Metro Detroit artists bring birds to life through paintings

Stephanie Sokol for The Oakland Press


Photo courtesy of Helena Kuttner-Giasson

For painter Helena Kuttner-Giasson, art is a way to communicate in more ways than one. When she couldn’t find the words, her art spoke for her, and she took inspiration from her surroundings.

“Art is my first language,” says Kuttner-Giasson, of Clinton Township. “I always enjoyed doodling and drawing from the time I was able to hold a crayon. When I was 4 years old, my immediate family immigrated to America from Europe, leaving behind what is now the Czech Republic. As I struggled to learn English, I discovered that drawing was a way to bridge the language and culture gap.”

Kuttner-Giasson is one of three artists with paintings in Level One Bank’s latest exhibit, “Birds: An Avian Adventure,” going on through Feb. 6.

While she paints landscapes and has always painted birds, she took a more intuitive and spontaneous approach to these paintings after watching birds in her yard.

“This Autumn in particular, my yard was filled with a myriad of sparrows, woodpeckers, buntings, cardinals — it became an airport for these world travelers as they prepared to depart to warmer climates,” Kuttner-Giasson says.

“Different birds represent different moments and ideas to each of us, so it was a perfect opportunity to paint a myriad of birds. I spent quite a bit of time observing how so many species could group together and watch out for each other with warning calls, sharing berries and seeds from the garden and the feeders. After many days of observation, it became rather impossible not to humanize their interactions with each other.”

Rather than compose her works as scientific observations, she used what she observed, and just began to paint.

“Nature is our common experience, the sum of many small differences,” Kuttner-Giasson says. “To me, birds symbolize how all of us with our differences across the world can come together and celebrate the community of being. During a season where there is very little color in the land and sky, I think having a bird-themed show is a wonderful way to warm our spirits while we await the arrival of spring.”

The group exhibit highlights aviary works of three metro-detroit artists, in the gallery area of Level One, called the Community Art Gallery, which takes up the entire front of the bank, and has been hosting art exhibits for about 10 years.

Exhibit host Mark McDaniel Burton has been curating shows at the gallery for about a year and a half and says it’s a nice space to highlight a large amount of work.

“The gallery is quite big, so each artist has their own section,” he says.

“For one thing, people should come to the show to escape the cold weather. And people don’t normally think of a bank having a gallery. It’s a unique space, and a chance to see some fantastic local artists.”

The bird theme fell into place when Burton was putting the show together. He reached out to artists, and Marilyn Bicsak Thomas sent her realistic, almost photographic paintings of birds. Kuttner-Giasson also sent her new loose, sketchy water-color pieces, which happened to show birds as well. And Louis Wildfong had a pen-and-ink series of fantastical, humorous birds, complementing the others.

“It brings a really diverse look in a single subject, instead of doing all photographs or hyper realistic, you have these different takes on the same object — birds,” Burton says. “You get three different views from three different artists.”

• Birds: An Avian Adventure exhibition is up through Feb. 6 at Level One Bank, 22635 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. The gallery is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Friday.

Recent design work

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Local photographer and author release third picture book, ‘Among a Thousand Fireflies’


Photo courtesy of Rick Lieder.

Stephanie Sokol for The Oakland Press

Rick Lieder knows beauty and nature can be found right in your own back yard.

In his latest children’s book, “Among a Thousand Fireflies,” created with award-winning poet Helen Frost, the long-time photographer, artist and former photojournalist captured fireflies outside his home.

“Helen did a great job telling the story,” says Lieder, who is originally from Detroit but has lived in Berkley for 25 years. ““I’m taking world-class pictures, as good as anybody in the world is doing and I’m doing it in my back yard.”

While Lieder has a lot of experience in photography and designing book covers, he says he enjoys nature photos because they are challenging and different from what he usually works on. His goal is to make unique pictures, capturing birds and insects he sees in the wild.

“I’m always trying to challenge myself, if it’s hard to do I always want to do it more strongly,” Lieder says.

His science background, including studies at the University of Michigan, helped him with the technical side, but paying attention to lighting and details of the outside world gives him a more creative outlet. Many other photographers have captured fireflies in flight, for example, but by studying the insects intently, Lieder figured out how to catch them in static images.

The two also collaborated on “Sweep Up the Sun” last year, and “Step Gently Out” in 2012. Frost and Lieder hope their books encourage readers’ appreciation of the world around them.

“I’ve always loved nature, and I think we all appreciate nature — maybe none of us are as close to it as we’d like to be,” Lieder says. “Most of my work is not the nature books. Most of my photography is very urban and deals with lots of subjects and people. Much of what I do is completely different than this, but I like to express myself and these books are a good way to do it.”

