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Contemporary Conversations

Artist Feature: Curt Ikens

Tell us a little about you.

I was born and raised in Michigan, where at the age of ten I began working alongside my father installing, sanding and finishing wood floors. The experience established a strong work ethic in me and ultimately provided the financial means to attend university where I first earned a BS in Computer Science.


I went on to work as a systems engineer specializing in computer graphics at Ford Motor Company. Unfulfilled in a corporate world, I gave notice at the conclusion of a particularly laudatory performance review that happened to fall on April Fools Day of my thirteenth year of employment. I was setting out to become an artist; my manager thought I was joking.

Having already earned a second bachelor’s degree (a BFA in Fine Art from Eastern Michigan University) during the evenings while working at Ford, I set about obtaining an MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. In addition to numerous group exhibitions, I have had solo shows at Jersey City Museum, Hunterdon Museum of Art, Windows on Columbus, Domo Gallery and even once previously here at UICA. I have been awarded a Sculpture Fellowship from New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and the Emerge Fellowship from Aljira – A Center for Contemporary Art.

I now live in Queens and maintain a studio in Brooklyn.

How would you describe your work? 

Over the years my work has varied widely in content and form, moving from printmaking to sculpture in paper and other materials, and now on to bamboo and wood.

In my latest body of work, I return to my roots in wood flooring construction. The work primarily consists of sculptural paintings and installations referencing traditional European parquet floor patterns. By employing dyes, stains and traditional finishes, I coax Asian-sourced bamboo flooring planks to mimic timeworn antique wood. But then things start getting strange. Absurdly aggressive hand scraping, bold splashes of color, meandering misaligned edges, and incongruous arrangements interrupt and violate the orderly geometric repetition and natural hues expected of classic parquets. The works suffer further defacement through abrading of the finish, breakage, erratic scratches and unskillfully scrawled words. Ultimately, a patina of heavy foot traffic, neglect and vandalism is oddly manifested in a vivid and vibrant palette. 

Curt Ikens, DamnStraight.jpg

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking? 

If pressed to identify the single biggest influence on my thinking, I suppose that that would fall on my older brother, Glenn. He was my guide through childhood and into adulthood. Only two years older, but always wise beyond his years - innately just, creative and just a little bit smarter than I could ever hope to be. Since we’ve always shared nearly indistinguishable values, temperaments, interests and convictions, he refers to us as “twins born two years apart”.  My mother was also a crucial force in my development, encouraging healthy skepticism, and trust in my unique abilities, perspective and interpretations.

Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you? 


The piece that I created for my MFA thesis show was a great personal achievement. It was a mechanized piece titled Lil’ Boltzmann in the Reading Room in which I addressed life and learning as counter forces (however weak and outmatched) to the ubiquitous entropy permeating the universe. By effectively unifying concept and artistic expression, I was finally able to convince myself that I was truly deserving of the title “fine artist”.

What new projects do you have on the horizon? 

After spending several months creating the two large scale works included in the Enmeshed exhibition, I am looking forward to making a series of small pieces using bamboo veneer mounted on various flooring substrates, allowing for rapid investigation of new compositions, forms, materials and methods. 

I’m also itching to get back to work on a series of wall pieces where I am exploring dynamic splashes of color with words and fragments of phrases scratched into the surface of the planks.

What do you want others outside of the creative workforce to understand about careers within the arts? 

An artist must have great confidence in the value of the artistic pursuit itself, because the monetary rewards for most artists’ efforts are not likely be great enough to sustain themselves. An artist’s measures of personal success are different than those working in most other occupations. Of course we desire to achieve success in the marketplace, but any artist of merit is not willing to compromise their personal artistic vision to gain it. A true artist would rather struggle and sustain prolonged hardship than sacrifice the integrity of their expression in order to appeal to a larger audience.  


How can communities, specifically Grand Rapids, better support the creative workforce? 

I must confess that I am not familiar with the particular issues confronting the Grand Rapids artists community, but I would assume that they face much the same difficulties as artists in other cities across the country. Encouraging artists and creative professionals to settle in the city by developing programs to offer reduced pricing for housing and studio spaces should be a top priority. There is abundant evidence that neighborhoods occupied by creatives will enhance property values and draw people from outside these neighborhoods to participate in the local economy.

Opportunities for artists to make proposals for both temporary and permanent public art installations and events benefits all by increasing community exposure to art and allows the artists an outlet for expression, while building their professional resumes. Local merchants should be encouraged to offer financial support, ad hoc exhibition spaces, artist residency workspaces and walls for murals, since they are sure to profit from the influx of visitors to their neighborhoods.


What are you passionate about besides your work?


Since many people note their religious faith when posed with such a question, I will start by stating that I am a proud atheist with a conviction that is equally as strong as the convictions of theists.  

