A businesswoman with artistic flair leads ArtPrize

July 22, 2011
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With true-blue eyes that convey the intensity of her beliefs, Catherine Creamer makes it clear she doesn’t believe there’s a cosmic plan that dictates the path a person’s life will follow.

“I think you create your own way,” said Creamer, who became executive director and COO of the radical urban art exhibition ArtPrize in March.

“We set out and chart out our own vision for ourselves. You can’t create your future but you can create the ways that steer toward it.”

Creamer has been steering her personal interplay of art and business for much of her adult life, an adept blend of right- and left-brain acuity.

Her yen for textiles was honed when she was a child. Her father would load up his children in his Dodge Dart and travel south to tour textile mills. She later trained as a textile artist, beginning her career as a full-time artist in a New York studio after graduating from college with a bachelor of fine arts degree.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Creamer’s work has been shown in galleries nationally, including the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Her range of corporate and educational experience includes business development and management stints with Herman Miller, faculty member at New North Center for Design and Business, and curriculum research for Kendall College of Art and Design.

For the past five years, Creamer led a consulting firm specializing in material design innovation for the furniture industry.

She then assumed the helm as ArtPrize’s second executive director, a position that put her in charge of the creative and business elements of the nonprofit organization with the ultimate goal of reaching self-sustainability.

Creamer considers her new job a hand-in-glove fit.

“It allows me to keep my feet in both business and in the art world and to ensure the sustainability of this idea,” she said. “It is an incredible social experiment. This is our third year. We need to learn from the previous two and think of how to keep it fresh.”

There is clearly a random factor to ArtPrize that speedily conjures the word “unique” in Creamer’s way of thinking. She believes this because, as the open public art competition heads into its third year, no one knows what this year’s artists will display for public viewing, and no one knows who the top winners will be until the public decides, using mobile devices and the Internet to cast their votes.

ArtPrize 2011 begins Sept. 21 and runs through Oct. 9.

Position: Executive Director/COO
Age: 53
Birthplace: Westchester County, N.Y.
Residence: Grand Rapids Township
Family: Two teenage sons and a teenage daughter
Business/Community Involvement: Past board secretary of Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park; current board member of West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
Biggest Career Break: “I think of my career in stages. My work has continued to ride along two lines between my creative passion and the business world.”

“We don’t craft ArtPrize; the artists craft it,” Creamer said. “Our role is to make sure as many as possible come and engage the message of ArtPrize. We create a platform for dialogue and connection from a wider audience.

“The idea of engaging the public in the decision-making role of awarding the prize is wonderfully unique,” added Creamer. “It’s exciting to see people become more and more engaged.”

Creamer said she and her staff intend to relocate ArtPrize’s office to a new arts incubator in the former UICA building.

With all this responsibility and activity, a bemused expression crosses Creamer’s face when she’s asked in jest if she still creates works of art in her “spare time.” Her inclination is to respond with an automatic “no,” but then she rethinks her answer.

“I have some extended family in Italy and I make glass beads and some textile-oriented work for personal improvement,” she said.

Then Creamer mentions she’s also an artist in residence at the Goodwillie Environmental School in Ada, an elementary school in the Forest Hills Public Schools district where she teaches students how to make natural dyes and how to weave.

The long drive to the school is worth the trip, said Creamer.

She shepherds the students in making textile dyes using organic materials such as onionskins, goldenrod and black walnuts. The work requires a seamless interchange with chemistry, art and math that becomes an eye-opening experience for students who’ve grown accustomed to the American consumer concept of getting what you want by buying it from a retail outlet.

But with Creamer, they learn another way.

“It’s so fun,” Creamer said. “The kids don’t know where cloth comes from, and that color comes from the natural world. There’s so much math and science that comes in the construction of textiles.

“Teaching there has always been quite satisfying.”

Not all of Creamer’s life has been hearts and roses. She’s paid her dues. She remembers the learning curve she first endured when, at 17, she got a job as a waitress at an all-night diner working the graveyard shift. It was no cakewalk, she remembers. “I’m a day person, and I had to stay up all night,” she said.

But by waiting tables, Creamer said she learned something about herself and people. She became wise to what service means to road-weary customers. She discovered how to get to know people when they were tired, hungry and welcomed a listening ear.

She learned rig drivers who pulled into the diner in the wee hours of the morning relished their coffee “just so,” and that a certain customer wanted her poached egg served only with a spoon: no fork, no knife — just a spoon.

“You’ve heard the expression ‘service with a smile’?” Creamer asks rhetorically. “I learned to greet people with a smile and treat them with respect.”

Raised in a large family, Creamer remembers her father, a gentleman farmer, not hesitating to put his children to work renovating a slate-roof fixer-upper he purchased in Puntam Station, N.Y. On summer days when she craved a cool dip in the water, her father had other plans that involved swinging a hammer.

“He had five strong kids and he was determined they were going to help him with the renovation of the home,” Creamer said.

When it comes to life imitating art, or the other way around, Creamer said pigeonholing people and the issues the community faces shouldn’t be the priority.

“I face challenges with an eagerness to inquire, rather than to advocate,” she said. “We choose how we’re going to act and the legacy we leave behind. Our actions and words create our own way.”

And that aspiration includes the future of ArtPrize.

“I am a dreamer. I dream big,” Creamer said. “I like to envision a successful end to what I’m trying to achieve and ask, ‘What did I do to make it happen?’”

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