Fred Quillin – Deliberate Consideration, by Chris Koens.
Originally published in Grand Rapids Social Diary, c2013

I freely admit that, while I had heard of Fred Quillin before, I realize many people throughout Grand Rapids may not have …yet.

Fred Quillin intrigued me and the team at Grand Rapids Social Diary. For some on the team it was through interactions at WMCAT, the non-profit Quillin works for; for a few others of us, we became aware he was a major part of the group called The Grand Rapids History Detectives; and for a few others of us, it was out of a love for the cotton canvas – the t-shirt. Whatever the reason, we were intrigued.

For many in Grand Rapids it was the History Detectives video project supporting the 2011 Rapid Bus millage vote that thrust Quillin into the proverbial spotlight. His video was fresh & informative and, above all, it was very well put together. Fred & his video were passed around the internet as the stuff of voter propaganda or citizen fodder. Throughout the greater Grand Rapids area concerned citizens, bus supporters, and history buffs alike shared his quality pro-bus video with a near reckless abandon. It seemed Grand Rapids was learning as much about their history as they were about the upcoming vote. Quillin and “the Detectives” uncovered historical imagery of a forgotten Grand Rapids, a city with a thriving public transportation system. He bounced around the city through effortless edits in a manner that foreshadowed the way he was quickly bounced around the viral feeds of the internet.

After the bus millage vote passed (by only a very narrow margin), there was thought on our team that Fred would return to the elusive behind-the-scenes position he had held, but he bolted back onto our radar at the Pomegranate Studios 5×5 Night event. Quillin presented his idea for a new GRSD – not a replacement of our GRSD (GR Social Diary) brand, but Grand Rapids Shirt (bike) Delivery. GRS(b)D, the project, eliminated the bike delivery aspect soon after their 5×5 event pitch, and evolved into the renamed, soon to be launched, GRSC – Grand Rapids Shirt Company.

When it came up, we jumped at the opportunity to chat with Fred. We sat down with Quillin and started to dive into what makes him tick, what he’s truly interested in. As we started the conversation, and he began answering the questions we threw at him, he took a pause and said, “I’m all about whatever is in front of me. I’ve been to a lot of different places and certainly had a lot of curve balls thrown at me in my life…it sounds cheesy, but I try to embrace – and soak up – whatever is happening around me.” Fred Quillin lived out that sentiment as we talked, fully engaged throughout the time we sat together, and sharing like an open book. We learned that Quillin quickly lists “Be Here Now” by Ram Dass as his favorite book, but hesitates to admit that “A Clockwork Orange” ranks among “Flight of the Navigator” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” as his favorite films. The currently single Quillin shared that he was once engaged to be married. He says, even if he moves away for any amount of time, Grand Rapids will always be home. And, while he is here, if you are ever looking for him you might find him along the Grand River at Ah-Nab-Awan Park taking in the surroundings and imagining the first settlers arriving on the banks of Grand Rapids.

“I’m all about whatever is in front of me. I’ve been to a lot of different places and certainly had a lot of curve balls thrown at me in my life…it sounds cheesy, but I try to embrace – and soak up – whatever is happening around me.”

Although Quillin’s direct ancestors were not among the original settlers of Grand Rapids, he is a sixth generation Grand Rapidian. After growing up in Grand Rapids and attending  high school in nearby Jenison, Quillin started his collegiate career at Central Michigan University. He began with a focus on theatre and performing arts, but soon switched to a design/visual communications degree. In his graphic design classes he was introduced to an organization called Designers Without Borders. Designers Without Borders is a non-profit working on design education and services in East Africa. “It was using what I only knew as making advertisements,” shared Quillin, “it totally opened up the possibilities of what I could do with this degree – how important visual communication is to people.” Fred applied for and received a grant to work in Uganda with Designers Without Borders, he spent the summer volunteering with DWB in East Africa where he taught Graphic Communications and started a journalism program. “That experience in Uganda really changed my perception, understandably, of things,” said Quillin, “and taught me what community is.” After graduating from CMU, he moved back to Grand Rapids and bounced around at a few design firms, never really finding a fit. While he insists he learned a lot from the design firms he worked at and is grateful for those experiences, “That Ugandan experience came back to me all the time,” he shared, “trying to use my skills to help educate and bring people together.”

His discontentment with mainstream design agencies and their corporate feel had him start substitute teaching at Grand Rapids Public Schools; then sent him to Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah on a mission with AmeriCorps; and lastly, before returning to Michigan, he found himself volunteering for a biodynamic organic farm in Northern California – yeah, we Googled that, too. Upon returning to Michigan Quillin began working with West Michigan Center for Arts & Technology (WMCAT). He is currently a Youth Program Instructor at WMCAT where he has taught classes as varying as graphic and digital design, skateboard design, toy making, and screen printing for t-shirts…

…which brings us back, nearly full-circle, to the 5×5 Night event.

The presentation of his GR Shirt Company at the 5×5 Night event is what Fred plans to be his next big focus. “I consider this business, this shirt thing, a big art project.” reveals Quillin. “A very, very elaborate art project that – without giving too many details away – I make these videos and write music for the videos, which I record; and I’m in it myself, I’m acting; I do these little cinematography things; and there is typography involved… I make a product… it is just a really big fun sort of project.” He quickly interjects, “I’m not out to make a million bucks, I think it’ll be fun and I’d like to see the community’s reaction to it.” Fred says the idea of a Grand Rapids-centric shirt company has been a few years in the making, it came to him while he was living in Colorado reminiscing about life in Michigan, “The idea really is to instill a sense of pride and ownership in this area because I think that allows people to want to stick around and see it through.” And there seems to be some traction behind the idea, according to the Grand Rapids Press (Garret Ellison May 31, 2011), “Proud local Fred Quillin received thunderous audience applause for his…idea.” And while he did not win the prize for the event, he appreciates the magnitude of the evening, “This event affords you the opportunity to really communicate this idea to such a wide audience and such an important range of people.” Quillin said. And it was this experience that led him to the idea of adding video to the t-shirt project when he launches it on line – it is the spirit of speaking to the audience in person.

But Quillin is not just a t-shirt designer or a video maker. Above all else, Quillin sees himself as an artist, “In art school you just sit down and everything is intentional, even if you close your eyes and splatter paint on the canvas or take a photo with your eyes closed. That was an intentional act that you have made. Everything is intentional.” Quillin persists without even a hint of arrogance, simply with sincerity and a passion for communication, “Especially how we have critiques and we think about exactly what we are trying to say. What if we took that much scrutiny, that much deliberate consideration, in everything that we do, with every act that we have with everybody that we come across in our life? What if we tried to communicate as clearly as we can to everybody – strangers on the street – as we do in art school? What if we made our lives our art? That is what I try to do. I try to make my life my art.”

To say we are looking forward to watching Fred in the videos – and in real life around town – is an understatement. We are looking forward to getting to know him virtually and personally, and see what is next for him. To see his careful consideration in his future communicative acts should be an exciting revelation to observe. Keep your eyes on this young man.

Sitting Indian-style in a Steelcase task chair wearing an old college t-shirt and running shorts, Fred Quillin said some of the most profound things, some of the most well crafted, yet off-the-cuff, statements. Things that didn’t all make it in this write-up, at one point he interjected, “I have a lot I like to give out.” If you have a chance to sit with him, take it – not only will you find him to be multidimensional and interesting, he will genuinely enjoy getting to meet you.


Photo courtesy Fred Quillin/Facebook