Glen Arbor was packed, bustling on this stunning spring day — potential visitors monitor the Leelanau weather forecasts as intently as locals do — so I decided to duck into the Glen Arbor Arts Center for shade and contemplation, respite and inspiration.

By Vaughn D. | Art Aficionado

The new exhibit was “New Views: Home/Place,” and I certainly felt at home at this hidden gem of a venue, somewhat tucked away between two streets. You have to go in search of it a little — which struck me as a metaphor for art and meaning (if I may).

But the demure location of the GAAC belies its reach and impact on the region. With art classes, exhibits, artists-in-residence, lectures, concert series, and art camps for children, the question is not so much “What does the GAAC do?” as “What doesn’t it do?” Renovated and expanded in 2018, this bright airy building still punches way above its weight.

I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the legacy of artists, poets, and musicians who have long flocked to Leelanau — finding a home among kindred human spirits and the kindred spirits of the forests, waters, and wildlife. Taking in the life-changing vistas of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, you’d almost expect the nearest town to have a flourishing arts center, and you’d be right.

Before I could immerse myself in the current exhibit, I encountered Sarah Bearup-Neal, the center’s Communications and Gallery Manager, seated at a laptop in a studio area, wearing a woven red sweater that spoke “artist” to me. Though she was busy and I had rudely arrived soon before closing time, she welcomed me and generously agreed to let me pick her brain a bit.

That lovely sweater didn’t lie: Sarah has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Michigan State and specializes in collage. I began with a question I enjoy asking Leelanau artists. What it is about Leelanau that has historically drawn creative people? Is it the natural beauty? The idiosyncratic personality of the people? Something in the air? All of the above? If you could put your finger on it, what is it?

At first she cited the “tens of thousands of square acres that have been preserved,” as a magnet for painters. Then, after a pause, she dished to me. “We’re the West Coast. And great ideas and envelope-pushing things happen on the West Coast.”

This made me laugh and also came as a revelation to me. I moved here from San Francisco. Maybe I didn’t move too far. I can still see the sun setting over the water…Maybe there is something about west coasts and the kinds of people who gravitate toward them.

I asked Sarah if she could elaborate on the GAAC’s mission statement, “to enrich community life through the arts.”

“Everybody’s creative, but sometimes life pushes those kinds of things to the fringes,” she said. But the arts center is there for those who have “room in their head and their life” for creativity to come “from the back of your brain to the front of your brain.” She emphasized that the GAAC believes in “art for all,” and “process, not product.” Explaining the importance of creativity, not just for artists, but for everyone, she said “I never believed that there was any reason why the professional work I would do as an adult wouldn’t be grounded in some kind of creativity.”

As a year-round resource with numerous activities for families — indeed, it’s the only arts center in the region with a year-round program for children — the GAAC strives to make art accessible to everyone who seeks it. 300+ members of the GAAC help to further that goal.

Following my chat with Sarah, I entered the spacious gallery and experienced an array of works conveying the home/place that I also now call home, Leelanau. I’ll mention a few that captivated me: L.C. Kim’s spooky “View From My Studio”; Laurel Wright’s extravagant “In The Joyous Garden”; Kathleen Blumenreich’s elegant “Orange Vase”; and two evocative, soulful mixed-media pieces by Martine McDonald, “In The Cradle Of The Deep [Nest 6]” and “Upward Bound [Nest 7].” All of these are available for purchase. Contact the GAAC at (231) 334-6112.

I’d stayed past closing time, and it was time for me to be on my way — back into the hubbub of merry vacationers and busy service staff in Glen Arbor. But I’d taken a little of the arts center’s serenity with me. 

Kathleen Blumenreich "Orange Vase"  L.C. Lim "View From My Studio"  Martine MacDonald "In The Cradle Of The Deep Nest"    Martine MacDonald "Upward Bound" [Nest 7]   

 Laurel Wright "In The Joyous Garden"