While Lieder’s images are strong, Frost’s words bring them to life even more. Ever since she was little, Frost says, she loved writing. The former teacher from Fort Wayne, Ind., has written many different kinds of books, but especially likes putting pictures together with her poetry.

“I think for me, I love poetry and I love children, so it’s a really good combination when I write poetry for children. It’s a joy for me,” she says. “Children really like the sound as well as the meaning. I try to make it lovely and exciting.”

Her writing process is different for each book, but she never just sits down and writes it — it takes time and work.

While she has worked with illustrators in the past, she says having actual photos and creating these stories with Lieder has been a different, more collaborative experience.

Lieder’s photos and Frost’s poems are arranged in a way that both children and adults can enjoy.

When they created the stories, they chose a subject in Lieder’s photos, and Frost told the story through a poem.

She worked with him and their editor to put together the poem and figure out which lines went with each photo, in addition to adding information in the back of the book about the story.

Frost and Lieder return to The Book Beat bookstore in Oak Park on March 12, to promote “Among a Thousand Fireflies.” They met at the store 10 years ago, which started their book-making journey.

“We have a special feeling towards the Book Beat,” Frost says. “We loved doing our first book event there.”

With Lieder’s love for nature photography and repertoire of photos, “Among a Thousand Fireflies” won’t be their last book. The two have many more in the works.

“Helen did a great job telling the story,” Lieder says. “A lot of people think that what I do requires a lot of expensive equipment, but it doesn’t. It’s not the equipment, it’s how I’m looking at the world.”

Stephanie Sokol for The Oakland Press

Kelly DiPucchio wants to show the world that picture books aren’t just for


Kelly DiPucchio, 48, of Rochester, has proof that adults enjoy children’s picture books just as much as kids do. Courtesy of Kelly DiPucchio


DiPucchio, 48, knows a wide audience can enjoy and benefit from reading art-filled stories.

“Picture books are ageless — I dislike age ranges on books,” DiPucchio says. “Whether you’re 1 or 100 years old, you can enjoy a picture book.”

With the release of the Rochester native’s most recent story, “Everyone Loves Bacon,” at the end of August, she has proof that adults enjoy them just as much as kids.

“The fun part of this book is seeing both kids and adults responding to character and finding it funny,” says DiPucchio, who now lives in Macomb Township. “Even my agent, a vegetarian, loved the story. It’s quite possibly the best and worst thing I’ve ever written. It’s been interesting because bacon lovers fall into all categories of ages — a lot of adults have been buying the picture book for bacon lovers they know.”

DiPucchio’s love of picture books rejuvenated when she started reading to her own children. She was looking to switch careers so she could work from home, so she decided to write stories.

While DiPucchio has had 19 books published, with more in the works, it took time and persistence to get to where she is today.

After six years of writing, reading and submitting her works to publishers, and facing 150 to 200 rejection letters, DiPucchio got an agent. Her first book, “What’s The Magic Word,” was picked up by Harper Collins in 2001.

When DiPucchio is putting a story together, inspiration comes from all around her. Everyday life, parenting and watching her own kids were the original source, but she says she gets a lot of ideas just observing the world.

“My job is always interesting, and always changing — each book is unique,” DiPucchio says. “My body of work is very diverse. All of the books are different and the art reflects that. The illustrators are chosen to match the text.”

Among her works, two books, “Grace for President” and “The Sandwich Swap,” are New York Times best sellers. Both stories were special to DiPucchio.

“Grace for President” tells the story of a young girl questioning why no girl has run for president at her school.

In addition to telling the story of Grace’s candidacy at school, the book talks in depth about the election process. DiPucchio says she has heard from teachers who use it to teach their students about government — even high-schoolers.

Through its “Teach A Girl to Lead” project, The Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University plans to send copies of the book to every woman governor, member of Congress and state legislator in America, to share at their local elementary schools in 2016.

DiPucchio’s other New York Times best seller, “The Sandwich Swap,” shares one of the Queen of Jordan’s childhood stories.

DiPucchio met with the Queen to fictionalize her memories into a book, which tells a story of tolerance and cultural differences. “The Sandwich Shop” ended up being published in more than six different languages, and shown on “Good Morning America” and “Oprah.”

“It’s very surreal,” DiPucchio says.

Some of her books have also been interpreted theatrically. “Zombie in Love” premiered as a musical in Portland, Ore., in 2014, and “Grace for President” will be performed on stage in North Carolina next year.

In addition to her recent bacon book, DiPucchio has three books set to be published in 2016: “One Little, Two Little, Three Little Children,” “Dragon was Terrible” and “Everyone Loves Cupcake.”

While putting the stories together and seeing them published has been exciting for her, DiPucchio says one of her favorite parts of her work is sharing the stories with children.

