When Melissa Johnson returned to her roots in Northern Michigan after nearly two decades of big-city life in Chicago, she brought with her an appreciation for the importance of intersecting arts and community. In 2011, she opened Blackbird Arts, an independent arts education studio that offers workshops and classes for all ages in mediums ranging from metalsmithing to pottery to music. The Traverse City studio also partners with other community organizations to execute public art projects (including the “Benchmark” project, which is artfully overhauling benches in downtown TC) and to ensure that the arts are accessible to all. The Q&A was originally published in the April 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
What was the inspiration behind opening Blackbird Arts?
I wanted to create a place with a community of artists where people of all walks could come in and feel comfortable and supported, and feel able to take creative risks. We have this incredible community of artists up here and I thought, well, Traverse City needs this! I just took a dive in to see what we could create.
What is your arts background?
I’ve always loved the arts, but I myself am not a professional artist; my graduate training is in archaeology, but I took studio art classes all through college just out of interest. For me it was a creative outlet. I stayed in archeology for 12 years, and when I was working at the Field Museum, in Chicago, I met a lot of educators and I fell in love with teaching, so I went back [to school] to become a teacher. And at the place I ended up teaching, in Chicago Public Schools, there was no art teacher at all, no art program. I felt so strongly about what the arts could do, I just built a program there within my own classroom, and I guess that’s where it started.
Tell us about some of Blackbird Arts’ innovative programming.
We do a lot of classes and workshops out in the community. Probably 70 percent of our program is outside of this building. It’s really important to me to build inclusive programming, too. Some classes are inclusive in the sense that we try to reach community members who might not have access to resources to take a class. We have a community art class on Tuesdays—it’s free, but we still use our master-level teachers and really high-quality materials. We also have scholarship spots for, say, adults with disabilities who might not have the resources to pay for a full class. We had a grant from the Michigan Disability Rights Coalition to build some of this programming a couple years ago, and that’s when I really realized how great the need is.
What’ve been some of your favorite offerings at Blackbird Arts?
I love Family Arts Night on Friday nights because I get such a kick out of watching some of the adults come in there kicking and screaming, saying “I’m not creative, my wife made me do this, my kid made me come!” But then that little light goes off when they create something with their two hands. We’re so removed from that now. When people do that and they relax into it and they come up with something and it’s their own? It’s really, really exciting.