By Jeremy Martin
Denise Miller and Michelle Johnson stand proudly in the arts center, bustling with youth engaged in creative projects. BTL photos: Jeremy Martin.
At first glance, Michelle Johnson and Denise Miller look like a typical couple. Both hold full time jobs, worry about paying bills, and save as much time as they can for each other.
A recent Saturday found the couple at a local hardware store shopping for paint, a standard domestic activity. But under the surface, there is a far more complex, creative and enigmatic relationship at work.
The paint the couple wants isn’t for their home; it’s for the interior of a restaurant that Miller is planning to open in September. Fuel: Unpredictably Vegetarian will feature regional vegetable based dishes from around the world.
But Fuel is only one of several projects that Johnson and Miller are currently working on. Together they run the Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative in Kalamazoo, which has been a gathering place for those seeking artistic freedom and community since 2006. The energetic couple keep themselves busy by focusing their projects on social justice.
“(Fire has) always been about people finding their passions and living it,” Miller says, “and I think for me, my relationship with Michelle has done that exact same thing.”
In 2005, the couple had the opportunity to rent one of Kalamazoo’s oldest firehouses. They first thought it could be an office space – but quickly changed their minds.
“As soon as we saw the space, we started talking about all the things that we wanted to do. Michelle had always worked with youth in different ways, and I had always worked with youth in the arts,” Miller says.
With that, the Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative was born: a place for members of the Kalamazoo community to gather, learn about and explore the artistic merits of themselves and of each other.
But a problem remained: how to turn Fire into a focal point of a community known more for gang activity than for artistic expression?
They created an answer by coining the term “creative justice.”
“The creative expression of justice is the model that we see happening at Fire: people finding out who they are, what they’re really into, having an opportunity to get the foundation underneath them to be able to do that,” Johnson says.
The hard part is finding a way to make Fire and the idea of creative justice a self-sustaining philosophy. Fire receives funding from several area sources who have donated their time and money into helping the organization succeed, but Johnson and Miller would like to see Fire stand on its own two legs.
“We work really hard to find ways to be as self-sustaining as possible. We do rentals, and some of our programming helps pay our operating costs,” Johnson says before Miller interrupts her with paint swatches. They take a moment to consider bamboo green and charcoal gray.
This makes Johnson think about the synergy between Fuel and Fire.
“Fire and Fuel are separate entities,” she says, “except now Fire’s culinary arts program, Bites, will have a home in the restaurant.”
Since its inception, the culinary arts program has spun through different locations like a city-wide lazy Susan.
“It made it really difficult for us to do our culinary training and catering, to sustain that part of the project,” Johnson says.
“Three years ago we shifted from being for profit to non-profit,” she says, and they’re getting close to being self-sustaining.
In the same way that Fire’s building was saved from demise by demolition ten years ago, Johnson and Miller are using the historical and cultural center to boost up a neighborhood that has seen its fair share of hard times.
Kalamazoo’s Edison neighborhood, the most populated in the city, has gained a reputation for harboring illicit activity.
“The neighborhood that we’re in certainly has stigmas attached to it. We truly believe that there’s a key in art and culture to be able to pick up the revitalization of a neighborhood, even be able to shift the stigmas,” Johnson says.
“We’re especially excited about the social justice aspect that we do, especially looking at issues of violence from a creative, artistic perspective. We’re very excited about our young people’s projects this year.”
One of Fire’s youth projects is the ‘Youth Speaks Readers Theater,’ which was created by local youth to help stem the spread of violent ideas and activities.
The children research, write and read essays on a range of violent acts affecting both the Kalamazoo community and beyond. Recent ‘Youth Speaks’ events have focused on sex trafficking, domestic violence and homophobia.
The Youth Speaks series sums up the message that Fire is attempting to spread: by using a combination of social justice, education and artistic awareness, the center is attempting to adjust the ideals and thoughts of a generation of young people into a place where creativity, learning and self awareness reign supreme.
Though Fire caters to a youthful crowd, not all of its events are specifically for children or teens. On Aug. 13 Fire will host its first rooftop festival, an evening of entertainment and awareness taking place in downtown Kalamazoo on the roof of the Radisson hotel parking structure. Musician Annette Taborn, founder of the Kalamazoo Blues Festival, will headline the evening, which also features adult beverages, multi-media presentations and speakers.
And that event is just one of a dozen projects that Johnson and Miller are working on at the moment, perhaps none more important than continuing to cultivate their relationship.
“We always want more time together,” Miller says. “I don’t think if we were together 24 hours a day it would be enough.”