Secondly, since I’m constantly seeking to better understand this strange world through reading and podcasts spanning a vast range of erudite topics, I guess learning would also have to be regarded as one of my passions.

And last, but certainly not least, I absolutely love cycling. Not competitive or organized cycling, but riding itself - for the sake of the experience. I have been fortunate to be able to structure my life in such a way that riding my bicycle can be part of daily living, giving me great satisfaction and peace of mind.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others? 

You only have one life to live, so choose it wisely, but remember you can always change your mind.

Looking for more?


Learn more about Curt Ikens hereSee Curt Iken's work at UICA as part of Enmeshed on view Jan 19, 2018 – Mar 18, 2018.

Local Artist Feature: Jillian Dickson Ludwig

Orgained , 2012 , Color Pencil , 15" x 22"

Orgained , 2012 , Color Pencil , 15" x 22"

Artist, art education, mother and wife, Dickson hails from a downtown-less town call Darien in the great state of Illinois. She moved to Rockford, Michigan 2 years ago and is a visiting assistant professor in drawing and painting at Alma College.

Jillian has exhibited her work nationally and internationally. Her work has been seen at the 56th Venice Biennale in the centre of Castello as well as the Louvre in Paris France for the 2012 exhibition “Drawing Now”. She has also exhibited at Thinkspace Gallery in Culver City, California, Antler Gallery in Portland, Oregon and Swarm Gallery in Oakland California.

The reality of women’s underwear seems to be one big dirty secret.

The general American public is exposed too a single type of women’s underwear, the sexy and the cute. These garments are stringy, lacy, silky, and well hated by the vagina. The truth is, many women’s underwear is roomy, made of cotton, and filled with years of period stains. The “Underwear” drawing series attempts to take these daily garments out of hiding and describes them as sacred in it’s golden frames and beautiful in the luscious detailing.
— Jillian Ludwig Dickson on 'My Undies'

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

My daughter. Her existence boldly transformed how I think about myself and the world around me

Do you have a piece of work which stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

My first drawing after giving birth is my favorite drawing. My daughter’s arrival transformed how I made art and it established my voice as an artist

What new projects do you have on the horizon?

Art is a grind for me. I try not to plan too far in advance. I try to keep working knowing that through work I will find new things to discover

What are you passionate about besides your work?

Probably a boring answer – I am passionate about being a wife and a mom and art teacher.

What’s the best piece of advice you have heard and repeat to others?

“Just keep going.”I probably say that a few times a week.

Looking for More?

Learn more about Jillian Dickson Ludwig here. See Jillian Dickson Ludwig's work at UICA as part of Enmeshed on view Jan 19, 2018 – Mar 18, 2018.

9, 2017, 22" x 27"

9, 2017, 22" x 27"

Local Artist Feature: Erin Schaenzer

Photo Courtesy Molly LaBeff

Photo Courtesy Molly LaBeff

Erin Schaenzer moved to Grand Rapids, MI five years ago to attend Kendall College of Art and Design and graduated with a BFA in Printmaking. Schaenzer’s poetic works are influenced by identity and relationships.

How would you describe your work?

My work is very personal and most of the content within it comes from my relationships with others, myself, and with everything else. Identity is one of the concepts I’ve been dealing with the most within the last year or so. Almost every one of my pieces consists of photo transfer, collage, and drawing. I have been called a formalist quite a bit. It’s therapeutic for me to create something that has balance because I’m a very anxious person. I pay heavy attention to forms and their relationship to one another, and color. Light and dark is huge. I find moments throughout the day and I take photos of them to use. I never really know what things mean until I’m finished with them. 

Who or what has been the biggest single influence on your way of thinking?

I’m hugely influenced by other people’s energies and moods. I deal with mental illness, which skews a lot of how I view the world, and it’s always changing. I have a few solid friendships that consist of sitting and talking for like, four hours about everything. We sort of just hash out all these things that we think about and deal with on a daily basis, whether it’s art, relationships, being a good person, or just our place in the world. I don’t know where I’d be mentally without those conversations. I also have to give a lot of credit to my printmaking professors at Kendall College of Art and Design. Throughout my five years at KCAD, they really made me challenge myself as an artist and as a thinker and wrap my head around some big concepts when it comes to being true to myself and to my work.

Past detail.jpg

Do you have a piece of work that stands out in your mind as something you are exceptionally proud of or that is particularly important to you?

The first collage that I ever did, “Found”, which now lives in Egypt actually, was so important to me when I made it. When I sat and looked at it after I was done with it, I was so proud, and had one of those breakthrough moments. It’s super simple and has three or four layers and some stitching, but conceptually sort of threw me into this year-long period where I discussed my first (and current) serious long-term relationship and who I was within it at the time. I am super interested in the dynamics within both romantic and platonic relationships, and how they change and grow over time. That was a turning point for sure.