Editor’s Note: The following interview includes the occasional use of profanity.
When I arrive at Graydon’s Crossing on the north side of Grand Rapids to meet Adrienne Wallace, it dawns on me that I know very little about her. A list of things I’ve been told: “She’s amazing,” “You’re going to love her,” “She’s my hero,” and an inventory of her resume taken so fast and so excitedly as to be rendered unintelligible. Sure, these have all been good reasons to convince me to sit down with Adrienne, but they haven’t actually told me anything about her. The one thing I know for certain is that she was involved in “Lights in the Night,” the ArtPrize entry that unleashed thousands upon thousands of paper lanterns into the Grand Rapids night sky.
Adrienne’s personality is evident from the moment she sits down at the booth. She had been running late due to a PR situation at work, and when she takes a seat she is still on the phone sorting it out. She speaks quickly, sprinkling in a heavy dose of what are some of the most amusingly obscene phrases I’ve ever heard in a professional conversation. She apologizes for her tardiness after she hangs up the phone, then catches me up to speed on her situation. It sounded like she needed a drink…
Adrienne: I actually researched before I came here, I knew they had a ton of beer but…
Jake: I’ve never been here before.
A: Really? Oh you have to come here. First of all, Wednesday is half off wine so if you’re in to that, it’s a really good time. They have these things—a beer dinner every month. And they happen to have super good vegan and vegetarian food here. So…
A: If you’re in to that kind of thing. And they have a really good breakfast. For real. And bloody mary deliciousness. And a shitload of beers on tap, as you can see (points to chalkboard). And roughly half of them are typically local, if not three quarters. And they do these…they have flights and these (pulls on a lamp sitting at our table) which are fucking awesome. They have pretty cool flights like Michigan versus The World with all this Irish stuff and Michigan things.
J: Cool, I like it.
A: Yeah! So I think we should drink this one beer and then do a flight. We could do Michigan Micro Super Happy Fun Time, or we could do… (both laugh)…I like Michigan versus The World. Where’s that? Yeah I like these. (points)
J: Awesome, I’m game. It’s on the Awesome Mitten, so…
A: Yeah that would be kind of fun. That way we could get a couple of tastes.
Our first round of beer arrives. Adrienne has chosen Brewery Vivant’s Farmhand Ale.
A: Farmhand is my favorite local beer. It’s from Brewery Vivant, you may have been there. It’s kind of a new place and it’s just delicious. You can drink a bunch of Farmhand and not be full. Which is a bonus.
J: Yeah, always a good thing! (laughs)
A: Brewery Vivant has a bunch of tree/hippy-hugging brewers. They’re into sustainability and all that cool stuff, and two of the brewers are vegan, which is interesting because they just got vegan things on their menu. It used to just be beef on beef on beef with a side of liver, so they just got some vegan stuff. I’m vegetarian. I call myself vegan-ish. I do a lot of stuff like Vegan GR and I write a little baby blog. This sort of beer is just delicious. It just tastes good.
J: I like it. I usually don’t like a lot of Vivant beer because it’s usually sour. I can’t get into that.
A: Mmmhmm. I don’t like a lot of hoppy stuff. I’m super against the hops
J: So out of college, you worked in hospitals doing PR. When did you switch? Like from health PR to…
A: Like regular PR? I don’t know. I’ve been in government public relations and public affairs, I’ve been in health communications, health PR, I’ve worked for nonprofits before. I worked at the Amway Hotel Collection for a while in their marketing department. I worked for like eight years in government while running a department and I did PR and marketing as a part of that, because you don’t have a separate budget for that; you do everything. And that was when I decided I was never going to work in government again, after eight years. Then I moved from Holland, of all places, to Grand Rapids.
J: The happiest place on earth? You left the happiest place on earth?
A: It is NOT the happiest place on earth…that’s a whole ‘nother topic that I could go into, but that’s a different column. But I digress…so then I just landed here and found the first job I could get, which was at the Amway Hotel Collection after I spent a whole afternoon bossing around the director of marketing on a volleyball court. I got recruited to somebody’s volleyball team from Twitter.
J: Nice. When was that?