“I go to schools and talk to kids about books, talk about humor, poetry, creative nonfiction and working with the queen,” DiPucchio says. “It’s been a really wonderful career, and I love it just as much today as 20 years ago, when started on this path.”

Coming-of-age film ‘Superior’ showcases beauty of Northern Michigan


Photo/Edd Benda

Birmingham-native filmmaker Edd Benda returned to his home state last year to put together the Upper Peninsula adventure film “Superior.”

The idea for the film came to Benda, 25, at a family Thanksgiving dinner table a few years ago. His uncle, Karl Benda, shared the story of a bicycle trip he took Up North more than 40 years ago with friend Dan “Dudza” Junttila, before they were deployed to Vietnam.

The tale inspired Benda to share the beauty of Lake Superior and uncertainty of young adulthood through “Superior,” his first feature-film as a writer and director.

“‘Superior’ is a snapshot of America in 1969, when futures were uncertain, and yet the most outlandish adventures remained possible,” Benda says.

“I was so fascinated by the time, place and adventure itself (of his uncle’s story) that I started writing this movie. Superior is not just based on their story — it’s more of a patchwork quilt mash-up of stories I’d listened to over the years. My dad is from family of nine kids who went on lots of adventures, and he was always sharing stories with me also.”

After graduating from The International Academy in Bloomfield Hills, Benda moved to Los Angeles. Studying filmmaking at the University of Southern California, he stayed on the West Coast after college, making short films through his independent film company “Beyond the Porch Productions.”

Benda shared his idea to base a film on his uncle’s story, and his team was interested in the project. Benda’s dream to create “Superior” became reality in summer 2014. He thoroughly researched the time period, considering his uncle’s story as well as life in the 1960s and early ’70s — especially for young men facing the draft — and the story line came together.

For 21 days, they filmed in the Keeweenaw Peninsula, the northernmost point in the Upper Peninsula.

The film crew, who were mainly from Los Angeles and had never been to the Midwest, also got into character, camping and living the Northern Michigan lifestyle the movie centers on.

“We not only spent time making this movie about an adventure, but were living it on our own,” Benda says. “It was a big part of the creative process.”

“Superior” stars Paul Stanko and Thatcher Robinson, as well a cast of what Benda described as “true-blue Yoopers,” noting he wanted to truly bring out the Michigan character.

“The movie takes place in Northern Michigan, and showcases one of the most beautiful parts of the state that I get to call home,” Benda says. “You couldn’t make this movie anywhere else — it had to be made in Great Lakes state.”

In addition to filming on location true to his uncle’s story, Benda wanted to make everything true to the times. Finding old vehicles and props was sometimes a challenge, but the bicycles ridden in the movie were those used by his uncle and friend back in the day.

While the film is only roughly based on his story, Uncle Karl has enjoyed being a local celebrity, Benda says. And “Superior” has been praised by people in the UP as well as nationally.

Following screenings in nine Michigan cities and locations around the country, the final showing of “Superior” is on Monday, Nov. 9, at the Maple Theater in Bloomfield Township. Benda says he’s excited to bring his work back home.

“To round it off in my hometown is what I’m most excited about,” Benda says. “This film is very much a labor of love of mine, and it showcases the state I love so much and the kind of world that created me. I went to school in Birmingham, and had a lot of friends and support in local community — it’s part of who I am.”

For more information about Superior and Edd Benda’s other work, visit Tickets to the screening at the Bloomfield Maple Theater can be purchased at

Latest exhibit at Lawrence Street has ‘Some Strings Attached”

Stephanie Sokol for Digital First Media

Alice Frank combined her favorite artistic elements — watercolors, fired enamel on metal and stitching — to create unique pieces in her latest exhibit “Some Strings Attached.”

“These works are my own recipe — I have never seen anything like it,”

One of Frank's works, Willy B. Threadbear.

One of Frank’s works, Willy B. Threadbear.

Frank says. “I tried to experiment and see if I could add all the ingredients I enjoy into my paintings, and I am really pleased with my results.”

With this exhibit, she wanted to make something fun and interesting for both herself and observers. Working on multiple pieces at once, she created her works by firing metal as much as 20 or 30 times to achieve certain colors, then working it together with watercolor and stitching.

In addition, this exhibit also showcases fired enamel tabletop sculptures, and fun projects like her homemade string teddy bears with clever names such as Willy B. Threadbear and Vera Threadbear.

This work is unique artistically, and her goal with it is to bring people happiness.

“When people look at my art, I want them to smile,” Frank says. “I think smiling can never be overdone. I want people to feel that the pieces they’re looking at and viewing are things they want to look at a little more.”

Frank said the works in this collection just came to her. Describing her art as “whimsical,” she says inspiration can be triggered by something simple she notices in everyday life, or from the influence of others.

