Newly named Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence eager to 'Make work about Michigan'

The next Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence will tap her ties to the complex dynamics of Michigan's manufacturing industry in a wide-ranging art project while also working with students on their art and their futures.

Kate Levy, an artist based both in Detroit and New York City, will start the special role in the Department of Visual and Media Arts in August. The role is designed to help students understand the business side and marketplace of the art world.

Levy is an interdisciplinary artist whose work is rooted in documentary filmmaking and extends to installations, photography and more. She has produced an array of content, from documentaries to music videos, in collaboration with such partners as organizations, higher education institutions and community activists.

"I think any time there's an opportunity to work specifically in Michigan and make work about Michigan, I jump at it," Levy said. "Much of my work is about the political dynamics of the state, environmental issues and issues around segregation."

A person slightly smiles while standing before a white background.
Kate Levy will start serving in the special role in August.
Image credit - Courtesy photo

Her project during the stint at Grand Valley – the role is now on an annual cycle to welcome an artist each year – will further her ongoing project, "The Fate of the Machinery," which explores the economic and social impacts of the manufacturing industry and its decline.

Students will work with Levy in a seminar she designed called "Art and Activism with Kate Levy," said Paul Wittenbraker, chair of the Department of Visual and Media Arts.

"Her project will engage the condition of our region in terms of environment, economy, labor, and land," Wittenbraker said. "It will be great to have such a great example of research-based, collaborative, and interdisciplinary artist working alongside of students and faculty."

Levy, who grew up in the Detroit suburbs, said a key element she draws upon for this project is her family's multigenerational business as industrial auctioneers who liquidated the assets of businesses amid factory closures. West Michigan was the setting for a number of those auctions, she said.

"I'm really interested in questioning the idea of, 'If we could just go back to manufacturing, everything would be great,'" Levy said.

Her plans for her project at GVSU include exploring the former Gulf and Western conglomerate, which has ties to Grand Rapids; the history of some closed factories in Muskegon along with the environmental impacts that community organizers are still working on; and the juxtaposition of former furniture factories, where Levy said workers often felt like their family was at the plant, becoming venues for weddings, where a different type of family is formed.

Levy will also bring to GVSU students her experiences cultivating her artistic practice. She said her background varies from freelancing to having a job teaching high school students with one artistic project on the side to living cheaply and working fewer hours.

She relies on advice she received in graduate school to write down every idea in a notebook. The ideas are not lost that way, they're just on hold until an opportunity emerges to pull one forward, she said.

"You're creating a business and some of your projects are going to lose money and some of your projects are going to make money," Levy said. "I think the thing for me is to make decisions that I know will lead somewhere else but not be so closed as to knowing what exactly what that thing is – and being open to all the different ways that I could work.

She added: "You can't be afraid to make a decision. At the end of the day you have to make a decision."

Levy will succeed Sean Carney, who arrived in 2020 and navigated this role through a pandemic, the conditions of which also sparked his creativity.

"Sean has been a productive and generous collaborator during the past three years as the Padnos Distinguished Artist-in-Residence during an incredibly strange time for us all," Wittenbraker said. "Essays from his time at GVSU have been published widely in Art in America, Glasstire, Harvard Urban Review and Artforum."


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