As Louise Hopson makes her way through Art Cats Gallery—a space that seems to erupt with color and joy and life, with musicians swaying in paintings, with animals and flowers bursting from bowls—she remembers the beginning of it all: how, 20 years ago, she opened her Lakeside business that has gone from being a holiday pop-up shop to becoming a staple of West Michigan’s creative landscape.
“We fell into this; it wasn’t really planned,” Hopson says of opening Art Cats, a gallery that debuted in 1999 and is located at 1845 Lakeshore Dr. in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood.”I had my studio in my basement for 15 years, and, then, they were remodeling this building, and my husband said, ‘Let’s do a pop-up Christmas shop.’ So, myself, my husband, and two other artists did that. After that, I just stayed.”
Now, Hopson, an artist who lives in Lakeside, is about to celebrate Art Cats’ 20th anniversary on Friday, Dec. 13 and Saturday, Dec. 14. It’s an anniversary that, for the gallery owner, is emblematic of a life that may not always be easy, but is what she long dreamed of: a life in which she can make a living doing what she loves and in which she’s surrounded by art—her own and that of artists from throughout West Michigan and across the country. From this space that she has so carefully cultivated since 1999, this gallery located just across from a body of water that has long inspired her, Muskegon Lake, Hopson propagates a world that doesn’t take itself so seriously, that knows joy and color, that remembers to support and celebrate and love those who see life a little differently, a little more brightly.
“If you’re going into art, you’re probably not going to make a fortune; I’m fortunate because I’ve been able to make a living with art,” Hopson says. “When I was in school, the art students were the ones who worked the longest, the hardest, but, of them, there’s only a few still working in the arts. It’s a difficult world to make it as an artist.”
Still, the struggles that artists face across the country, and world, are, for Hopson, worth it. From the time she was a child, she knew she wanted to be an artist. The fifth of eight children, Hopson grew up in a “big Catholic family” in Detroit, and, for as long as she can remember, she has been drawn to a landscape filled with paint brushes and kilns, canvases and clay.
“I don’t think we ever even really had any real art in our house, but I always loved to draw and write,” she says. “I always gravitated towards it.”
After attending Cass Technical High School in Detroit, where she immersed herself in the arts, Hopson headed to Northern Michigan University in Marquette. There, she found herself falling in love with clay, which has led to her life now: one in which her studio is adjacent to the gallery where she can sell her own work—clay figures, mirrors, paintings, and some of her most popular pieces that she calls “little bowls of happiness.” Often fanciful and brightly colored, Hopson’s work is filled with the imagery that has long inspired her, from Michigan’s waterways to the moments that make up our lives: grandchildren being born (her own granddaughters are 16 years and eight months old), birthdays, weddings, and all that which we want forever seared into memory.
“My work is whimsical and playful, and, because of that, because it’s bright and happy, I used to feel like it wasn’t up to the same level as others,” Hopson says. “But why is it that we feel that way, that we think depressing is on another level? People come in and say, ‘This makes me happy,’ and I love that. That’s what I want: to make people happy.”
In 1986, Hopson, her husband, fellow artist John Hopson, and their two children moved from Marquette to Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood, where they bought a house that’s located just behind the gallery.
“When we lived in Marquette, we lived across from Lake Superior, and we knew we always wanted to be close to the lakeside,” Hopson says, explaining their decision to lay down roots in their Muskegon neighborhood.
For years, Hopson worked out of a studio in her home basement and would sell her work at art fairs throughout the region, but, ultimately, she decided upon her brick-and-mortar shop on Lakeshore Drive, in a space that was previously a Bingo supply store.
“I was the first one to move into this building, and then Subway moved in,” Hopson says. “Other than that, everything has changed multiple times over the years.”
After opening the gallery, Hopson has seen sweeping change, both in Lakeside and throughout Muskegon over the past two decades. Moving here not long after the Muskegon Mall opened and debuting her gallery just before the mall would permanently shutter, Hopson has watched the rise and fall—and rise again—of the city’s commercial landscape.
Like the downtown, Lakeside too has undergone a world of change since she first moved here.
“Other than Wasserman’s, everyone has come since we started the gallery,” Hopson says, referring to Muskegon’s oldest standing business, Wasserman’s Flowers & Gifts. “It’s gone up and down, up and down. I’m hoping after this summer it’s just going to go up. There’s more retail here than downtown; there’s definitely investments going on with people who have bought property, like the Harbor Theater, the space that used to be Ettermans Supermarket that [Dick] Ghezzi now owns. There’s a new boutique [Bellasimi Boutique], the Dockside Salon, and Wonderland Distillery is moving in.”
A Lakeside aficionado, Hopson adores her neighborhood, a walkable enclave of the city that’s at the tail end of a $6.1 million construction project that’s bringing water and sewer upgrades, a redesigned streetscape featuring new benches, lighting, bike racks, and landscaping; and more to the Lakeside Business District. Hopson serves as a major voice in Lakeside, from running the business district’s social media to promoting the local shops and restaurants.
This championing of her local business world is one that her neighbors have long appreciated, and her voice is one that’s been particularly welcome as she reminded residents throughout the city that Lakeside shops remained open for business throughout construction—which for months turned Lakeshore Drive into a one-way street.
“Every business down here is locally owned; it’s truly the livelihoods of the people who own the businesses that’s at stake when something like eight months of roadwork happens,” she says.
While Lakeshore Drive businesses have taken a significant hit during construction, Hopson says she’s excited about the final result and the growth she expects to see stemming from the new streetscape, in terms of commercial investment, shoppers and general civic life.
“It’s so much better than what we had,” Hopson says. “With the trees and plantings, it’s going to be so much more inviting. You have greenspace, you have the cool light posts that we’ve never had before, you have the benches. It makes it more of a ‘let’s go here’ place.”
At her gallery, Art Cats too has evolved over the past 20 years, growing from offering works by four artists to the present-day’s 70 artists—all of whom are supported by “the most loyal customers, just amazing people,” Hopson says.
“People aren’t just your customers; they share with you their divorces and deaths and marriages and kids’ problems,” she says. “You become their confidante; it’s almost like you’re a psychologist. It’s humbling to have people confide in you like that.”
Throughout the years, Hopson too has focused on giving back to the community, including hosting an annual “Shop for a Cause” at the gallery. With the event, Art Cats donates a portion of its proceeds to a range of community organizations, including The Penguin Project of Muskegon Civic Theater, Harbor Hospice, Every Woman’s Place, the Child Abuse Council, and more.
“It’s a great way to connect with the community,” she says.
It’s this community that, in many ways, will take center stage at the Art Cats Gallery’s 20th anniversary celebration this Friday and Saturday.
“We want to make it a customer appreciation thing,” Hopson says of the anniversary. “How would we have ever stayed in business without great customers and great artists?”
Art Cats Gallery will celebrate its 20th anniversary from 10am to 6pm this Friday, Dec. 13 and 10am to 5pm on Saturday, Dec. 14. Art Cats Gallery is located at 1845 Lakeshore Dr. in Muskegon’s Lakeside neighborhood. For more information about the anniversary event, please click here.