Artists of Color Network pursues community healing through art

Local artist, Nicole Lee noticed there was a need for change in Kalamazoo. The community needed to heal, youth in particular, says Lee. So she began creating art that would act as a healing mechanism. This article was written by Neighborhood Journalist, Tyler Zachary. 

The healing powers of art in a community are not often discussed, but still an immensely important element of social change. Nicole Lee, local artist in Kalamazoo, came to realize this through her own long journey of self-discovery. A journey that resulted in her founding the Artists of Color Network, formerly the Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative.


“I have friends that joke about my art journey, because it's always been art based,” Lee said.


Lee went to cosmetology school after high school. In 2000, she moved to Illinois, where she studied at Illinois Institute of Art and majored in fashion design. 


“I was a teen mom. So I ended up coming back to Michigan, because my daughter was here with my parents, and I just wanted to be there for my child,” Lee said.


Becoming a mom brought her back to Michigan, where she transferred to Western Michigan University. 


“As I grew older, I pretty much understood that I didn't much like the retail hours, and so I was like, ‘yeah, fashion’s not gonna work,’” Lee said. 


She took on a job with advocacy services for kids where she worked with kids that have behavioral and emotional disorders. She began work in the mental health field, and became passionate about helping youth. 


Lee searched through many potential career paths and found that she was passionate about art and mental health. She could not decide which of these two paths to go down, but one day she realized that she could do both.


Her career plan became clearer after speaking with a close friend of hers.


“Her name is Angela Graham Williamson. She did dance therapy, and I used to help her with taking in payments for her after-school program,” Lee said.


In her mind, art and mental health were two very different career paths. Williamson showed her that they didn’t have to be. 


“She said, ‘You'll be amazed at what you find in different career paths. Why don't you go online and Google some things between art and health and see what you come up with?’ And so I did, and I discovered art therapy,” Lee said.


This Fall, Lee will be pursuing her dream career at Wayne State University to become a certified art therapist. 


As her career path started to converge, Lee noticed there was a need for change in the greater Kalamazoo area. The community needed to heal, youth in particular, says Lee. So she began creating art that would act as a healing mechanism.


“Kids that are in at-risk areas, they have dealt with trauma, they have dealt with PTSD, things of that nature, and applying art therapy gives them a different form of therapy,” Lee said.


Lee hopes her art will lead youth to become engaged and involved citizens in the community, not held back by their traumas. Founding the Artists of Color Network was Lee’s avenue to reach this goal. 


The Artists of Color Network is intended to create art that speaks life into the community, says Lee. To do this, the team behind the initiative raises awareness, makes connections between artists and local businesses, and showcases the talent that sits right here at home. 


The creation of the organization’s first major project, a large art mural, was a direct response to the abundance of crime, shootings, and other gun related violence in the area over the past year. 


“I often heard the ambulances and sirens,” Lee said. 


Kalamazoo Black Arts Initiative mural

Artists of Color Network (then Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative) mural in Lacrone Park


Lee saw a vacuum of influence and decided that needed to change. By collaborating with other influential members of the community, the organization quickly became a reality faster than she thought. Other members of the network include Ed Genesis, community organizer and activist, Felicia Thomas, a visual artist; Gerald King, a Battlecreek muralist; and Helga Rubino Hunter, a graphic designer from Venezuela.


“And so I was sitting at my desk at work one day, and I'm like, something needs to be done. And so, I came up with the dedication of a mural to the parents who have lost loved ones due to gun violence,” Lee said.


Lee took her inspiration from the Twin Towers memorial. Her design incorporates the names of victims of gun violence. 


“You can't help but be impacted by seeing all those names, right?… Let's let our community see these names; see what gun violence has done to our community,” Lee said. “And so hopefully, we can start making changes or implementing things to make changes.”


The last several years have seen a rise in gun violence in the Kalamazoo area. In 2020, there were 14 fatal homicides and over 80 nonfatal shootings, according to the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety. That more than doubles gun violence statistics from 2019. In 2021, three additional fatal shootings and 19 nonfatal shootings occurred from January to May. 


These noticeable increases confirmed for Lee and her collaborators that they had found a good focus for their art mural project: bringing all of these names together to show the scale of these losses. 


“Parents were there, families were there that were impacted, and they got to see some of their loved ones' names written on there,” Lee said.


The group changed from Kalamazoo Black Artists Initiative to Artists of Color Network as an inclusive way to expand beyond Black artists and rebrand as an initiative for all artists of color.


“We have artists that aren't just of African American lives, and it's mission is to represent artists of color. So being counted as a Black artist initiative isn't so inclusive to that,” Lee said.


As for other project ideas, there are several others in the pipeline as well. These include projects with Kalamazoo middle schools this Fall.


In August, another mural project will incorporate youth and a mentorship program for youth that are interested in becoming visual artists. This project is a collaboration headed by Discover Kalamazoo, who is working with Artists of Color Network and Kalamazoo Public Schools.


Nicole and her team of co-founders have done their best to curate a community and network of artists who can connect with one another and inspire others, as well as drawing new members in as much as possible.


“The next phase will be offering membership, and obtaining additional artists that are in the community, we basically wanted to establish some artwork in and get some jobs under our belt first,” Lee said.


This organization has already dealt with the topic of gun violence. In later projects, they have plans to delve into issues such as infant mortality rates, and homelessness amongst women of color. 


“Art is something that you can create many topics on, so we kind of just do what we all have a passion for,” Lee said. “And then, if someone brings an idea to the table, we support each other and see what we can do.”


The network will continue to grow and expand into other chapters throughout the Midwest. Chapters will soon open in Chicago and North Carolina. 


“The total goal is just to connect with different artists. This represents the full mission, showing talents of African American artists, and connecting with jobs and healing the community,” Lee said.


The Kalamazoo community still needs to heal, as the world continues to shift in unexpected ways. The Artists of Color Network hopes to continue growing, and to use art to heal not only the Kalamazoo community, but communities of people of color throughout the country. 


Neighborhood Voices Network


This article was written by a PMN Neighborhood Journalist. The Neighborhood Voices Network is putting control of the media into the community's hands.  Neighborhood Journalists are given the training and resources to cover local topics that are important to them. More people, and more perspectives, means that local news coverage will be well-rounded, and lift up more voices in the community. 


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