Winter’s Wonders

Outdoor art event makes the most of Michigan’s mean-weather months.
Lisa Renze-Rhodes

As one hand reaches skyward, another seems to beckon to visitors, encouraging curious guests to enter a doorway the hands frame.

The vinyl pieces imagined and created by Celine Browning are her interpretations of Carl Jung’s thinking about unconsciousness.

“There’s a really rich vein that goes between psychology and modern art, that was something I was researching at the time,” Browning said.

Featured as part of the World of Winter event in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the exhibit gave Browning an opportunity to try something new.

“For me what makes it really exciting, is the opportunity to develop something new and to respond to a new site and location. It was a little bit challenging. But this is another great thing about working with a festival or any group involved in creating public art — as long as there is public buy-in, there’s a lot of goodwill to make it successful,” Browning said.

World of Winter, celebrating its sixth season, is the somewhat lesser-known sibling to ArtPrize, which got its start in 2009. Both events reflect city leaders’ commitment to art and artists, said Kimberly Van Driel, director of public space management with Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

“We definitely have found art very important as a city since the 1970s, particularly in public art. When ArtPrize started, that was a catalyst for finding and reminding people of the importance of art and in paying artists in particular.”

She said those paychecks became even more critical during COVID.

“Most every downtown and city were shutting down during the pandemic, we didn’t,” Van Driel said. “We created ways for things to be online when we were in lockdown and figured out things we could do in the meantime.”

So even though large, formal events were canceled, city planners invested in creating ways for residents to leave their homes and do something.

“The money we would normally have invested into the events, we put into art and artists who were creating pieces. The artists relied on the money, and we relied on the artists making the city vibrant during a dark and desolate time.

“We definitely care about public art, placemaking and place keeping,” Van Driel said.

Artist Jamie Shackleton said World of Winter’s time of year makes it automatically different than other festivals. But there’s more to it than just that, she said.

“It activates the city despite the freezing temperatures that can inspire (people) to stay inside. Instead, you’re drawn out into a snow-covered, magical world where art can be found throughout the city, in window displays, ice sculptures and colorful, light-up installations that bring a Michigan winter to life,” Shackleton said.

Her artwork, titled, “The Snow Fox Family” was inspired by an interaction Shackleton had one night after kayaking.

“I met a red fox on the side of the road… We had an enchanting moment, locking eyes… I believe that if we pay attention to nature, that it can teach and guide us.”

In his work titled, “Adolescent Echo” artist Craig Merchant also pursued a theme of education, but with a twist.

“Visitors were encouraged to speak into the birdhouses and their words would be repeated back to them in a younger voice. The artwork represents how children often listen and repeat what they hear from adults,” Merchant said.

Like Shackleton, Merchant said the timing of the event makes it different in a good way.

“The large-scale art installations go far beyond what you would expect from a typical winter festival, providing a uniquely engaging experience throughout the event,” he said.

Van Driel said the event is planned over multiple weeks to provide plenty of incentive for visitors to come back and experience installations that rotate and change from January through March.

“There are more than 70 events throughout the two months, and pieces from international, national and local artists. And it’s all free – we pay for all of them.”

More than half a million people will take in the festival, she said. It’s one example of how the city has worked to build a reputation as friendly to art and artists — and the visitors those works draw.

“Public art, and visitors creating memories and moments benefit a city long-term financially. It’s proven that it’s a success,” Van Driel said, because the crowds keep coming back.

“People are really thankful now and not taking for granted spending time with loved ones,” she said. “Creating memories is very important.”

If you go:

The World of Winter Festival
Jan. 6 – March 5, 2023
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Free, no tickets needed.
• More than 70 ice sculptures.
• Interactive outdoor installations from international, national and local artists.



 Colorful bird houses, created by artist Craig Merchant, combined to form “Adolescent Echo” — an interactive installation of birdhouses that was on display for World of Winter in 2021.