A gay friend of mine living in Charleston, South Carolina once told me he could do anything he liked there so long as he was wearing a tuxedo. A similar thing could be said about the conservative midwestern city of Grand Rapids, Michigan; except it should be rephrased as you can do whatever you like as long as it’s after dark. This city that has elected some of the most conservative tea party darlings to congress, where admonishments against working on Sundays still exist and nasty notes might await those brave enough to put an Obama sticker on their car, is a fertile garden for the growth of diverse and creative subcultures that taunt the genteel and mainstream folks that managed to shape the straight-laced reputation of this city. In other words, Bland Rapids has a dark side.
You might not see it as you walk through the downtown in the daytime. There are no posters covering telephone poles like acne, no debris of nighttime revelry and no shiftless teens with pierced noses panhandling on the corners. True to stereotype, this is a population of polite and overly considerate Midwesterners. They tidy up after themselves. But how does a city so religious that it earned the nickname “G-Reusalem*” spawn such a vibrant and diverse counter culture? Good friend and local artist, Melissa Duimstra provided the clue. She told me that when she was growing up in the Christian Reformed Church she would often be told that thinking about sin was as bad as committing it.** However, she came to the revelation that if she was already thinking about sin she might as well be doing it as she was going to hell anyway. Several other creatives have told me similar stories about their severe and traditional upbringings pushing them towards a more liberal outlook on life.
There is something symbiotic about darkness and creativity; darkness presents voids that need to be explained. The mysterious unknown of the night sparks the imagination and terror. Countless bedtime stories have been created to ward off the fears of youngsters who are afraid of what’s under the bed. Darkness defines the light as well. Shadows help artists create the illusion of space. Shadows add drama. Shadows hide imperfections. Shadows give respite from the hot glare of the all seeing eye of the sun. Darkness is often maligned as evil or ignorance, but to many, especially those who do not fit the approved mold of proscribed behavior it can mean freedom.
Darkness can also be enlightening. Freud taught us that our dreams can reveal our most deeply buried desires and obsessions. It can force us to drop our own masks and confront who we really are; that wild savage that we locked away long ago in order to function within polite society. It’s this savage, this untamed id that I see trying to assert itself in the diverse vernacular activities in my adopted hometown.