The More the Merrier: Grand Valley Artists

by Kim Gill • photography by Two Eagles Marcus

Monday mornings are buzzing with creative energy in suite 140 at 1345 Monroe Ave in Grand Rapids, home of Grand Valley Artists (GVA). You can find more than 25 artists gathered around a model posed strategically on a lighted stage. With paper and canvas on easels, artists work quietly and diligently rendering images of the figure before them in all types of media: charcoal, oil, watercolor, acrylic and Conte crayon. Only when the model stretches for a break is it time for a little artist camaraderie— the sharing of ideas and techniques or just some social conversation over coffee. Model Sketch (portrait and life drawing) is one of the many programs offered at GVA on Monday and Saturday mornings and the third and fourth Thursday evenings of each month.

“It’s an opportunity for artists of any level, whether a beginner or professional, to hone in on their drawing and painting skills,” Carol Laurn, president of GVA, said.

Now in its 60th year, GVA is one of the oldest, most successful associations of artists in Michigan.

Grand Valley Artists (from left to right): Jim Johnson, Bob Kraai, Carol Laurn, Mary Marin, Evie Carrier, Randy Nyhof

“It began as a casual discussion with a local group of professional artists, art educators, advertising and furniture executives, such as William Kubiac, Reynold Weidenaar, Armand Merizon, Carl Forslund, Mary Ann Perry,and John Knight,” GVA historian Bob Kraai explained. “They made the decision to create an organization with a representational focus as a response to the emphasis, at the time, on modern art.”

Today, the group boasts more than 250 members who practice different forms of expression in a wide range of media: painting, drawing, fiber arts, printing, photography, jewelry and ceramics. Laurn emphasizes that there are no skill-level requirements for membership, only the desire to create.

“We are always accepting new artists, whether their work is representational, abstract or non-objective,” she said. “We welcome beginners and professional artists.”

GVA’s mission statement was written in 1957 and is still relevant to the group today.

“It simply states that the purpose of the group is to further self-expression in the visual arts through appreciation, education, application and promotion of the works of the membership,” Kraai expressed.

Laurn adds, “We’re always seeking new ways to grow as an organization by adding innovative programs and creating new opportunities for our artists to connect with the community.”

Newsletters by Mary Marin are published monthly for members with a variety of articles of artistic interest, workshop, class and exhibition opportunities, art happenings and community events, and a full calendar of GVA activities. Groups within GVA, such as the en plein air, still life painters and the photography group, post their meeting times and outing locations.

One of the most well-attended monthly events is Critique Night, which is held the second Thursday of the month. It’s a positive opportunity for artists to share work with their contemporaries in order to seek help and feedback about composition, technique, and design. It’s a learning experience.

“Many attend just to hear the lively discussions whether they’ve brought artwork or not,” Laurn shared.

Program Night offers members the opportunity to learn from other artists. A wide range of topics is traversed, from the exploration of a specific medium to the discussion of new art trends and techniques for selling artwork. Earlier this year, Pamela DeTuncq, a conceptual artist from Idaho, spoke to the group. She describes herself as “one who blends clashing materials into provoking and playful sculptural installations that comment on a wide variety of themes.”

“DeTuncq’s themes are universal, such as teen alienation, gender stereotypes, aging, and the ephemeral nature of existence,” Laurn said. “It was fascinating to learn about her artistic journey, to see images of her installations, and above all be inspired by her willingness to be a risk taker. Our speakers who share on Program Night bring fresh and unique perspectives to the artists at GVA; it’s all about learning and growing as artists.”

Members and non-members alike who are nationally recognized, award-winning artists seeking to share their knowledge and skills with others, are continually offering workshops and classes for all levels.

Professional artist Candace Chovanec is a new member of GVA and relishes the opportunity to host workshops, curate local spaces and contribute to expanding the group’s social media presence.

“The artists here have formed a real community that has been very welcoming and made Grand Rapids feel like home,” Chovanec expressed. “Living for 15 years in Southern California, I never found an art group like this one.”

Promotion of members’ artwork is a vital component of the organization. GVA members exhibit work locally at libraries, restaurants, churches and community galleries. Since 1965, GVA has proudly hosted the iconic Reeds Lake Art Festival. During the festival, Wealthy Street in East Grand Rapids is lined with over 100 artist vendors; GVA members and artists from around the country are selected by a jury process to ensure quality artwork. Paintings, ceramics, photography, jewelry, sculpture, glass, and fiber artworks are represented at this premiere event on the second Saturday in June.


“The artists here have formed a real community that has been very welcoming and made Grand Rapids feel like home.” –Candace Chovanec, Artists and Educator. 


GVA members are exceptionally excited to be hosting a venue for ArtPrize 2017. Joanne Swann, a GVA member, has been assigned to oversee this venture. While many know the international art festival for the larger-than-life pieces often displayed, Swann is taking the GVA display in a different direction by showcasing vast assemblage of small artworks.

“Grand Valley Artists has decided to go big by thinking small,” Swann said.

The working studio of GVA will also be in full swing for the duration of ArtPrize, with ongoing live portrait and still life sessions, allowing visitors a window into the creative process. Swann aims to create what she describes as an  “Art infused experience for our visitors.”

Under the direction of Laurn, and as she credits, a very progressive board of directors, GVA has upgraded their status as a non-organization to a 501C3; the group is now able to seek grants and accept tax-deductible donations.

“Because of this, we’ll able to expand our community outreach programs and truly grow as an organization,” Laurn shared. “With the decrease in funding for the arts, which seems to be the trend in public education, we will explore the idea of offering art programs to high school and special needs students. Healing art programs for Hospice organizations and hospitals are also being considered.”

The next 60 years look incredibly bright for GVA.

“The original founders, 60 years ago, were energized with optimism about bringing artists together to develop an association that inspires,” Kraai expressed. “They were willing to try all sorts of projects and ventures to ensure its growth. Today we continue to carry that excitement forward for our members and our community.”

Membership to GVA is $40/year ($20 for students). To find more inspiration with GVA, visit their Facebook, Instagram and website, grandvalleyartists.com.


Kimberly Grace Gill is an independent fine artist specializing in portrait painting typically with a social justice orientation. She is a graduate of Aquinas College and lives in Byron Center with her husband, Pat.


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