“By Tom Travis
Jerin Sage, the Greater Flint Art Council’s interim placemaker, leans forward with a bounce in his voice, his hands flying as he speaks, and exclaims, “Art is not about being the best. It’s about giving it your all and putting it out there.”
In an interview at Dorothy’s House of Coffee, Sage, 36, explains the concept of “placemaking” and how he came to believe in it as he worked with the city’s first placemaker, Kady Yellow. She recently departed for a new position in Florida. It is a relatively new way of thinking about how cities create a sense of community and support art and music events.
“Placemaking is about ensuring the community and the people that are in a space have a say in what’s going on,” he says, “so that people can identify with that space and feel welcome in that space and really utilize our downtown space.”
His face lights up when he talks about art and its potential power for the community.
“Art is an outlet,” he says. “You don’t need money, you don’t need anyone else for it. It’s something that you can do on your own. It’s something that you can find within yourself.
“In Flint you find writers, you find poets that don’t necessarily have the hardware attached to art, but that’s the foundation of the art.
He explains, “In Flint the physical hardware such as musical instruments or high end art supplies are often not an accessible option for artistic or creative expression and so we see the foundations of artists starting with more affordable and easier to access tools such as paper and pencils to create poetry and literature.
“That foundation is very powerful, as it can provide a platform to showcase and a motivation to transition into many other creative outlets and open doors to other art forms.”
Sage asserts that “once you’re in that realm” it’s easier to find people with similar thoughts and beliefs and lifestyles. Once you discover that you’re an artist, he suggested, then you become connected with other people.
“The support that you get while being an artist in Flint is a very unique thing and it just keeps bridging,” he says. “A writer can turn into a singer, then they need a guitar and it can turn into something else.”
“I’m all of those things,” he says. “I’m extremely creative — I have been my whole life. It’s something that’s a driving force behind everything that I do. I’m a musician, I’m an artist, I write songs. ” He reaches down to pet one of the dogs that are fixtures in Dorothy’s House of Coffee (503 East Street).
Sage has lived in Flint all his life and graduated from Grand Blanc High School. He now lives in the south end of Flint with his fiancé and three children — a daughter, 4, and two sons, 7 and 9.
Placemaking in Flint and What’s Up Downtown Project
Sage is specifically in charge of the What’s Up Downtown Project (WUDP).He had worked along side Flint’s previous and first placemaking director Yellow before she left Flint for Florida.
Sage describes himself as “a producer” in some of the projects that Yellow conducted. “Art is not about being the best it’s about giving it your all and putting it out there,” he says.
Helping Yellow when she first arrived, Sage said he was “very excited about the placemaking program. Prior to her coming here, it was a word I wasn’t familiar with.”
“I recognized the principles behind what she was doing and so I was very interested in learning more,” Sage recalls.”Yellow was very instrumental in bridging that gap for me between event production and community organizing. It finally had a name and that name was ‘placemaking.'”
Sage says he “dove into” placemaking, met other placemakers from around the country and around the world at a Placemaking Week last summer hosted by WUDP. Ryan Smolar, Ethan Kent, and Madeleine Spencer were key organizers of that event.
Sage admits to “picking Yellow’s brain” about things that she knew and was trying, and says that he tried to set himself up for a trajectory for where he wanted to go with his new found placemaking knowledge and new found community of people.
“I can’t take credit for any of Kady’s work, but she was absolutely instrumental in me discovering the placemaker in myself,” Sage explains.
The placemaking position is governed by the Greater Flint Arts Council (GFAC) A guiding committee provides resources for the placemaker and teams up the placemaker with the resources they need. “They’re a really great group of people that care about Flint,” Sage says.
“Placemaking is essentially the process of identifying the different assets and talents in the community, then cultivating those talents in an intentional way to activate the public spaces that we have available.
“It can also overlap into other developments and redevelopments for example if we want a park to go up in our downtown area we would ask what do we want in that park, the different elements that would happen and how would that serve the community,” Sage says.
Sage confesses he is learning in this new position. “I really had to hone in on my social networking skills to be able to bring the talent that I need and to bring the volunteers that we need. So Flint Drop Fest has been very instrumental in my development as a producer.”
Sage says the arena for his work falls within geographical boundaries: from the Flint River running through downtown as a northern boundary and Court Street on the south end of downtown.
“The What’s Up Downtown Project (WUDP) is very specifically trying to activate downtown public spaces. That’s not to say that the work we do downtown can’t have an impact from outside downtown or the opposite where the work that’s being done outside of downtown can’t come back in,” Sage says.
Flint Drop Fest “showcases” artists’ music and culture
Reflecting on past experiences that have prepared Sage for this time in his life he says, “I’ve had a lot of different experiences in this city with connecting people together with producing a number of events. I’d say that the event I’ve learned the most from over the years is Flint Drop Fest. This year will be our tenth year producing it. It’s a free, city-wide electronic music and art festival designed to create platforms for musicians and artists to showcase their work and their culture,” Sage says.
He adds, “A lot of people think because I’ve produced so many Drop Fest events that electronic music is my thing. But it’s not something that defines me as what my type of music is. I like to think of myself as very diverse and open minded to all the different genres.”
Through the work on that festival, Sage described how he managed to learn to navigate things like properly obtaining city road closures, permitting, getting proper insurance. I’ve had to learn a lot about sponsorships and different funders and fundraising.”
My ‘go-to’ music
When he wants to chill and pop in his airpods to listen to music, Sage says his choices include “old, cheesy 90s grunge music,” including Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I’ve been going to concerts my whole life, so back in the day I’d go to Marilyn Manson concerts, Rob Zombie concerts — my roots really come from that. But my passion is in jazz and swing and blues. I love the melodies that happen with the complexity of a lot of that music,” he says.
Sage points out the bevy of artistic and creative talent in Flint: “There’s an endless list of things that are unique about Flint. I have been fortunate to do a lot of traveling in my adult life, so I was able to really explore a lot of different communities. So I think I have a pretty good grasp on the different communities how different people interact, how different arts can impact different communities,” he says.
“Flint is very unique because of its people, the tenacity that we have here, the different struggles the residents and especially long-term residents have had to go through. Through the different crises, different depressions, an endless list of struggles. And yet the resiliency has always been present.
“The need to push through it and the bonding that happens in the Flint community between neighbors is special. It’s something that is unique to this space. There is a sense here that Flint has a need to survive.
“There seems to be something in Flint that is just going to push us forward. When we find ourselves with empty hands we still find a way to fill our hands back up,” he says. “And what we can share with the world and the way that Flint can influence the world is the way that we always have historically been pioneers of their times and ideas and I don’t think that has changed very much.”
Flint’s history as a city of industry
Sage says he is interested in the historical connection in Flint to industry and what that contributes to today’s placemaking efforts. “Flint is a place known for innovation and we still have that here. It’s transformed over the years because we are out of the industrial age. We aren’t trying to repeat what everyone else is doing we’re trying to reinvent the way that it’s done. Whether that’s a process, a product or an image. Flint has been known as a place of invention” and Sage describes Flint as now being more of a place of re-invention.
“The future for creatives in Flint is very, very bright,” Sage concludes. “It’s something that I would love to see people from all over the world be able to tap into — some of these resources that Flint has and some of this insane energy that we got.
“With over 17,000 vacant properties in the city of Flint, with a population around 81,000, we have an opportunity to rebuild something,” he says.
EVM Managing Editor Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.