Grand Rapids' Tanglefoot Building Is Where Both Flypaper And Artists Stick Around

May 30, 2014


It's an invention that you never knew you needed - and now that it exists, you can't imagine life without it. Such was the case in the 1880's, when the Tanglefoot Company began manufacturing the product in Grand Rapids. For over 125 years products dedicated to controlling insects have come out of the building, but in the 1980’s building owner Joe Skendzel decided to start renting some of the vacant factory space out.

He had no idea he was creating an artist’s colony.

Signs guide guests in the direction of the artist studios located inside the Tanglefoot Building.
Credit Erin Williams / WMUK

"So what's really great about the Tanglefoot Flypaper Company was that it created something that was never there before to create a solution within our society. And art can sometimes do that as well," says multimedia artist Tommy Allen. "It's not just about decorative things but it can also spur dialogue within your community. And a lot of the artists here take time to create things that would not only be considered beautiful but create things that also spark conversation within the community of Grand Rapids and western Michigan."

Allen has rented studio space in Tanglefoot for over a decade with his partner, painter Michael Pfleghaar.  They are two of around ten other in-house artists who rent space inside the building. The plant itself was sold in 2009, but still operates and manufactures insect repellant products in facilities located elsewhere within the building.

Allen says that having the familiar surroundings both in and outside of his studio gives him a sense of place, and a stronger internal response for his work.

"I don't want to say we're the decorators of the city 'cause that sounds really shallow - but I think what we are is we have this ability to have a vision and then bringing people in to have these conversations," he says. "It's not like you're asking somebody to watch TV. Just take what we've got. There's an open exchange that happens within all our studios that oftentimes goes beyond just creating the work. It's about the conversations that around the work we make here." 

Elaine Dalcher's studio is divided into teaching space, work space, and lounging space for visitors.
Credit Erin Williams / WMUK

  They're a small, tight-knit group that enjoys being a part of the Grand Rapids art community as a whole - but appreciate their inclusiveness.

"I'm very attached to space in which I'm working, and I’m also attached to the people who work here, too," says oil painter Elaine Dalcher. She received her MFA from Western in 1988 and moved her work into Tanglefoot the same year.

On one side of her studio Dalcher has long tables for students who take her oil painting class, and on the other she has a couch, coffee table, easel, shelves, and countless supplies to work with. 

"We've come a long way, and though we don't see each other on a daily basis, we have strong and deep relationship and connections and that's worth the world to me," she says.

The Tanglefoot artist community is more than just art spaces - it's also an area of small businesses. Every year, the artists host an annual sale the Friday before Thanksgiving. The event lets visitors traipse in and out of the artists' spaces in order to get a behind the scenes look on how things are made. Each artist uses their space as a showroom, and some hold separate open sessions for perspective customers to browse and buy.

Printmaker Alynn Guerra moved to Grand Rapids 14 years ago, and operates her business Red Hydrant Press across the way from Dalcher. Though she was warmly welcomed into the city’s arts community, her first impressions left much to be desired.

"I thought it had been a mistake because what I do usually when I go to a new city or town - I go downtown to check it out. And it didn't look like it looks today," she says in a hushed tone. "It was empty, boarded up. But then I started meeting a lot of people right away that were very supportive. The right people turn the wrong place into the right place. Then I saw the potential in this city. The city started changing."

Panoramic photos of Alynn Guerra's studio, where she operates Red Hydrant Press, her letterpress business.
Credit Erin Williams / WMUK

She and the rest of the artists have not only contributed to, but they've also been a witness to the changing art landscape of Grand Rapids. The Urban Institute of Contemporary Arts relocated downtown in 1991, The Grand Rapids Children’s Museum opened across the way in 1997, and summer wouldn't be the same without the annual Art Prize competition.

In turning their surroundings into a source of inspiration, Dalcher says they've helped the Tanglefoot Building write an indelible chapter into the history of the city.

“When you use the word ‘Tanglefoot’ in this community, most times in the creative community there’s no question about what that means," she says. "I think at some point in the future this building will become condominiums or maybe bulldozed down – we don’t know. We don’t have complete control over that but we do have control over what we’ve created and that is this concept of an artist’s community where people love to come where people love to see new work every single year. We’ve grown it over the years and I can say we’re all proud to have created this community.”