Blackbird Arts Takes Wing

TRAVERSE CITY – There's a new artistic spirit in town. Blackbird Arts, an independent studio offering programs for children, families and adults, has opened on Traverse City's east side.

During its grand opening at the end of April, some 160 canvas tiles were painted to create a springtime mural for one of the studio's walls. A few Fridays ago, a bunch of families attended a family tie-dye night and more recently created Warhol family portraits.

There's also been a lot of sculpting, guitar playing, creative dance and improv happening, too. The new arts studio is the vision, sweat and tears (and probably a little blood, too) of owner and educator Melissa Johnson.

Warm, colorful and oh so welcoming, Blackbird Arts studio is exactly what Johnson envisioned. But a mere six months ago, the space was anything but. The building, in a light industrial/manufacturing area on Barlow Street, has had many lives – real estate, chiropractic care, oil and gas business – and it took a heap of vision (and a little faith) to see what the white walls, low ceiling and claustrophobic floor plan could become. Local builder Eric Gerstner collaborated with Traverse City architect Ken Richmond on the redesign and repurposing of the building. When the walls started coming down and the natural light pouring in, Johnson started to really see.

Blackbird offers an interdisciplinary approach to arts education, explains Johnson, with various artistic explorations available all under one roof. Classes run in 4-week stints, which means there's always something new coming soon.

"It let's you have an introduction to something without a huge commitment," she says.

Classes for the month of May included Improv and Theatre Games, Brain Dance/Creative Movement, Lullabies for Little Ones, Beginning Acoustic Guitar, After School World Art and Movimiento! (becoming bilingual through movement).

Blackbird also offers one-time only experiences, such as a recent Young Playwrights workshop for 10-14 year-olds, and the Family Arts Nights held twice monthly. The studio is also doing volunteer programming with teen youth groups within Probate Court and Child and Family Services, Johnson adds.

She believes what she is offering further complements other arts and cultural programming in the area. "We all want to enrich, but there are different fits for different children. I'm just one more piece of that puzzle."


Though Johnson had been thinking about the studio for years (more like 15, to be exact), she took her first step toward making it a reality a year ago this spring.

"I'd been thinking about it for so long," she says. "I was too scared of not doing it. It just got to that point."

So one day last spring she walked into the Traverse City SCORE business counseling office. "I was really crystal clear," she says. "I said, 'Here's what I want to do. Now, how do I do it?'"

Regular meetings with SCORE and other local resources and a year to date later, she opened Blackbird's doors.

The studio is modeled after the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago, where Johnson used to live. Founded 40 years ago, Old Town now offers visual arts and movement classes in addition to music. Not only did Johnson pick up some banjo and violin chops there, she also took her young son to new parent/infant classes.

"It was such a warm place with a sense of community," says Johnson, and she wanted to create a similar experience here.

Johnson spent 10 years in archeology and education before turning to education full-time. A graduate of Suttons Bay High School, she moved back to northern Michigan in April 2005 to be closer to family. Soon after the birth of her second child, she was feeling isolated and really missing her Old Town School community.

"I didn't know where to meet others with young children," she says. That's when her idea for an arts gathering space (where it was completely okay if your kid had a meltdown) took further root. Finally, the timing for her and her family was right.

While some classes at Blackbird are specifically designed for parents to participate in along with their child, in most cases parents are encouraged to take a time-out with a cup of coffee and a book or to socialize with other parents in the cozy waiting area.

Johnson currently employs seven teachers either with a degree in arts education or in their specific artistic field. You can check out the full teaching roster at the studio's website (

Johnson's other goal with the studio is to create open and comfortable opportunities to nurture creativity at any age and focus on the process, not the end-product.

"We've become collectors of art," says Johnson. "Art at a distance…something for the wall. I'm guilty of it myself." But kids, she says, don't make that distinction. "All kids are art-makers, but then most of us grow out of it. Any 4-year-old will draw for you, but by the time they are a third-grader, it's 'I can't draw.' We get self-conscious, get away from the process and are too concerned with the outcome." BN

Blackbird Arts' Summer ArtsOn! Camp begins June 13. Each week is a different theme – from sculpture and painting to improv and drumming. More adult programming and family nights also on tap., 231.421.8085.