A: Three or four years ago maybe? I think I’ve lived here for four years. Yeah. He’s like “I don’t know what it is about you Adrienne, but…” I thought, “You’re on the board of directors, this became really awkward, I think I might’ve slapped your ass at some point during the day. Whatever…” And that’s how I got my first job in Grand Rapids. On accident. That’s basically how I got all my jobs in Grand Rapids: on accident. Worked for a nonprofit on accident. Met Kim on accident. Here I am…on accident! So you just never know. I’ve pretty much done PR. I’ve always been a connector of people and ideas, and not always intentionally. I also teach. Oh and I’m also a student, I forget that. I’m getting my Ph.D. in public policy.
J: At Grand Valley?
A: No, at Western. I got two Master’s at Grand Valley. I’ve put in my time there. I’ve earned my Laker badge. I was a student-athlete there.
J: What’d you play?
A: Volleyball in the 90’s. I teach public relations…
A waitress comes by and asks if we’re doing alright.
A: Yeah, but you know what, we’re going to do a little Michigan versus The World here. Is it enough for like a drink and a drink? Yeah, whatever it is, just bring it. Waitress leaves. So I teach students. I love teaching. I don’t know what I’m going to do when I grow up, because I just keep putting it off and working and doing a bunch of stuff that’s fun. I don’t know, public policy or public affairs or lobbying I think. We help with Grand PR, which is a student run PR firm—Kim and I and my husband—and we’re into PRSSA, which is the student run organization for PR. It’s like the partner for PRSA which is the adult one.
J: So what do you teach at Grand Valley?
A: Public relations. And communications classes sometimes. Like two semesters ago I taught analytical writing. I taught a sports marketing class which was like—I mean, I know a lot about that stuff, but I don’t really want to teach that type of student, if you’re picking up what I’m laying down.
A: So Derek [Adrienne’s husband] and I’s community things are animals and students. We spend a lot of time with students through the student firm and the student organization at Grand Valley. I dunno, it’s not like formal mentorship, but kids text me. I mean, if you can just meet them where they’re at. Kids, like, equal parts love me and are scared of me.
J: I think that’s good, that’s how it should be. I had a couple of professor’s like that who were my favorites. Nice, but tough.
A: That’s where it should be at, it shouldn’t be too casual. I don’t remember having a lot of opportunity through Grand Valley, like professors hooking me up with internships or job shadowing, so I always try to be over the moon for that and introducing people. It’s hard, when you’re a college senior; you’re shitting your pants because the economy’s not super great. I know it’s hard. Life is hard. And no one tells you that until you’re returning bottles and cans for rent money and you’re 22 or 23. When you piecemeal jobs together to make rent or buy booze or whatever your thing is, it’s hard.
J: I know I’ve done that.
A: I think most professionals forget what it’s like to be students. I don’t necessarily remember having a ton of hardship, but I remember not knowing anybody. All my friends were moving to other cities and I stayed here—I remember that. Everybody needs to be helped. Not necessarily formal mentorship or like, “We need to sit down and review your goals for 2013.” I mean like “What the fuck are you doing? Why don’t you get out and meet some people? I’ll go with you if I must.” I guess I’ll go drink in a bar with college students. I don’t know. (laughs). I think it’s important to remember that you didn’t just make yourself. I’m like the black sheep professor. I’m going to teach you all the stuff from this shitty book that they make me teach you from, then I’m going to also teach you how real life operates.
J: Are you going to keep teaching?
A: Yeah, I mean, I lived at Grand Valley, played sports, wore Laker Blue forever. I got married on the Blue Bridge for Christ sakes, to a guy I met at Grand Valley. I have two graduate degrees from them. I feel like I fucking vomit Laker Blue, it’s disgusting. So what else do I do? We have seven interns at work. I’m the intern wrangler. We mostly have Grand Valley kids and we teach them real life. It’s hard, real life is hard. I’m on the alumni board for Grand Valley, several nonprofit boards.
A: Our firm was responsible for Lights in the Night. You know, not burning the city to the ground successfully. Big win.
