When Rebekah Kik looks at the streets, land and buildings of Kalamazoo, she does it with an artist’s eye. She can’t help it.
That’s because this urban planner and Parchment native is an architect by training who feeds her soul by creating watercolors, sketches and, most recently, stamped silverware with custom messages. Kik’s creative eye comes in handy as she heads a more-than-40-person department that oversees the city’s building and trades, economic development, community development, planning and zoning, and rental housing and inspections.
“Sometimes developers, engineers and architects have a hard time getting their vision across or can’t quite see the city’s vision or how those come together,” she says. “I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we do a work session together?’ And we’ll lay down tracing paper and draw it out. Now I have a couple of developers that are like, ‘Hey, Rebekah, we’ve got an idea and we want to sit down with you and sketch.’ That’s my sweet spot that makes this job so incredible.”
How did you get where you are today?
I knew after high school I wanted to do something artistic, and my mom, who worked for an architect, kept pushing me to try architecture. I started out at Western Michigan University and transferred to Kalamazoo Valley Community College and took my mom’s advice. I took a drafting course and learned things like descriptive geometry and the engineering and really liked it. After (earning) my associate’s (degree), I went to Andrews University for architecture.
I worked at Eckert Wordell (an architecture, engineering and interior design firm in Kalamazoo) after I graduated. In 2005, when architecture and the construction business started to feel the first pokes of the recession, my boss suggested I think about getting a master’s degree in addition to my architecture degree. Notre Dame had just started a master’s program in architecture and architectural design. I was accepted on a full scholarship and got a teaching stipend. It was just an incredible, incredible experience that took my planning fever to a whole new level.
After graduation, I went to Pittsburgh to work, and after five months I was laid off. It was awful. I started doing volunteer work with the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation on different design projects for areas where there were a lot of dilapidated buildings and disinvestment and ended up landing a job in Orlando, Florida, with a firm that was very forward thinking. They were tearing highways down and putting neighborhoods back together. I worked with some of this country’s most incredible designers and engineers, including Dan Burden, who is the nation’s top expert on walkability, and Ian Lockwood, who has worked on the conversion of one-way streets to two-way all over the country. They hired me to do their drawings, and as I was illustrating for them, they’d ask me to show them, “What does that look like when you shrink a road and you have more land for a building?” Or (they’d say), “Draw some buildings there to see how they look.”
We held charettes, where the community would tell us, “We want to see a park there” or “We want to see row houses there in that old parking lot,” and I would draw it up. That’s when what I did at Western and KVCC and at Andrews and Notre Dame finally coalesced and I learned that my art mattered.
I came back to Kalamazoo and worked as a consultant and then became city planner. In 2016, I was promoted to the director of community planning and (economic) development. I spent a year under Jerome Kiscorni, learning economic development and managing that department with him so that I could then become the director of community planning and economic development when he retired.
How is art still part of your day-to-day work?
You know, urban design is its own language. That’s why when you go to Boston, it feels like Boston, (or) you go to Los Angeles and it’s Los Angeles. Every city has a language, and you unearth it and figure it out. You learn the city’s block sizes and street sizes. I do that by drawing it. It commits it to memory, both flat, like on a map, but also three-dimensionally.
When I work with nonprofits and the neighborhoods and they don’t have a lot of money, I’m like, “I’ll bring my paints.” I’ve got a ridiculous box of markers from my consultant days. And I’lI bring this box with me and tracing paper and I’ll design it out with them.
What about outside of work?
I do art that feeds my soul. I’ve always had an Etsy shop as a little side hustle. In between jobs, I started doing watercolor house portraits. I would get orders from people who wanted portraits made of their family lake house, even if it was just a place they rented. More recently, I have taken online master classes from artists who are teaching their style of work. I took one where I learned how to sketch on my iPad Pro.
Now I create stamped silverware — I put all these little sayings on spoons and other pieces. I was on Pinterest and saw a stamped spoon, and I was, like, “What? Typography on spoons?” I love typography. I Googled and Googled and couldn’t find out how to do it, so I taught myself. There is a trick to stamping a double curved surface — there’s some fun spacing you have to contend with.
Kik’s stamped silverware can be seen online at etsy.com; search for “RebekahsValentine.”
— Interviewed by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity