Lisa Renze-Rhodes

Two cans and a string.

It’s an elementary school science experiment whose simplicity belies its reach.

Because humming along that line are the vibrations of what makes us human.

A need to learn and grow, dream and create. A need to be known, to be understood.

To connect.

A need to be remembered.

In a world where a satellite can supply cellular phone service to a customer standing in the middle of the Serengeti, it would seem to be an experiment that is long past its usefulness. But when photographer Chelsea Nix and her husband Mariano Cortez decided to put a new spin on the original theory, the results were nothing short of magic, changing how the couple help others see the world and garnering the pair the grand prize award at the prestigious ArtPrize competition, typically held every other year in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Though last year’s planned ArtPrize was canceled because of COVID-19, organizers say the event is ready to awe and inspire guests once again.


String Art Project

Two hands and a string

Cortez and Nix met when she was traveling in countries that, while rich in culture and heritage,  often lacked much of what Americans see as commonplace in their communities. In countries like Haiti and India, Nix would photograph and tell stories about many of the people she encountered. But it was in Nepal where the couple fell in love, Nix said, after they realized they shared the same passions and goals of wanting to serve others, and preserve and amplify all their unique stories.

But in 2018, after years of traveling and taking traditional portraits of people, they got the idea about doing something more.

“We wanted to somehow connect all the people across the many different cultures,” she said. “We thought, ‘How about if we put a string across the photo?’ So I bought this string in a little market in Guatemala.”

And they set to work.

In remote outposts, hectic markets, seaside villages, even along deserted roadsides, the two photographed people from around the world taking hold of the string.

“Experiencing the world the way we did, we found there’s so much goodness in the world,” Cortez said.

“With the string, what was so beautiful, was that people always said yes,” Nix added. “They saw the (digital) photos, got the idea right away and said yes. Children, older people, English speaking or not – they wanted to be connected, they knew they were connecting with others they didn’t know and they wanted to be part of it.”

After six months on the road, the couple landed at ArtPrize, and brought the string, now graying and worn in places, to the multi-day international art competition where visitors could pause for their own portraits.

“We got to stand and talk about the piece with thousands of people,” said Nix, a Valparaiso, Indiana, native. “When you see thousands of people walk past your piece and they are crying, or asking questions, or looking deeply into the eyes of someone who doesn’t look like them — it’s proof that there is goodness and kindness and hope in the world because a large group of people felt the same way we did. The project did communicate that we are all connected.”

Hooked on a feeling

ArtPrize started in 2009, when founder and organizer Rick DeVos decided he wanted to completely upend the tradition of juried art. Rather than experts, DeVos wanted to put the decision about what was considered “good” in the hands of everyday people who might never have studied art, but who instead responded just based on pure emotion.

The event would be staged in any downtown Grand Rapids venue willing to host part of the exhibit — restaurants, parks and gardens, office buildings — and the largest cash prize would be awarded solely by popular vote, tallied via mobile phones and devices that could ensure real-time recording. It was a radical idea at the time, and DeVos and his team weren’t entirely sure what would happen.

“I loved this simple concept,” said Steve Fridsma, the ArtPrize liaison for Monroe Community Church, a host venue. “It (was) in effect a social experiment. Would the public select “great” artwork? Would this mid-size city in “fly-over” country be embarrassed by selecting lousy art? Would the event raise the dialogue about the role of art in everyday life?”

Some 200,000 visitors to the inaugural ArtPrize proved DeVos’s instincts were right. And now more than a decade in, organizers, artists, venue hosts and visitors are hooked on the experience of exploring art wherever it happens.

“ArtPrize succeeds in getting fine art out of exclusive galleries and into everyday places like parking lots, warehouses, coffee shops, bars, hair salons, churches, and even ruined buildings slated for demolition. Sometimes the careful juxtaposition of art and venue amplifies the experience of viewing the artwork to such a degree that it ends up meaning far more than it would in a gallery, while also elevating the venue in which it resides. That is probably the greatest success and most unique feature of ArtPrize,” Fridsma said.

Moving ahead on the moving work

Kati Molhoek is part of the ArtPrize team that is working with Grand Rapids city administrators, and other partners, to plan for the 2021 version of the event.

“We are working closely with city, state and health department officials to guarantee our organization and participating artists/venues are following the COVID-19 protocols outlined by the State of Michigan,” Molhoek said. “With mask-mandates lifting and rising vaccination rates, we are hopeful that ArtPrize will continue to be as accessible as it has been in the past years.”

Just what it means to be accessible will likely continue to evolve, as event organizers get closer to the September 16 debut. But what won’t change is the role the public has of helping celebrate the artists and the work created with any media a mind can imagine.

Molhoek said the team is developing an app that will allow visitors to award prizes directly to the artists, a new twist on a beloved ArtPrize tradition that connects the creators with guests.

“We believe that, now more than ever, ArtPrize will serve as a beacon of hope — for the possibility of connection, excitement, safe gathering, community and revival,” she said.

That collaboration is one of the things Kerry Mott loves most about the event.

“For what I do, I think it’s really important that I can talk with people and explain it,” Mott said.

To try to understand just what it is she does, picture a household staple — duct tape — but now imagine it transformed.

“I started working with duct tape in high school,” Mott said. “At the time, there were three colors outside of gray: red, yellow and blue. I would make bags for my friends and make designs on the outside.”

Mott was a neuroscience major at Mount Holyoke College, planning for a career in medicine. But as she was completing her medical school applications, she knew she didn’t want to be stuck doing something she didn’t love.

“I didn’t want to do medicine, it was just the next progression of what I was doing,” said Mott, who calls Gettysburg, Pennsylvania home. “I told my parents I want to try to be a duct tape artist, and they were as encouraging as any parents could be. They were a little afraid but said ‘You do what you have to do.’”


Cutting a new path

Mott’s palette now includes more than just four colors, and her technique, what she says is best described as duct tape pointillism, continues to evolve. She uses only gray duct tape for skin tone, her fabric scissors cutting thousands of tiny pieces she layers to create her work.

The effort creates a hard-to-believe-it’s-real effect in pieces like Mott’s “Kings of Late Night” a more than 14-foot long canvas sporting the likenesses of talk show host icons from Johnny Carson to Jimmy Fallon. Another work, “Spring” is Mott’s take on a field of wildflowers, all crafted from multicolored tape. The pieces are so incredible, she’s sold 10 of them to Ripley’s Believe it or Not museums.

This year’s work asks guests to suspend time and imagine a world where duct tape was always the chosen medium for some of the world’s best artists.

“I had this idea in a dream,” she said. “I thought it would be fun and interactive for people to identify the most famous paintings and painters made entirely of duct tape.”

In the 16 feet x 6 feet canvas, Leonardo da Vinci, Frida Kahlo and other greats create their most-famous works using Mott’s preferred medium.

“I have met some discouragement from, “real” artists, people with art backgrounds, who think I’m trying to creep in on their territory. But the majority of people are receptive to it.

“I think I’m making headway in terms of people accepting it as an artform.”

Mott earned second place in the two-dimensional public vote category at the 2018 ArtPrize, and like Nix and Cortez, Mott loves the interaction between visitors and artists. She recommends newcomers make the most of the experience by being present, really centering themselves into the works on display.

“Try to hit as many venues as you possible can, to take in as much as you can,” Mott said. “Try looking at as much art as you possibly can, talk to as many artists as you can, vote for as many pieces as you like.

“I’m really hoping that I just bring some joy to people,” she said. “After this whole last year, I want people to have fun, to really interact with this piece and perceive it well and appreciate and have fun with this new kind of art.”



If you go

ArtPrize 2021
September 16-October 3, 2021
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Plan your trip:

The String Project
Chelsea Nix and Mariano Cortez, photographers

The Original Duct Tape Art
Kerry Mott, artist