Michigan Festival of Sacred Music partners with Kalamazoo Institute of Arts to combine visual and musical art

The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music commissioned eight local musicians to create original music to accompany artwork in the KIA’s permanent exhibit. The result: 16 original compositions matched with the paintings and sculptures which inspired them, working together to tell a story.

If visual art could speak out loud, what would it say? Perhaps it would give some insight into the time it’s from, or the artist that made it. Maybe it would just tell a knock knock joke. Visual art cannot speak in an auditory manner; nonetheless, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art’s Unveiling American Genius collection has been given a different voice by local musicians. 


The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music commissioned eight local musicians to create original music to accompany artwork in the KIA’s permanent exhibit. The result: 16 original compositions matched with the paintings and sculptures which inspired them, working together to tell a story. 


The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music (MFSM) got extra creative to make their 2020 season possible during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large music gatherings were out of the question, so the non-profit brainstormed other ways to create shared musical experiences, said Executive Director Elizabeth (Betsy) Start. 


“We started to think about what we can do rather than what we couldn’t do, and all of these ideas kind of came out,” Start said. 


This out-of-the-box thinking resulted in one of the most unique and collaborative festival seasons to date. Robbed of their typical concert venues, MFSM elected to plan pop-up concerts on the Kalamazoo Mall. They also partnered with the Kalamazoo Nature Center to play an outdoor concert of migratory music to coincide with when the center usually has programming about migratory birds. 


“We presented music from other cultures; music that has traveled here,” Start said. 


Musician Josh Holcomb performed music under the stars at the Dr. T.K Lawless Dark Sky Park in Vandalia, Michigan. Start wants to keep collaborations going between MFSM and the dark sky park, and is planning another performance in April to celebrate dark sky awareness week. 


Many of these festival performances involved live music in less conventional spaces. Some events instead combined music with another artform. 


One such project was a partnership with the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts (KIA) called the Resonance Project. Eight local musicians created musical responses to select artwork from the KIA’s permanent collection Unveiling American Genius. This exhibit opened in December 2020, and is expected to be on display with music until early summer. 


The KIA recently reimagined Unveiling American Genius to showcase the multitude of influences that make up the American experience. The KIA describes this exhibit as the artists’ views on the nation’s triumphs, ambitions, social structure, and failings. In many ways, the exhibit is an artistic discussion about America. The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music became part of reimagining this exhibit by adding local musicians to this discussion.


Eight musicians were selected, contributing two pieces each: Rufus Ferguson, Helen Yee, Elden Kelly, Ashley Daneman, Jordan Hamilton, Laurie Jarski, Monica Washington Padula, and Elizabeth Start. 


American Woman: Columbian by Tylonn Sawyer

American Woman: Columbian by Tylonn Sawyer


Each musician picked artwork which spoke to them. American Woman: Columbia by Tylonn Sawyer, depicts a Black woman standing in front of the American flag and holding a baseball bat over her shoulders. This piece caught musician Rufus Ferguson’s eye. 


American Woman instantly brings a level of pride, pain and fear to my awareness of being a Black person in America,” Ferguson wrote in his artist’s statement.


Monica Washington Padula felt kinship with her composition’s subject matter, a sculpture by Lamidi Olonade Fakeye called, Untitled (Mother of Twins).


“Motherhood and mothers are celebrated in many Indigenous cultures as life-givers… As a mother who nursed her children, and at one time was tandem nursing, I could relate to the practice in a spiritual way,” Padula said in her artist’s statement. 


MFSM’s criteria for selecting musicians was very intentional: the non-profit was looking for local musicians that were impacted by the pandemic, and representative of diverse voices. 


“We were consciously trying to find people who we knew would be taking a hit from not being able to perform live during the pandemic.” Start said. “People with regular full-time jobs were not typically who we were going to as a first choice.” 


Hoku, By Deborah Butterfield

Hoku, by Deborah Butterfield


Start had not anticipated being part of the project herself, but was encouraged to participate. She selected two sculptures as her subject matter: Hoku, by Deborah Butterfield, and Salt Bowl, by Maria Scott


“There is something so textural about them that really appealed to me,” Start said.


This texture showed up in her music. She used the acoustic and electric cello to create her pieces, and used sound looping to build the contrasting textures over each other in real time. 


Though every artist created two pieces each, Start says every work is highly unique. 


“Different people, reacting in different ways, to different artwork, for different reasons. That’s what makes it so interesting,” Start said.



Ashley Daneman and Laughing Figure, by Unknown

Ashley Daneman and Laughing Figure, by Unknown


Musician Ashley Daneman created compositional responses to Smiling Figure, a ceramic statue with an infectious smile, and Sleeping Woman, a colorful painting by Richard Diebenkorn. These pieces are like night and day.


“My response to Smiling Figure was just an attempt to embody that character, and just for a moment to detach from the heaviness of the pandemic into lightness and joy,” Daneman said.


Daneman paired the smiling ceramic statue with a composition full of musical chuckling, belly-laughing, and general goofiness. Ironically, this laughing statue could either represent a god of dance and joy, or dead victims of a sacrificial ceremony. However, Daneman chose to dwell on the positive. 


Sleeping Woman, by Richard Diebenkorn

Sleeping Woman, by Richard Diebenkorn


Daneman’s second composition, a response to Richard Diebenkorn’s Sleeping Woman, focused on more complicated emotions. This work is full of tension and dissonance, and draws on Daneman’s own experiences as a woman. 


“There is this ongoing tug of war between mothering and wanting to pursue non-mothering things,” Daneman said. “Wanting this free and independent life but also knowing that you want to care and have a family.”


The project was to create music to compliment another artist’s work, but Daneman found that her responses to them were actually reflections of herself.


“It's like they are mirrors,” Daneman said. “I was 100 percent seeing myself, my issues and my life in the art.”


Helen Yee, and Square Root of Paradise, by Miriam Schapiro

Helen Yee, and Square Root of Paradise, by Miriam Schapiro


Where Daneman saw a mirror, musician Helen Yee found a conversation. Her responses to Miriam Schapiro’s Square Root of Paradise, and Ibrahim Said’s Tanoura, felt like a dialogue with the artist.


“For me it's an immediate intuitive response,” Yee said. “I'm coming from wherever my place is and I’m trusting my response to whatever this piece is saying to me.”


It was important to Yee to choose at least one female artist. In her conversation with Miriam Schapiro’s piece, she uses a two-stringed Chinese fiddle called an erhu, which reflects the painting’s dark mystery.


“(The erhu), to me, has the sound of a female human voice singing,” Yee said. 


Visitors can listen to all Resonance Project pieces through headphones while walking through the art museum. These pieces are also available on the MFSM website, along with artist statements, biographies, and pictures of the artwork. 


The Michigan Festival of Sacred Music used the pandemic to rethink how to approach shared musical experiences. The result: more community partnerships, a greater appreciation for local area artists, and interesting ways to bring music to the public without large gatherings.  


MFSM is continuing to get creative about shared musical experiences in 2021. The non-profit is already planning the Connecting Chords Kalamazoo project in April to meet public demand for music, says Start. Similar to the Resonance project, local musicians will create music for locations in Kalamazoo which are meaningful to them. 


“Everything still feels weird in the world,” Start said, “but we keep trying.”