J: How worried were you—
A: Very. Very. Like I said I’m a realist, so when they came to us with the idea I was like (laughs) I’m sorry, I have access to YouTube, I am not burning the city to the ground. I mean, I kind of like what I do, and I don’t want everyone to hate me…Alright, well I don’t care if people hate me, but I really don’t want to desecrate the architecture to ashes. They came to us for that project in April or May and it was the very start of that drought when the fireworks burned down that church. So I was like, “Let me get this straight, you want to set off—trying to get my head around this, boys…” and they were like “Yep, didn’t think about that one. We’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks.” Went to the internet, looked at all the big festivals—but we did it. 15,000 lanterns.
J: Can they set things on fire?
A: So they are non-flammable and also flame retardant. So if they run into something that is flammable, yes. Them by themselves will not combust. If they land in grass they will not—it would have to be like a straw wheat field.
J: So when they were getting stuck in the trees it wasn’t a problem?
A: It was more of a ground issue, like (mimics screams) and we were like, “26 more seconds.”
J: I just remember so many of them were heading for people’s heads.
A: People were crazy
J: People tried to let them go before they were floating
A: Well they tried to throw them. Physics dictates that heat in a congested space, the molecules will then lift it off the ground, aka, a hot air balloon. However, feel free to throw it in the air; I’m sure that’ll work too. No one was happier when that was over than 834 Design. It was charming as hell. When it was happening, it was like “This is happening, oh my god!” When it was over, I thought, “This is over. I don’t have to worry about people calling or the postponement of a week because of the rain, I don’t have to worry about the miles per hour of the wind because of the gusts, I don’t have to be up the meteorologist’s ass because we didn’t have the science to do so…it was the best day ever, when it was over.” I don’t want to plan it ever again. It was super well-conceived and then the city got a hold of it, so ten stations for delivering lanterns and passing them out were reduced to three, so the concentration at each station was down a bridge, down a walkway, down a road; and it should not have been like that. But they didn’t care. Rick DeVos loves us, he loves the event. It will happen. Rick DeVos.
J: Did you read the article in GQ about ArtPrize?
A: I did, and Brian Burch, the PR guy for ArtPrize, is one of my good friends. I’ve known him for a long time. It’s really disappointing how they did that, because I think they did it for sensationalism. It’s GQ though, if not sensational what is GQ? I read it and I was like, “Oh my god, he’s going to be so mad,” because he had to really work for that article.
J: The author painted the town as really backwater.
A: Yeah like (hums “Dueling Banjos”).
J: I mean, it’s not a huge metropolis. I get that a lot of people here have an inflated sense of self and their city, but it is the second biggest city in the state, it’s not flyover country like the article painted.
A: A couple weeks after that ran, I congratulated him for getting it, because that in and of itself is a win. Good or bad, PR is PR at some point. It wasn’t derogatory, it wasn’t unfavorable. It just was. He was furious about it, and I thought, “I don’t know, to think that you made it to that point…We’re on the map. Think of the grand scheme of media.” But he is so serious. He’s a really serious PR guy and I think it rubbed him the wrong way. But just to get them here and to usher them through the city and the amount of time that would’ve took? Oh my god, I would have hated it. “You’re welcome for the free room at the Amway, you asshole.” I mean, c’mon. It’s just really hard to get people here. We’re like the Midwest Bible Belt. Grand Rapids is a weird place. There’s like all these displaced liberals in a Republican core. And I have to shut my fucking face all the time. I don’t have the same last name as my husband, that’s a problem. I didn’t get married in a church, that’s a problem. I was married before, problem. I don’t have any kids, problem. Whatever. I can remember someone asking, “When are you going to start a family?” And I responded, “The thing is…uhh…” I’m a really bad liar, so—
J: And you’re in PR?
A: Yeah. I’m a singer of the truth. I’m transparent, as they would say. If you’re a person over the age of 30 here and you don’t have kids, you’re weird. Like Satan’s spawn weird. (laughs). “Why don’t you have the same last name as your husband?” Uhh, because I don’t want it. I’m over a certain age, I’ve established myself. If you want me to stay at home, abuse narcotics and drink a lot, I’d shit out a few kids, but I’m just not really interested in that. It’s West Michigan, though, that’s what you’re supposed to do. People go to college to get their ‘Mrs.’ I have two students right now who are engaged, and I just wonder, “Are you sure?” But I’m from Washtenaw County, so what do I know?