The town of Harbert is only about a mile wide when you drive through on it Red Arrow Highway near the Indiana border in Southwest Michigan. And it would look like any other small town if it weren’t for one big, colorful difference.
Artists decorate about 25, nine-foot patio umbrellas and put along the highway every summer. The umbrellas will be auctioned off starting at 5 p.m. Saturday at Center of the World Showroom.
“So we figured we could decorate large pieces of art, put them on a large canvas—which in our case is a market umbrella. And display them along the highway so as folks are driving through the area from town to town—the tourists—they would slow down, stop, look at the umbrellas. And hopefully stop in, ask about them, go in the stores, start eating at the restaurants—that kind of thing. And it’s proven to be very successful," says Rich Kochanny, president of the Harbert Business Association.
Elizabeth Oppman and artist Julio Diaz grew up in the area. The duo’s umbrella has an underwater scene with fish, a shipwreck, and a very lifelike sea turtle.
“We’ve seen them for years driving by and seen it online and everything, so now we’re a part of it,” Oppman says.
For them, painting an umbrella was kind of a last project before Diaz goes to college.
“We’ll I’m hoping to go to U of M for engineering and art," says Diaz. "At least to keep it alive, not forget about it.”
At the end of every summer, the umbrellas are auctioned off for charity. This year some of the money will go to Friends of New Troy, which raises money for programs at the town of New Troy’s community center. The rest will go to the Michiana Humane Society. 9-year-old Madison Schrader painted an umbrella to represent her own cause.
“My neighbor died and she had a lot of pets and her husband didn’t have a job," says Madison. "So we wanted to raise money so we can get food for all their animals.”
Madison’s mom, Melody Schrader, says Madison started a pet food drive that goes to Harbert Country Food Pantry in Three Oaks.
“Her thought process is: if you’ve lost a love one or maybe you’ve lost a job, you shouldn’t have to lose your pet or have them suffer as well,” Schrader says.
Each of the animals on Madison’s umbrella represents her neighbor’s pets and some of her own. It sits in front of Red Arrow Gallery. Inside, owner Bob Gildo has a special community umbrella. Each section represents a different town like Sawyer and Union Pier.
“And we’ve invited people from all over the county, including people who visit our gallery, to come and paint on this umbrella," he says. "And anything they want, we’re not limited to any particular topic. And we have various number of paintings on this umbrella that are kind of cool.”
Rich Kochanny says about half of the artists that participate are out-of-towners and half are locals. He says it’s amazing to see where these umbrellas end up.
“It’s fun to see them 'in the wild' you know, after they’ve been sold," Kochanny says. "And some of them don’t even stay in the area. A lot of them, people will be on vacation when they buy one then they’ll take it back to wherever they live, stuff like that. So they’ve been dotted all over the Midwest probably by now.”