While teaching in Michigan, New York and New Jersey, as well as at Seoul National University in Korea for a year, she has seen different ways of life by visiting new places, and been exposed to different ideas in the art of her students.

“Going to a new place for travel or work, I’m always looking around to see what’s there,” Frank says. “The colors and the light are different. Depending where I am, I might carry my sketch notebook. It could be the way light is shining on a building, or how some dishes in a cafeteria are lined up in a way that they become shapes in my mind. It’s kind of an abstract, difficult thing to explain. I also get a big kick out of watching kids create.”

For Frank, creating art is rewarding and relaxing. She says time flies when she’s working on a piece.

She tries to create her pieces in a way that makes people take a second look, adding details that will be found when someone is paying attention and really taking in the art.

After 25 years exhibiting at the Ann Arbor Art Fairs and other high-end art shows, fighting the elements of Michigan weather, Frank says she now prefers to take her art to smaller, indoor venues.

Recently, she’s shown at the Janice Charach Gallery in West Bloomfield with the Michigan Watercolor Society, at Michigan Fine Arts Competition in Bloomfield Hills and OUR TOWN Art show in Birmingham, to name a few.

She has also put her art on display at other places in six to 10 exhibits a year around Michigan and also making home visits to help people decide on the right painting to purchase.

“Art should be a feeling you have in your mind and heart. It should make you feel good about it, whatever it is,” Frank says. “Whether it’s a funny thing or a serious thing, it has to speak to you. I don’t put anything in my shows that doesn’t speak to me, so when it speaks to other people, that gives me a really good feeling.”

“Some Strings Attached” runs Nov. 4-28 at Lawrence Street Gallery, 22620 Woodward Ave., in Ferndale. The opening reception takes place 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 6, and the mid-month reception is 6-9 p.m. Nov. 20.

ISE graduate begins career at the Disney World

By Stephanie Sokol for OUSECS

Kimmy Romstad is using her Industrial and Systems Engineering background to help things run smoothly at the “happiest place on earth.”

Photo/Kimmy Romstadt

Photo courtesy of Kimmy Romstad

After interning at Disney World for a year, the August 2014 Oakland University Industrial Systems Engineering alum recently accepted a position in forecasting and stocking costuming issue locations across the Disney property.

“Like many other Cast Members (Disney term for “Disney employees”), Disney holds a special place in my heart, as I cannot remember many childhood experiences more exciting than visiting Walt Disney World,” Romstad said. “Having had such great experiences visiting the parks, since I started college I made it a goal to either intern, work full-time, or both with The Walt Disney Company. I wanted to be part of the magic, behind the scenes, that delivers such an amazing guest experience.”

During her internship, Romstad learned the inner operations workings of different exhibits on Disney, and succeeded in contributing to them.

Later on, a former supervisor reached out to her about the opening, and she started in the Creative Costuming position this past June.

“As an ISE student, I was extremely curious and interested in working for The Walt Disney Company as an Industrial Engineer,” Romstad said. “I wanted to learn about all of the backstage operations that exist in order to produce a world-class entertainment experience for millions of guests each year. I wanted to be a part of the magic and help their business to be more efficient and productive, and thus, enhance the guest experience.”

The location had familiarity to her previous work at the resort, and so far she said the experience working there full-time has been great, though different.

The forecasting and stocking costumes position was created recently, and Romstad described it as “a liaison between the Inventory Planning team within Creative Costuming and the operational costuming issue locations.”

Unlike her internship, however, in this position she works on a different team and has more day-to-day responsibilities rather than long-term projects.

“The good part for me is that this position allows me to work on (the) leadership skills I haven’t previously had many opportunities to develop, such as being influential and persuasive, and learning how to train people and communicate information effectively,” she said.

Work done at Oakland University also helped her prepare for her career with Disney.

Her ISE courses and deep involvement in the program gave her a real-world perspective of what could be done in her field.

Robert Van Til, Professor and Chair of the Industrial and Systems Engineering department within the School of Engineering and Computer Science, said Romstad represented the school and ISE well, and that this job will be a good fit for her.

“Besides being an excellent student, Kimmy has been a great ambassador for the Industrial and Systems Engineering Department, assisting us with outreach activities and student engagement,” said Van Til.  “We wish her all the best in her new position at Disney.”

In addition to her academic efforts at OU, Romstad was also very involved on campus. She belonged to Tau Beta Pi, Society of Women Engineers, Institute of Industrial Engineers, and National Society of Black Engineers, which additionally helped prepare her for this role.

“In my ISE courses at OU, there was a lot of real-world application, which helped me to understand an IE’s role in ‘the real world.’ Without the experiences I had in my classes at OU, I wouldn’t have been able to hit the ground running at an internship like this.”

To learn more about the Industrial and Systems Engineering Dept. at Oakland University, visit