Thursday, September 22, 2011

Michael Kalmbach

Michael Kalmbach has a lot on his plate.  He teaches painting and drawing at Cecil College.  Since 2006 he has curated five art exhibitions.  Since 2008 he has received four awards for his work.  In the same year he founded the New Wilmington Art Association in order to create community and opportunities for himself and other artists.  He is on the Board of the Chris W. White Community Development Corporation which governs Shipley Lofts, a living and working space for artists.  In 2010 he had paintings in ten exhibitions.  That’s a lot.  He is currently working as an independent contractor for the State of Delaware's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health to start up The Creative Vision Factory, a free communal arts studio in downtown Wilmington.

Kalmbach describes himself as “a lanky white guy who loves the Wu-Tang Clan” and “a devout fan of the New York Yankees.”  Really just a guy doing his thing.  He is always neatly dressed, often in a pair of Saucony running shoes, a pair of Dickies with a fresh crease down the front, and a neatly pressed, slightly oversized t-shirt.  Although he’s a painter, you won’t find any splatters or stains on him.

He grew up in low-income housing in rural Pennsylvania and was raised by a single mother, Sheila Ulerich, the only person in Lancaster County to cast a vote for Jesse Jackson.  She’s the daughter of a Pittsburgh steel worker who put herself through college while raising her son.  Her education enabled her to become a teacher, to support her son and eventually enabled her son to go to college and become an artist.

This enabling trend lead Michael to found the New Wilmington Art Association three months after finishing an MFA in painting at the University of Delaware.  Wilmington’s artists lacked a sense of community and there wasn’t much of an art scene.  Kalmbach knew that if he wanted to stay in the city a context and a forum was needed himself and others to “behave as artists.”  Today if you’re an artist in Wilmington, interacting with Michael usually means he’s throwing an opportunity your way.  This year he has been responsible for four lines on my resume; two group exhibitions, one of which I was able to curate, and I will be curating two more in the coming months.  He has also been active in creating the Wilmington chapter of Sunday Supper, a national collective effort aimed at strengthening artistic communities by creating networking events and by providing project specific micro grants to artists.  He’s becoming the Don of the Wilmington art scene, a Don that you don’t mind owing. 

Kalmbach also identifies strongly with philosopher Richard Rorty.  Although Rorty wrote about himself as a person with “private, weird, snobbish, incommunicable interests" in the form of an obsession with wild orchids, he believed the point of being human was to spend one's life fighting social injustice.  Since making a name for himself as the founder of the NWAA, Michael is offered more opportunities to work towards a Wilmington that provides its citizens more opportunity and equal access.  His latest project, The Creative Vision Factory, is being developed with the State of Delaware's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.  

Like many downtowns there are a number of people wandering around downtown Wilmington.  Many of us tend to see them as obstacles to get around and to ignore.  Although these people may have mental issues or substance abuse problems that make it hard for them to get or keep a job, most of them are not homeless and they are not panhandlers.  Shelter and services provided by the state tend to revolve around therapy and can be stressful reminders of the issues these people face.  One of the reasons they may have a hard time overcoming these issues to work their way back into society is that they lack a place where they can go and feel a sense of normalcy.  The Creative Vision Factory will be a free communal studio open to anyone who has received state services for behavioral health disorders and has an interest in art.  

If you’ve spent any time in downtown Wilmington Delaware in the last year, especially if you’ve attended the Wilmington Art Loop on the first Friday of each month, you will have noticed a change.  There is less litter and fewer rough-looking characters around.  While downtown still has a long way to go, there are more families and couples out socializing.  There are new businesses with their doors propped open, playing trendy music and inviting people in.  Downtown feels much safer.  This is the result of a lot of hard work by many people whose names you will likely never know.  Michael Kalmbach one of them. 

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