strand, who moved back here in 2009 after living in Nebraska.

“What’s exciting to me is I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says. “Any time you work with a community, you can’t control what’s going to happen.”

All of which makes for a wonderful experience for someone who believes the journey is the destination.

To see more about Strand’s projects go to www.engage-u.org.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533