When asked by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing, "What do you love about Lansing?" Paige Kowaleski said, "I love that I have a community where I feel loved and respected, no matter my gender identity or sexual orientation."
She creatively expressed these feelings by designing a piece of artwork to submit for a community billboard project the Arts Council began in August in collaboration with Adams Outdoor Advertising.
The #LoveLansing Billboard Project invites any Greater Lansing resident - people of all ages, backgrounds and artistic abilities - to submit artwork that centers on the #LoveLansing hashtag.
Once submitted, the artists' works goes before a panel for selection, and Adams will turn the chosen pieces into 10-foot by 30-foot billboards to be placed around the city when space is available.
"We asked people to show us what Lansing means to them, why it's important to them," said Elizabeth Kindinger, art director at Adams.
"Paige was the only submission representative of the LGBT community. It was so big and bold and beautiful," said Kindinger noting Lansing's growth in diversity and inclusivity in the last few decades.
"Not up until recently would you maybe have seen a piece like this. This piece being out in the community is really a statement of who we are and that's really important to project onto people," she said. "The Arts Council really stood behind her and pushed her to take that leap of faith."
As did Kowaleski's dad who told her about the contest.
"I haven't really done any artwork for a couple years, up to this point. Being a single parent and trying to find your way in the world makes it hard to focus on things outside of the big necessities. Mostly I would do drawings as gifts for my loved ones," she said.
When Kowaleski first came to the Lansing area in 2014, she experienced homelessness with her then two-year-old. She found help at the Siren Eaton Shelter, which serves domestic violence survivors and homeless families in Eaton County. It was there she met her girlfriend, Danielle Chauvin.
"There were a lot of good people who worked there and helped me overcome barriers to getting my own housing...We didn't start talking or dating until a year after I had moved out. We ran into each other at Spiral (Lansing's premier alternative LGBTQ nightclub) on New Year's Eve," she said.
Kowaleski said LGBT visibility is important to her.
"I don't see a lot of publicity about LGBT events, or places," she said. "I only know about Spiral from being 'in,' and Pride is the only event I ever see advertised. I felt creating a piece of art that could be in Lansing, making LGBT families more visible, would be important. It would show people about a huge part of Lansing, that they might not even know about. Even though I suspected it might make some people uncomfortable."
Kowaleski said she wasn't feeling particularly political when she created her piece.
"I was more concerned about how we treat each other. I'm so tired of people judging each other and dogging people for being different. People influence politics. You can say whatever you want in the Capitol building, but it won't mean a thing unless it is internalized," she said.
Inspired by the graffiti murals on the tall, brick walls in Lansin's Old Town, Kowaleski said she asked her Facebook friends to send her pictures of themselves with their significant others.
"I wanted all couples represented so I asked for boy/girl, two girls and two boys. It's important that we all respect each other's love. All love is important," she said. "I was really excited about the thought that my art would be seen by a huge number of people. Billboards are unmissable broadcasts that locals and visitors to Lansing would see. People would see my name and maybe I would have more opportunities to do art for people, or businesses. Also, my art had to have a greater meaning, a higher purpose - to open people's minds and eyes to the diverse communities around us."
Kowaleski has found peace through practicing her art.
"I am a survivor and live with anxiety disorder and PTSD," she said. "This affects my whole life, often leaving me debilitated and isolated. Art gives me something to focus on, apart from my feelings of anxiety. I am disappointed that this contest is over, because I found a great sense of purpose while I was working on my piece."
Since the contest ended, Kowaleski has become a member of the Arts Council.
"I am hoping to be involved with the projects and contests that they organize for community members. I would love to make connections with other artists and people working in the industry," she said. "I am hoping to open some doors to a career opportunity in graphic design."
The project will produce up to 40 billboards this fall. Kowaleski's billboard is set to stay up until Jan. 1. There will be a call for new artists to submit their work in mid-December.
Click here to see the artwork.