Long-time Painter, Muralist and Writer Infuses Art With Community

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Saturday, September 14, 2019, 8:00 am
Ann Kammerer

Julian Van Dyke poses near his work “Spirit of East Lansing: Sounds from the Street Mural.” (Photos by Raymond Holt)

Julian Van Dyke was inspired to make his living as an artist the day he opened a cardboard box as a kid.

Inside, filled to the brim, were dozens of Marvel Comics. His barber gave him the collection after hearing the young Van Dyke liked to draw and tell stories. As a middle child growing up in 1960s Benton Harbor, Van Dyke cherished the company of Iron Man and the Fantastic Four.

“My mom had taught me to draw,” Van Dyke said. “She was a former schoolteacher, and she liked to play make-believe with me too. When I got a hold of those comic books, I thought I was going to be a Marvel Comics illustrator. I thank my barber for that.”

Van Dyke never strayed from the dream of being an artist. Today, the 1971 graduate of Lafayette High School makes his home in Lansing as a working artist, represented by galleries in Miami and New York. He paints, writes children’s books, acts, organizes community activities, and manages an occasional local gallery to showcase his work and the work of others. Sprinkled in the mix are a half-dozen or more public art pieces and murals about town, particularly along the Michigan Avenue Corridor. Among his East Lansing works is a colorful city-themed mural, installed in the Grove Street alley (below) and facing Blue Owl Coffee, adjacent to Ann Street Plaza.

“I just painted the feel of the city,” Van Dyke said. “It’s the art fair, the outside music events, the Homecoming Parade, familiar faces and people like the juggler from street fairs. It’s just all those happy times.”

Evolving elements

Van Dyke moved to Lansing in 1979. His mother and father had passed away, and his grandmother and aunt, too. His older brother was in the U.S. Air Force, and his sister and younger brother had moved to Tennessee. Although he had inherited the family home on Lake Michigan, he felt he needed to go inland to pursue his dreams.

Working mostly in pen and ink at the time, Van Dyke wanted to learn more about painting. He enrolled at Lansing Community College and studied with faculty from a variety of disciplines. His art evolved, retaining elements of comic illustrations, while exploring bright colors, shape and form.

“I learned that art is creative inspiration that attracts people to work in different formats,” he said. “Be it literature or painting or sculpture or music. It’s all expression.”

In the 1980s, Van Dyke worked from a studio in the present-day Old Town. He maintains ties to the area, designing occasional posters for the annual Michigan BluesFest and other artistic events. A lover of jazz, he’s also designed posters for the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. From time to time, he’s been seen painting on-site during the June event, setting up easels and creating artworks while musicians perform. Often, he worked alongside his long-time, late friend, James McFarland, a resident of East Lansing.

Julian Van Dyke paints during the 2019 Summer Solstice Jazz Festival.

“James and I would put up a big easel and we’d paint,” Van Dyke said. “People would come up and ask if they could buy a painting. We’d say, ‘Sure,’ then ask, ‘Can you fit it in your car?’ And when they asked, ‘How much?’, we’d just say, ‘How much do you have?”

Larry Grudt said that type of story typifies Van Dyke—someone he has known and collaborated with for about nine years. Grudt first met Van Dyke at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival. They became fast friends, and later launched Keys to Creativity—a non-profit charity gallery in the Lansing Mall that recently closed after a three-year run.

“Julian is very dedicated to his community,” said Grudt, a Lansing-based artist, advocate and entrepreneur. “He’s all about anyplace and anyone trying to develop and tap their creativity. Whether you’re a musician, an activist, a writer or into fine arts, he’s there to support you.”

Impermanent permanence

Van Dyke’s murals partially reflect his devotion and interest in the communities where he lives and works. The Grove Street mural, completed in late spring 2016, resulted from his response to an open call for public art by the City of East Lansing.

“I was thankful they commissioned me,” he said. “I guess I’m history now.”

Van Dyke said he had been wanting to do a mural in East Lansing for several years after doing East Lansing inspired work in smaller dimensions. The opportunity to work in a larger format was exciting, and allowed him to introduce more ideas.

The 32-by-10-foot mural was part of the East Lansing Artist Alleys project, aimed at transforming two pedestrian alleys in the city’s core. A crowdfunding campaign launched by the city in the fall of 2015 exceeded its goal of $45,000, and received matching funds through the Michigan Economic Development Corporation’s (MEDC) Public Spaces, Community Places program.

Van Dyke moved forward with the mural in January 2016, preparing and transforming four large aluminum and steel panels at Bannash Welding on Lansing’s north side. He said he used “regular Home Depot” paint, and applied a special sealant when the pieces for “Spirit of East Lansing: Sounds from the Street Mural” were mounted in the alley and unveiled around the time of the annual East Lansing Arts Festival.

Public art, Van Dyke said, reflects his general philosophy about art: that it’s something that evolves and changes over time.

“For the most part, if something is inspiring you, then do it,” he said. “We’re here for a split second, and the work you create in this small space in time may be gone forever someday. Share your work. Think about what you want to achieve. Maybe someday an archeologist will break into this domain, find it, and say ‘Wow. We’re going to be rich.’”

Building the artistic life

Van Dyke admits he wasn’t always able to make a living through art or to engage in artistic creation full time. He drove a UPS truck for 20 years while raising a family of four, making life as a dad his top priority. He kept his hand in art whenever he could, and when his children were grown and flown, he reconnected with the artistic network he had nurtured over the years.

Today, Van Dyke has a house full of art, an upcoming exhibit with the Red Dot Art Fair in Miami, and multiple projects in the works. He writes and self-publishes children’s books, serving as author and illustrator. Several of his titles for kindergarteners to fourth-graders are carried through Barnes and Noble and on Amazon. His love of storytelling also extends to theatre. He’s currently immersed in production with Lansing’s Riverwalk Theatre, playing two parts in Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat” under the direction of George Popovich.

“My mother always read to me,” Van Dyke said. “I was constantly imaging the characters in my mind and fantasizing about what they would do. It sparked my interest in storytelling, and my belief that reading is incredibly beneficial to kids and to everyone—especially in today’s world.”

Van Dyke puts his words into practice. Earlier in the summer, he began exploring the possibility of starting a program for kids to encourage reading, writing and artistic expression. He said Friendship Baptist Church has tentatively agreed to provide space for “RAW”—including classrooms and a stage. Van Dyke, in turn, is looking into funding as well as seeking creatives from artistic disciplines to serve as instructors or facilitators.

“I believe your art isn’t the only art in the world,” Van Dyke said. “There are so many talented people out there. It’s important to learn from and teach things to others. You can be an old dog and learn new tricks.”

Photo-stitched panorama: “Spirit of East Lansing: Sounds from the Street Mural.”


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