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Ypsi's Marionette About Town: Mark Maynard
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Arts and Culture
Film / Video
Quality Of Life
Mark Maynard is an Ypsilanti figurehead. Truly. There's a puppet in his likeness acting up around town. Talking with the people. Prodding the mayor for answers. Crowning a falafel speed-eating king. How is that? Why does a city immortally cast one of its residents in cloth and wood? Must be that he and Ypsi go way, way back. See, Maynard's been there, done that, yet his to-do list still wraps around the block...
Maynard originally hails from Kentucky, where, incidentally, many Ypsilantians have roots. His collegiate days were interspersed with time off for odd jobs and historic archeology work excavating one of the first glass foundries in New York City, old bakeries, homesteads, and such. "For somebody who was interested in American culture, it was a really nice career and I would've stuck with that. I loved it, but there's not much money in it."
While majoring in American Studies at the University of Michigan, he played noise music with Prehensile Tailed Monkey Skink. "It was a purposely confrontational kind of band, the kind that young men are known to be in." After graduating in 1993, Maynard moved to Atlanta with his future wife, Linette Lao. A few years later they moved to Ypsilanti for her graduate program at EMU, and afterward left for L.A. When the start-up where Maynard was employed went belly-up
, the couple moved back to Ypsi for good.
Maynard says he returned, in part, because of places like the
, a vintage 1800s warehouse in Depot Town. He recalls sharing space around a pot-bellied stove with a cross dresser and African American kids dancing with old white men. That take-me-for-who-I-am vibe defines the city for Maynard. Few chains locate in or near the downtown. When they leave, the independents move in. Pita Pita is in a former Dunkin' Donuts. Pacific Beach Burrito used to be an A&W. "I think in Ypsi, you may not like [everything], but it'd be hard to deny that it has character. People are looking for authentic real places and that's one of the things we've got to our advantage," Maynard says. "That's certainly one of the things that resonated with my wife and I when we decided to move back here."
And he returned without having a job lined up. But that quickly changed.
Maynard's day job today is in marketing and business development, but his sidelines are what make the headlines. He never imagined that a brief foray into underwear design would land some national attention.
Co-created with his wife, the
a tribute to the city's circa-1800s underwear factory
went viral when Elvis Costello flashed a pair on stage.
The writerly rundown
Maynard was first known for his zine,
, which he still co-publishes with his wife. "
is an excuse for us to talk to people that we admire, to some extent," Maynard says. Think Peter Falk, Daniel Pinkwater, and the Velvet Underground.
Now he's got the web humming with his eponymous blog of the last eight years,
. It's a second career on which he spends hours every weeknight, leaving him a scant six hours of Zs. The blog draws 400-500 unique readers daily, he estimates, with out-of-staters comprising 25% of the readership. Maynard follows the news "obsessively", dividing left-leaning content between local events and issues and national interest topics. A recent post questioned
The Wall Street Journal's
decision to run a 17-year-old photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan swinging for the bases – a move he perceives as a jab at her sexuality.
"I think I use my blog to [build community] in Ypsi, Ann Arbor, just to get a bunch of people involved in talking to each other, even though they've never met in real life."
And, more importantly, readers are a testing ground for new projects.
Cranking out the films
His best, must-do, whack-on-the-side-of-the-head proposal?
Cycle Powered Cinema
(exactly what it sounds like). Inspired by the riverside setting of a cinema classic,
Night of the Hunter
, Maynard conceived of an open air theater along the Huron River in Ypsi's Riverside Park. But how to run the projector and audio equipment? Pedal power! "That was one of those kinds of things, where it was one of a hundred ideas I threw out [in the blog] over the course of a year. A lot of people not only showed interest, they volunteered their time to do it."
"People tell me what we need to have so no one gets electrocuted and so we're able to create the power," he explains. One person can produce 40-60 watts, so Maynard figures that eight in-sync pedalers could provide enough
The first bike was cobbled together with Maynard's personal funds plus contributions from visitors to Ypsi's Shadow Art Fair. The
and its patrons, Sidetrack, and the
donated another $800 to rig a second bike and purchase an inverter. Next is a proof of concept showing at the end of May, using two riders to charge a battery-run movie.
