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Local Artist Highlight: Annamarie Buller

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Avenue for the Arts talks with Annamarie Buller about her change-generating event series, "Centering Liberation." Interview by Pamela MacDougal
Annamarie Buller in front of Machine Organic by Elizabeth Vedrine

Annamarie Buller in front of Machine Organic by Elizabeth Vedrine /Annamarie Buller

Centering Liberation Upcoming Events

Earth Day Awakening: Breath Move, and Explorea breathwork and dance event on April 22nd from 6-8 pm at Kids Food Basket, 1300 Plymouth Avenue NE.

Crockpot Poetry, a meal and live poetry event, monthly on the 4th Thursday at 106 Gallery at 106 S. Division. Next meeting: April 25th at 7 pm.

Save Our Planet, Save Our People! showing May 18 - June 1, at 106 Gallery at 106 S. Division. Opening reception: May 18 from 6-9 pm.

Visitors at More Than Our Hearts Can Bear

Visitors at More Than Our Hearts Can Bear /Annamarie Buller

Visitors at The World is on Fire

Visitors at The World is on Fire /Annamarie Buller

Annamarie Buller takes on injustice, oppression, and the destruction of nature. Her new event series, Centering Liberation, invites us to “wrestle with the issues of our time.” Conversations generated by her three-page thought paper, distributed to her Grand Rapids network in January, produced valuable ideas for change-generating programming.  Expressing the need for liberation through art was a natural first step, and she has curated a compelling three-part art exhibition series now underway at 106 Gallery.

Annamarie describes the passion that went into organizing these three exhibitions: “The shows were inspired by the things that are intersectional right now—all the issues, all the -isms, all the layers of oppressive systems…histories that we continue to not learn. We go through genocide and holocaust again and again and again. We seem to not be listening. How do we eliminate racism, how do we work to better integrate our community, and how do we go towards the discomfort?” Her answer: “We launched a movement/event series, Centering Liberation. The idea is that we—individually, as a community, and as a world—need to find ways to liberate ourselves and liberate each other. This can't be done in isolation. You can't liberate yourself without liberating others. It happens in tandem.”

The first show in February, More Than Our Hearts Can Bear, opened with a powerful music collection curated by DJ and Artist-in-Residence for Dwelling Place, Pharaoh Khalil. Annamarie says, “The first show focused on exploring the liberatory things that are happening in our community that we can shine a light on. There were tears… but I think people were having the conversations I was hoping they would have. They were talking with artists about the work—sharing personal experiences.” The first show was an outward expression of impactful issues through visual art.

The second show, The World is on Fire, opened in March on Saint Patrick's Day weekend, and consequently had a more jovial atmosphere despite its serious content. Annamarie says, “That was good because I want there to be joy. I also want people to really see and connect with the work and to learn from the discomfort.” Our interview with Annamarie occurred just under the wire on the day before the closing reception, allowing me a last-minute opportunity to view this show with her.

The opening reception for Save Our Planet, Save Our People! will be May 18th at 106 Gallery from 6-9 pm. This third show will focus on environmental works.

In addition to the art exhibition series, conversations around Centering Liberation have produced numerous programming ideas. Earth Day Awakening: Breath Move, and Explore, a breathwork and dance event at Kids Food Basket, will be held on April 22nd from 6-8 pm at 1300 Plymouth Avenue NE. Monthly on the fourth Thursday, Crockpot Poetry offers a meal and live poetry, next occurring on April 25th at 106 Gallery at 7 pm.

Why hold the Centering Liberation exhibitions at 106 Gallery? Annamarie has a depth of experience in this arts-centered neighborhood: “I have a lot of history on South Division, so it was natural for me to utilize this gallery space. Over time, I really want the shows and events in spaces all over our community—so that we can come together to incorporate more perspectives and create change. We will need to get out into other venues—find places that aren't scared of work that is political and painful and difficult. I think most artists have a selection of political work that they haven’t sold. The original idea was to find those works and bring them out.” She appreciates the ability to rent the 106 Gallery space through Avenue for the Arts—it wasn’t available in that way when she lived on Division herself. She's grateful to Representative Rachel Hood, who sponsored the art shows in order to support the environmental themes included throughout.

Can we talk about the work you’ve curated for The World is on Fire? Annamarie gives me a personal tour through the exhibition, which highlights primarily local artists in an impressive range of topics and styles. There are pieces about the impact of technology, climate change, environmental destruction, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, racial power structures, and mental health struggles.

Lovely photographs by Michael Willis capture images of vernal pond bugs in the standing water of puddles—colorful and delicate. Nearby, Canadian wildfires give a photograph of the sun by Dianne Carroll Burdik a luminous painterly quality on a smoke-darkened day, creating a tension between our enjoyment of the beautiful image and the knowledge of what generated that beauty. A painting by Jill Eggers evokes the tangled roots of a tree and the energy of nature. Her large-scale work depicting wetlands has just been installed at the Grand Rapids airport.

