Arty Ann Arbor

Culture and history collide in this easily accessible university town

Ann Arbor, or “Tree Town,” as the locals lovingly refer to it, is a leafy, green college town full of creative makers and liberal-minded doers. Explore its streets and you’ll notice it blooms with first-rate galleries, museums, artist studios and restaurants. Around six hours’ drive west from Toronto (or an hours’ drive west of Detroit), it is also known for its terrific botanical garden and arboretum. Home to the University of Michigan (U-M), Ann Arbor is hopping when the 50,000-strong student population takes over come September. Thanks to this top-ranked educational institution, the city also boasts the biggest sports stadium in the United States. Nicked named the Big House, it draws college football crowds of up to 100,000 every fall.

I was there on a mission to dig up the culture and history of this lively place. Full of classic, turn-of-the-last century stone edifices, the entire downtown seemed to be part of the university campus. My first stop was Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. A research museum since 1928, the collection of 100,000 objects from ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Near East was fascinating. Particularly intriguing was a fresco painting of women engaged in various rituals that scholars are still trying to figure out. Found in 1909 in a structure dubbed the Villa of Mysteries near Naples, Italy, the frescos, it is speculated, depict an initiation rite into the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine. In the 1920s, intrepid U-M Latin language and literature professor Francis Kelsey had Italian artist Maria Barosso create an almost life-sized representation of the series of frescos so it could be shared back home.

Kelsey-Room Of Mysteries
Kelsey-Room Of Mysteries

At the Neoclassical Alumni Memorial Hall, built in 1910 and expanded 2009, I discovered the University of Michigan Museum of Art with more than 18,000 works of art in its permanent collection. One section was devoted entirely to Chinese paintings and Japanese and Chinese ceramics. The walls were hung with classic oils by painters such as French impressionist Claude Monet and American abstract expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. What captivated me the most was the Tiffany architectural glass from the H.O. Havemeyer mansion in Manhattan.

A modern art initiative that makes Ann Arbor its headquarters is Motawi Tileworks. Founded in 1992 by brother and sister Nawal and Karim Motawi, the tiles can be found not only at the company’s Tileworks studio gallery on Enterprise Drive, but also at the 117 Gallery Shop at the downtown Ann Arbor Art Center. Nawal studied sculpture and ceramics at U-M and learned tile-making at Pewabic Pottery in Detroit. Hand-made art tiles are made with local clays and glazes mixed on site using Nawal’s recipes. The gorgeous designs are strongly influenced by early 20th century decorative artists.

Wanting to connect with one of the citys creative minds, I made an appointment to visit ceramic artist Kate Tremel at her home studio. Her hand-built, organic shapes reminded me of flower petal formations, or nature’s filigree as seen in morels – dainty, fragile, and filled with light. Hand-built and functional, her display of pottery lamps, dishes and bowls were truly one of a kind. As I watched her demonstrate her unusual techniques, she filled me in or her background – an MFA in ceramics from Cranbrook Academy of Art (in Bloomfield Hills) and recently she spent a year of study and work in Paris. “Working with clay is not really a choice for me, but more of a compulsion. Its tactile qualities are seductive,” she explained. “I find inspiration in the simplicity of the everyday pot, its history and the process of trying to find a fresh, modern interpretation.”

Poking around town for some more creativity, I came upon Yourist Studio Gallery. Owned by Kay Yourist, a potter who started out in the late 1970s, the gallery has resident artists and is a community studio workspace and a classroom. There’s a little retail area where you can buy items by the residents and beginners can sign up for instruction from pottery professionals.

Now I was ready for a calm walk in a peaceful sanctuary and I headed to Nichols Arboretum and the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. From the original 80 acres allotted in 1907 by U-M, the botanical garden and arboretum now cover a sprawling 700 acres with visitor center, conservatory and display gardens. Collections of native and exotic trees and shrubs lined the paths, and I learned that every spring the famous Peony Garden draws visitors from across the country to admire 234 peony cultivars in 27 beds dating from 1927. The site also had a Magnolia Glen, Centennial Shrub Collection with ornamental shrubs and small trees, as well as rhododendrons, azaleas, maples, oaks, magnolias, elms, and chestnut trees.

At the conservatory at the visitor center were plants from three climate zones – tropical, temperate and arid. Heading outside, I rounded the corner and discovered a lovely bonsai collection.

Along with plants, Ann Arbor has nurtured some of the country’s important leaders.One of U-M’s most famous students, President Gerald Ford, grew up in nearby Grand Rapids. Touring the Gerald Ford Library, I found an archive of materials on United States domestic issues, foreign relations and political affairs during the Cold War era. It was packed with more than 20 million pages of memos, letters and documents, 500,000 audio visual items, photographs, videotapes, recording of speeches and press briefings. At the core of the collection were the 1974-77 presidential papers of Ford and his white house staff. What intrigued me the most was the permanent exhibit titled, The Remarkable Life and Times of Gerald and Betty Ford. A surprising fact for me was learning that prior to marrying her husband, Betty danced as an understudy with the famous Martha Graham Dance Company. What I did know was that Ford was a firm supporter of women’s rights and she raised awareness of the problem of addiction when she publically announced her own struggles with alcohol and substance abuse.

That evening I searched out some entertainment at the Yellow Barn Performance where Mrs. Fifty Bakes a Pie was being performed at Theater Nova, a resident professional company established 2014. Hilarious and thought provoking, it delivered a delicious plateful of middle-aged female empowerment. Depending on when you are there, the troupe delivers work by up-and-coming American playwrights with new perspectives on social issues, new genres and new voices.

On my final night in town, I headed to The Ark, one of the country’s top acoustic/folk music clubs. Grammy-award winner Paul McCandless, with San Franciso jazz trio Charged Particles, presented a seamless show featuring bass clarinet, English horn, soprano saxophone, oboe and flute. Opened in 1965, the club had tiered seating for 400 and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house.

The summary report of my mission? Past, present and future are alive and well in Ann Arbor’s art and culture scene. Thanks to a nurturing community of creative souls, nothing ever gets boring in Tree Town.

Vintage Shopping

Muse Atelier: Enter the fantastic world of Tanya Luz. Her women’s clothing and accessory shop feels like an old Parisian salon or giant fantasy dress-up closet.

Treasure Mart: An Ann Arbor institution, Mrs. Demaris Cash opened this retail consignment store in 1960. Now it is run by her daughter Elaine and husband Carl. They put out 2,000 items every day, including china, books, clothes, furniture, rugs, and crystal.


Slurping Turtle: Casual but authentic Japanese dishes. Head chef Tadashi Gaura likes to get creative with his flavourings.

STurtle Noodle Soup

The Standard Bistro & Larder: Delicious French Country classics such as pot-au-feu beef stew using local, seasonal ingredients.

Gratzi: Housed in an old movie house, this gracious Italian restaurant opened 1987 and serves an array of scratch-made Italian pastas as well as outstanding mains and desserts.

Aventura: Known for Spanish tapas, wines and a decadent seafood paella.

Zingerman’s Roadhouse: Americana gem that opened in 2003 with old-school favorites such as buttermilk fried chicken and pulled pork. Voted best Comfort Food in America on the Alton Brown Food Network show Best Of.

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