Joe Levickas has long been interested in exhibiting and curating art.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down most opportunities for doing so, until he noticed an untapped opportunity: his front yard.
Not wanting to occupy too much space in the yard — and knowing his studio space had been largely taken over as a remote work location, leaving little room for actual art creation — Levickas thought small.
“I said to my wife, who’s in theater, ‘What if we put up a gallery in our front yard?’ and she said, ‘You should totally do it,’” said Levickas, program director for Arts at Michigan and assistant director in the Office of New Student Programs.
“So I said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and purchase it now or else I’ll talk myself out of it.’”
He bought a 16-by-10-by-12-inch exhibition space that looks similar to the “little free library” stands found on many Ann Arbor streets and neighborhoods. It has a glass door, and Levickas outfitted it with movable walls and floors to allow for a variety of display options and painted the exterior the same teal color as his house.
In June, the Creal Microgallery exhibition space debuted at Levickas’ home on Creal Crescent with a display of his work, complete with interior lights so visitors could enjoy it in the evening as well.
“When I’ve talked to other artists about showing, they’ve said doing something small-scale felt manageable,” he said. “They feel capable of committing to a project that doesn’t feel so grand. This scale feels small and tangible and hand-held. But that also doesn’t mean it’s something you won’t take seriously.”
“It’s taking time to invest in something small, but still feeling like you’re able to appreciate the size and scale of that effort.”
His first exhibit, “Small Wins and Personal Victories,” hit every note. He lined the walls of the space with eight 3-by-4-inch paintings of young people wearing medals or holding trophies or certificates.
Their facial expressions are neither exuberant nor melancholy. The subjects in the paintings celebrate their achievements but in a controlled manner, understanding their small but meaningful accomplishments.
“It was an interesting metaphor for what I was doing (with the microgallery), which was deciding that even in this small scale it was worth achieving and working on and contributing to, and feeling like, at the end, I was able to create something that I was excited about,” he said.
He said it took roughly two months to finish the eight paintings, each of which is about the size of a typical baseball card. That timeframe was in stark contrast to larger works he’s done that Levickas says can take years.
“(With a larger piece), you want to cover an area with the right paint and the right texture, and it can take three sittings and it’s overwhelming sometimes,” he said. “This was a couple daubs of paint and it said what I wanted it to. It was a lot of fun to make happen, and it didn’t take up much space in the studio.”
As with many exhibits, Levickas even hosted an art reception in his front yard because, he joked, “We couldn’t have a gallery reception in the traditional sense because no one can fit in the gallery.”
His exhibition remained on view for about a month before he showcased St. Louis-based photographer Andrew Stamm’s panoramic photos of Bruny Island, Tasmania, in “Small Windows Onto a Distant World.”
On display since late August is an exhibition of small-scale steel sculptures in “Bright Forest” by artist Michael Whiting, known for crafting massive pieces inspired by early video game characters that were created with 8-bit pixel imagery.
Levickas started an Instagram page for the microgallery at instagram.com/creal_microgallery/ where he documents exhibits and shares exchanges with other artists interested in smaller art.
“I started exploring existing microgalleries, and there are quite a few of them around the world,” he said. “There’s a real community that appreciates each other. So one of the things I realized I wanted to do is that even though this existed in a hyper-local way where I can get there in 15 steps, (an Instagram page) would allow it to have an impact beyond that.”
Levickas has been interested in drawing as long as he can remember. His father was an accountant and his mother was an English as a second language teacher, so he was not naturally predisposed to art.
But he was a natural. His high school schedule was loaded with required courses until he was able to take art as an elective his senior year. The first project was to create a nameplate. Levickas’ included scenes of small figures all around it and caught the teacher’s eye.
“I remember my teacher pulling me aside and saying, ‘Normally it takes a couple projects to see if somebody’s got something, and clearly you have something,’” he said. “So I remember feeling like maybe this was something I should take more seriously.”
He earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and his Master of Fine Arts from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, both in painting. He’s entering his 12th year at Arts at Michigan and his sixth as program director.
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He said Arts at Michigan is a student-focused program that connects undergraduate students to the arts as artists, audience members and arts leaders, and the work is rewarding.
“So much of what we’re doing is supporting student creativity, giving grants to students to accomplish the projects they’re working on or to student organizations who want to put on an event,” he said. “We have lots of different ways we’re trying to support student creativity and student engagement with the arts.”
As for the microgallery, Levickas is excited to see what’s ahead. He said he has exhibits lined up basically through the end of the year.
“I wouldn’t say miniature art is going to be my focus forever, but it has been really fun to explore what’s possible in that small space,” he said.