We stop at a landscape print by Alynn Guerra, depicting a barbed wire dove who sits on the Israeli border wall and looks across at an Israeli settlement on Palestinian land. Annamarie traveled to Israel in May of 2023 on a small group cultural tour: “It hit me really hard when October 7th happened. I was completely devastated. I haven’t been to Gaza, but I have been to the West Bank. I met Palestinians, and learned what a wonderful people they were. The same with the Israelis. What’s happening there now—that's really the desperation that inspired Centering Liberation.” A lovely landscape by Donald Hauskin resembles a dreamy Japanese ink painting with sparkly missiles streaking through the sky.

Several artists contemplate racial relationships and political conflict. Folk art pieces by Carmel Loftis express a sense of racial tragedy and hope with lyrics from “Southern Man” and the prayer of St. Francis. The staged photographic images of racial violence and brutality by Monroe O’Bryant speaks to the humiliation inflicted by racial power structures. Maureen Nollete references the events of January 6th with a gold-embroidered yet somber flag. Reb expresses anger over gun violence in playful colors and emphatic language.

Nicholas Hartman (aka Chapel of Ghouls) paintings speak to the self-inflicted torture of mental health issues and the terrible things we say to ourselves. Alyssa Sterling’s paintings reclaim self and a sense of womanhood after sexual assault. S C O O B offers a body of work called The Trauma Project, which pairs trauma-inspired music and poetry by local musicians and poets with his own expressive paintings.

Clearly, curating and organizing are creative activities for Annamarie. She notes that we need a way to come together around ideas for building communities that nurture. With Centering Liberation, she asks serious questions for the purpose of starting productive conversations. She says, "We are born in this time where we face so many terrible realities, We have an obligation to contribute to the work of democracy. More than just voting, we need active engagement and involvement on a much larger scale."

Do you ever make art yourself? She does! Annamarie modestly calls herself “more of a photographer.” If she held a show of her own work, she would print photographs from Israel and Palestine. She says, “I took thousands of pictures over my 15 days there, and I think people would benefit from seeing them and getting a better understanding of what it looks and feels like there.” She took photography courses at Grand Rapids Community College and gained experience working on wedding and commercial photography.

How did you get to where you are now? With schoolteachers for parents, Annamarie grew up in Midland, Michigan, in a politically active family. At Grand Valley State University, she majored in Liberal Studies with Emphasis in Art & Community. While working in Eastown in the early 2000s, Annamarie noticed empty storefronts along Wealthy Street showing art—a Dwelling Place effort to activate temporarily vacant spaces under the name “Free Radical Gallery.” Annamarie convinced the organizer that she could do these shows better: “I curated a show along Wealthy Street with about 25 spaces. We had an afterparty at the Wild Bunch, when it was still the biker bar.” The success of that show led to her next steps.

During a two-year stint at Dwelling Place as an Americorps organizer, Annamarie curated art shows and organized neighborhood revitalization work. Much of the area was still boarded up, but she moved down there herself: “The best way to figure out what a neighborhood needs is to be in it. You need to feel its ebbs and flows.” Ultimately, Annamarie joined the Dwelling Place Board, where she served for 13 years. That time at Dwelling Place stands out as especially meaningful—the organization nurtured her leadership and leveraged her investments of effort into real change.

In the following years, Annamarie gained experience in a number of downtown organizations. She held positions at the Grand Rapids Symphony, Planned Parenthood, and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. She worked on the 2012 effort to decriminalize marijuana, which concluded with a successful ballot initiative, and more recently worked in communications and corporate social responsibility for two cannabis companies.

At DGRI, Annamarie not only helped promote downtown businesses but also worked support residents as a stakeholder group. Beginning in 2018, Annamarie headed the Downtown Neighbor Network, a new organization launched by DGRI to work with the downtown local neighbors. She recalls, “Because I was on the Dwelling Place Board, I was already in a great place to integrate with all the affordable housing residents who are the longest-term neighbors of downtown. Their voices were absent from the resident conversation for a long time, but I had the relationships to get them a seat at the table.”

Currently, Annamarie works as the Communication & Community Manager for Proponents, a consulting company for systems transformation and evaluation. And she’s always looking for more opportunities for community engagement roles.

What’s next? Annamarie takes a moment to look further forward: “Eventually there'll be a future-based show once I feel like we've gotten the catharsis of political work out of the way…. Artists have the ability to show us what the world could look like if we valued everybody's perspective, if we focused on the people who have the least, if we centered people who have survived tremendous difficulty.” If money were no object, she would devote even more of her time to centering liberation and social change through political activism. She has other ideas for events and trainings “to push education and skill building to help us galvanize change and do necessary unlearning.”

In the meantime, the near future promises another great exhibition of political work at 106 Gallery. She says, “All three shows in the Centering Liberation series have included some environmental works, but this next one will focus on strong environmental themes.” Given the centrality of climate change and the environment to ongoing public discourse, devoting a whole show to this topic seems very appropriate to Annamarie’s goal of conversation and community. Save Our Planet, Save Our People! opens on Saturday May 18th at 106 Gallery from 6 to 9 pm.

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