All you need is a map or an app to enjoy the sights — from art and farms to fall foliage — on the Arts and Eats tour this month.
The annual event is a free self-guided driving tour of rural art studios, galleries, farms and eateries that winds through Allegan, Barry, Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Oct. 15 and 16. No tickets or RSVPs are needed, just a map that’s available at all participating sites, online at artsandeats.org and via the Arts and Eats app.
This weekend of art, food and agriculture offers a back-roads experience best undertaken with a friend or two so that someone can navigate and someone can drive. The dozens of tour stops include local artists and artisans in their studios, group exhibitions, restaurants, and working farms featuring animals and specialty crops.
“Arts and Eats was designed to raise awareness and appreciation of our region’s human and natural resources,” says Megan Lavell, executive director of the Thornapple Arts Council of Barry County, which leads the event from its headquarters in Hastings. “The tour supports Michigan artists and restaurants and contributes to local economies.”
Lavell has held her post for 13 years, although it became a full-time job only this year. She says the tour requires participation from the artists themselves. “Everyone at the table determines the direction and is responsible for helping to market the event throughout the year, sharing maps and social media posts,” she says. “It’s up to the participants to get excited about it, to invite (people) and promote and talk about (it) and feel ownership in it.”
Applications to participate in the tour are open for two months, closing in March each year. Soon after, 10,000 event guides are printed — the tour’s largest expense – allowing for nearly six months of promotion. All artwork featured on the tour must be original and handcrafted. If artists don’t have a studio or gallery space, they may join another artist or show their work at a community hub.
“It’s a huge, nebulous program with many moving parts,” Lavell says. “As the most unpredictable of everything we do, we have learned to operate in the spirit of making the art and just do our best to roll with whatever happens.” Over the years, she says, the event’s goals have changed a bit. “For a while we wanted large numbers, but now we’re more concerned with having higher quality, even if that means fewer participants.”
When it began in 2011, Arts and Eats happened only in Barry and Allegan counties. Since then, the event has grown to encompass sites in five counties. In 2019, more than 50 stops welcomed hundreds of visitors from more than 65 zip codes. The event was canceled in 2020 because of the Covid pandemic but was back on a limited basis in 2021.
Ceramist Heidi Fahrenbacher of Bella Joy Pottery, 11933 Doster Road in Plainwell, has been a part of the tour for 10 years. “The tour is great because I love having customers come to the studio and see me in my happy place,” she says. “I get to visit with people I haven’t seen in a while and meet new people who like art.”
She says her studio attracts 200 to 250 visitors on the tour, which provides a “nice sales boost during a slower time of the year.” Fahrenbacher also sells her work online at bellajoypottery.com and in galleries and gift shops nationwide.
While the total mileage of the tour can vary from one driver to another, it’s best for tourists to give themselves two days to see it all, Lavell says.
“It totally depends on what route people take and what stops they make and how many times they get lost and have to turn around,” she says. “It can definitely not be driven in one day. You need two days if you want to spend any amount of quality time at the stops.”
This year’s tour will feature 27 individual artists, four cafes, two family farms and two central venues — the Kellogg Bird Sanctuary and the Richland Area Community Center (RACC).
“We love being part of the tour,” says RACC Executive Director Jilisa Grooters Williams, noting that the center has been involved since 2014. The center will host seven artists as part of the tour and is expected to have 300 to 400 visitors to its site.
“One of our goals is to build a vibrant, inclusive community with a focus on arts and culture,” Williams says. “Partnering with Arts and Eats allows us to help increase artists’ exposure and bring people in from all over the state. It’s just a big win for everyone, and a lovely way to spend a weekend.”
First-time participant Twin Flame Lavender Farm, at 3849 Monroe Road in Allegan, offers aromatic treats, including eye pillows, bath and body products and essential oils. Owners Paul and Renee Donohue started the farm in 2019 after moving to Michigan from Las Vegas.
“We will have demonstrations on growing lavender hydroponically, by seed, and free lavender-infused lip balms will be given out to the first 100 visitors each day,” says Renee, who has “fallen in love with the unique beauty of the rural back roads in West Michigan.”
Another first-time tour participant, Red Rock Farm, at 50 10th St. in Plainwell, will have cows, calves and horses on view, which will “give people a taste of what farming was in the 1970s and ’80s,” says owner Matt Elzinga. He and his wife, Melanie, both grew up on farms and retired from their careers (in law enforcement and accounting, respectively) to raise Hereford cattle and sell beef from their farm’s shop.
Although there are plenty of restaurants to be found throughout the tour area, official restaurant participants include the Walldorff Brewpub & Bistro, at 105 E. State St. in Hastings (open Saturday only); Seasonal Grille, at 150 W. State St. in Hastings; Barbed Wire Café, at 140 S. Main St. in Plainwell; and Root Coffeehouse and Café, at 120 E. Main St. in Fennville, all of which will offer dishes using locally grown ingredients.
Even though “98 percent of the work is done” before the weekend of the tour, Lavell stays on call during tour weekend, delivering last-minute signage or answering the phone to help lost patrons. She notes that her favorite feature of Arts & Eats is the season.
“I just like that we have that in the fall,” she says. “It was designed to be a color tour, and all my favorite parts of Michigan are best in fall: small shops, going out to eat, and stopping to pet animals and pick up a pumpkin.”