Saline Artist Val Mann Talks About 212's Last Show, Sculpture Project at Henne Field

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 07/13/2016 - 17:27

Val Mann is one of Saline's most accomplished artists. She's shown her work across the United States and abroad. Her award-winning art is in public and private collections in the United States, Europe and Asia.

Mann's new exhibit, "Observations," is at Two Twelve Arts Center in July and August. Her watercolor paintings from various artist in residency programs and from around Saline will be featured. These plein air watercolors center around the landscapes--from the tall grasses of Nebraska, to the farmscapes of Saline, to the dunes of Indiana's Lakeshore. 

The public is invited to an artist's reception from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday.

As Mann shows at Two Twelve Arts, she's also raising funds for a sculpture honoring the late library director Leslee Niethammer. The sculpture, Leslee's Smile, will be installed at Henne Field. People can donate money for the sculpture at a GoFundMe page (

Mann found time in her busy schedule to answer a few questions.

It appears you're doing the final art show at 212 and that the art center's final reception will be for your show. What has 212 meant to you?

It is difficult to put into words. I've been involved with 212 since the beginning. It's unusual to find a place with a consistent group of employees who work so hard to build community, equity and value for everyone involved. They've given me a chance to be my best as a teacher, artist and art community member.

It's almost hard to imagine who will pick up where 212 leaves off. Artists will still make art, of course. But how do you think the community will feel the impact of closing 212?

I think it is hard to overstate how much the Saline community will miss 212 Arts Center. It has become a cultural touchstone in a very short period of time, hitting the ground running 10 years ago and going full-force the whole time. There will be a huge cultural hole in Saline.

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You've created art in many forms. Why did you choose water colors and plein air paintings for your last show at 212?

Well, logistically it is easier to show 2-D work at 212 Arts Center, since it is also a teaching facility and people need to be able to move freely in the space. Also, there's a huge watercolor painting community here in Saline. It started years ago with Taylor Jacobsen's weekly watercolor group, and continues with the artists who've taught and taken classes for years at the 212. Since I taught watercolors for the past several years for 212, and have worked in that medium for a long time, it made sense that the show would be watercolors. Many of the landscape paintings are plein air or from photographs I've taken of our surrounding area. I'm in love with Midwest landscapes!

Did you have any interesting plein air painting experiences?

I've had several interesting plein air experiences!  I didn't really start working plein air until about two years ago, when I was a National Parks Artist in Residence at Homestead National Monument in Nebraska. My plan was to make sketches and photographs of the birds for my 'bird' body of sculptural work while in residence, but, never having been to the tallgrass prairie OR Nebraska before, I didn't realize that most of the birds stay low in the grasses, camouflaged (very few trees and all). So I had to go to plan B, which meant I found a travel set of watercolors I'd stashed under the driver's seat of the car a while back and, luckily, I'd packed a portfolio of watercolor paper. I proceeded to crank out about 19 paintings and several sketches over two weeks.  And you know what?  When you do something every day for several hours a day, you get better, faster!  It was so reaffirming about how much I love painting.  

When I returned to Saline from Nebraska, I loaded up my truck and headed out to farm country and painted plein air until it got too cold that fall. One hot, sunny day, as I stood painting one of the Braun brothers' farms, I heard footsteps coming down the road in my direction. In my periphery, I could tell it was a man hiking and he said, "Hey, Valerie, are you painting?"  I didn't really look at him, just kept painting and said, "Oh, yeah, gorgeous day, eh?"  He kept walking, but when I turned to see who it was, it was a guy I recognized from around town, but he was hiking down the road in his boxer shorts, boots and hat, clothes rolled up under his arm.  I just chuckled and thought to myself, "anyone who thinks living in a small town is boring.....just isn't paying attention."

Which piece in the show do feel closest to?

One of the pieces I really like is a small watercolor of a rolling green landscape in Iowa. I took the photo on my way out to Nebraska and I really loved the rolling green hills west of Des Moines. I felt that I approached this painting with a freshness - an uncomplicated set of expectations. 

Another one I am fond of is a small plein air acrylic painting I made standing on Waterworks Road, near Parker. I love the vivid colors and it captures what it looked like that day. But that field was bulldozed, tiled and leveled that fall.  The gorgeous, huge oak far in the back field was cut.  I'm so glad I went out that summer and fall and painted that field over and over again!

Plein air water colors seem a long way from what you hope to install at Henne Field. Leslee's Smile is the name of the steel sculpture with colorful glass, a sculpture to honor the late library director Leslee Niethammer. Have you ever worked on a sculpture this big before? How much will this weigh?

Yes, I have made a few sculptures larger than the proposed 'Leslee's Smile'.  One, 'Roots Taking Flight' is about 8 feet tall, by 5 feet by 4 feet. That piece is installed at Carrot Way apartments on the north side of Ann Arbor. We installed it May of 2015.

Another piece I made with a friend for Grand Circus Park (used to be right across from where Comerica Park is now). That piece was 20 feet tall and a temporary construction - installed for about two weeks. It was a giant black arch with mirror adhered on all sides to reflect the city. There were huge bases made from 2 x 8s to anchor the piece and large, brightly painted areas so that the piece would be interesting to people who lived in the high-rise apartments surrounding the park.  It was a major undertaking!

Leslee's Smile will weigh about 700 pounds when it's all done.  It will be anchored to a concrete base so it can't move.

According to the Go Fund Me page, the sculpture was designed with the help of elementary school kids. When did you do work on this? Where is the sculpture today?

Actually, the sculpture was designed only by me, but inspired by an element of the 'Roots Taking Flight' piece.  'Roots Taking Flight' was designed with elementary school kids during the 2014-15 school year.  I worked with the 'Telling It' program, a program conceived of by U of M School of Social Work professor, Deb Gordon Gurfinkel. I took the kids through a year-long design process where they learned about 3-D construction methods, power and hand tools and materials. We took the kids to Makerworks, where they got to see the plasma cutter and laser cutters work and where they got a sense of what tools I was going to use to make our sculpture design come to life.  

It is installed at Carrot Way Apartments, off Dhu Varren Road.  The kids were so excited to help bolt it together, anchor it to the concrete base and dedicate it at a ceremony!

Tell us about the colored glass and how you hope people will interact with the sculpture

When the light filters through the colored glass, color will project onto the concrete below - not unlike a stained glass window.  The glass will be thicker, though, large, cast glass pieces will be caulked into the steel piece. I hope that people will smile as they discover new curves and shadows in the piece. They'll see a little something different each time they go past it - art is great for that!  I also hope they'll be reminded of Leslee and her playful nature - I'm so glad I got to talk about the piece with her!

I imagine that everything about a public steel sculpture is different than creating a water color painting. It seems like project management or engineering as much as it seems like art. What do you think of the process?

I have a background in painting as well as sculpture and I feel like the two feed each other in indescribable ways. They feed the understanding of the other.  

This welded steel project is heavy on the software and techie side - something that requires hours of sitting still in front of the computer before the fun welding part.  I'm not very good at sitting still!  But the learning and the finished product is worth it.  I love welding, though.  There's something meditative about it.  And the making of the glass components will require collaborating with a glass artist, and I find collaborating to be very rewarding.  Ultimately, the whole piece, from the concrete base, to the folks who are so generously helping to crowdfund and the City of Saline Arts Committee, to the final installation will be a collaborative effort.  That collaboration will really be in the spirit of Leslee Niethammer!


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Tran Longmoore
Tran Longmoore is a veteran community journalist. He is founder and owner of He is co-publisher of The Saline Post weekly newspaper. Email him at [email protected] or call him at 734-272-6294.

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