He plans free showings of three or four flicks a summer. "The people in the community are pedaling, the people in the community contributed to make it happen, the people in the community voted on what movies to see. I want it to be a very democratic, community grass-roots kind of event." It'd also be the first of its kind in the country, Maynard believes – though
has everyone beat.
A bike also powered his laptop at the
Shadow Art Fair
, Ypsi's counter-culture answer to the venerable
Ann Arbor Art Fairs
. Conceived five years ago, "The fair was all the most interesting people we knew who were actually making shit,"
The five founders jury the show spread over 40 tables at the Corner Brewery, a wide open space banded with a necklace of huge old industrial windows. They tend to look for firsts. "We don't necessarily choose the people with the most sellable stuff.
More than anything we look for people that are doing kind of interesting work, especially work that engages people." Past fairs were dotted with arty hairdo stations, a confrontational cat, and a stand dispensing hugs with your vegan gumbo (soup for the soul!).
When the staff at the
needed a character for a play on the history of Ypsi, they looked to Maynard as a modern-day version of local curator and historian. Thus the Mark Maynard marionette was born.
, a talk show Maynard began hosting at the theater last March with his puppet stand-in, balances his need to engage with his innate stage-shyness. He sees guests on camera and does the voice-over through a mic. "It makes it a lot easier for me. I'm somewhat phobic, but I'm also kind of torn between liking a lot of attention and not wanting attention... these two halves of me are constantly fighting."
His puppet proxy emcees and yammers with guests. The show is a good balance of on-your-toes questioning and comedic reprieves. The future lineup includes a possible mayoral debate for June, and visiting celebs are on the radar. When Amy Sedaris politely declined an appearance during a visit to EMU, "It made me realize we need to get our stuff together in order to sound more legitimate... It sounds kind of insane when you say you want your puppet to talk to [guests]."
At a recent gathering, Maynard presented footage of skateboarders jumping off mini homemade cement ramps at a vacant gas station on Cross Street to Dug Song, a member of the
Ann Arbor Skatepark Action Committee
"We had all these Ypsi people skating it like it was a real skatepark and it probably cost $20 to make everything there. We showed it to Dug and said 'This is what we have in Ypsi. We don't have a million dollar skatepark, but our people still skate.' "
This probably illustrates the different city mindsets: One is Power Point; the other, paper and glue. Even a typo has its place; Ann Arbor is quirky in some respects, OK, but Ypsi is just
"I think one of the reasons I like Ypsi too is that in Ann Arbor there's an entrenched kind of leadership. Everything runs smoothly and it seems like they've got things pretty much together. There's a well established arts community. In Ypsi there wasn't that kind of infrastructure and there weren't a lot of people to stop you from doing interesting things. You can come to town with a good idea, and people want to see what you can do with it."
After Ann Arbor's Tech Center was torn down, creatives looked to Ypsi in search of welcoming, affordable space and inspiration. Despite this creative influx, Maynard thinks some are content to see his city as a mere bedroom community for Ann Arbor. He won't settle for that.
"I'm not ready to give up on manufacturing and stuff. I would love to have a company be here that was making alternative energy products, putting our workforce to work and making turbine blades for windmills or things like that."
He recently heard from a friend who knows eight people moving to the city within the next few months. And his wife met someone who moved there after attending the Shadow Art Fair. "That's really gratifying, to think that some little kernel of an idea I had five years ago could actually trickle down to a taxpayer moving to Ypsi. It's pretty powerful."
And those unrehearsed kernels can meet with surprising success. Maynard sings for the
Monkey Power Trio
, a quintet of friends that meet just one day a year to record and press to seven-inch vinyl. An early song "You've Gotta Have Hope" was picked up by Fox Sports for a national ad campaign and the late John Peel, the vaunted BBC deejay, played a few songs. Note: listen to "Winifred".
"I think one of the reasons I like making music is you don't have to really be proficient, and this is kind of true of a lot of my projects... It's more important to just get out there and contribute, and make something instead of consuming something."
Tanya Muzumdar comes with strings attached. She's also the assistant editor at
, a freelance writer, and frequent contributor to
. Her previous article was Bridging the Generational Divide Over Downtown.
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