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Aaron Van Timmeren and Erin Keener

Creative Couples
Five local couples share each other’s compulsion to push the boundaries and live life a little differently.

By Terri Finch Hamilton
Photography by Adam Bird

Designers, musicians, movers and shakers. Singer, dancer, cupcake baker: Meet some of the city’s most creative couples.

On the job, they make things happen — entertaining audiences, creating big ideas, concocting food that makes us swoon.

As couples, they keep the creativity coming.

They write songs together. They lead their kids on memory-making adventures. They surprise each other. They whip up Sunday night pasta sauce with salted pig cheek.

They know how to make a relationship sing. Or dance. Or simmer.

Kitchen confidential
Aaron Van Timmeren made pasta with cured pig jowl the other night, and he’s here to tell us all about it. The fancy name for it is pasta all’ amatriciana — and Aaron has a fancy side, being the head chef at Bistro Bella Vita.

His partner, Erin Keener, is the pastry chef at Grove, turning out pistachio bread pudding, pear aebleskiver and salted dark chocolate fudge so decadent her customers won’t let her take it off the menu.

Fancy. But these two also are surprisingly practical.

“At Meijer they call it salted pig cheek,” Aaron, 34, says. “It’s delicious — and a quarter of the price of bacon.”
It’s just sort of hard to get past the name “salted pig cheek.”

Aaron grins.

“It’s the pig’s face,” he says. “His face is beautiful. You eat bacon. What is that? His fat belly, hanging in the mud.”
The couple’s 15-month-old son, Ulysses, already is on board with his parents’ love of fine food. The other night, Boys Night, the two guys went to Reserve, where Uly had soft shell crab and foie gras mousse. Aaron also has a 13-year-old daughter, Chayse, who lives in Boston.

So here’s a chance to get inside the heads of two of Grand Rapids’ most creative chefs. What goes on in there?

“With pastry you really have to follow a recipe,” Erin, 23, says, sipping chai on a recent morning at Kava House in Eastown. “You can’t just wing it like you can with a sauce.

“But I’m not so exact with things,” she admits. “Sometimes it can ...”

“Bite you in the buns?” her partner chimes in.

You might find Erin experimenting in the Grove kitchen, deciding to see what happens when she puts her batch of milk custard into the freezer. Silky, yogurty wonderfulness, she’s happy to report.

“Sometimes things go wrong, but then you use the scraps to make something else,” she says. “You need to be able to see failure not as failure but as opportunity.”

Lately she’s been pondering some sort of curry coconut chocolate dessert.

“I like getting out of the norm,” Erin says. “A lot of things have been done. I like to push the envelope.”

So does Aaron, at Bistro since 2001.

He loves the “special sheets,” the ever-changing menus that rely on whatever fresh ingredients are available from local farms.

“When I’m creating something, it’s all about the ingredients,” he says. “Let’s say I have snails. I think of France, or maybe a Creole region. So maybe a boudin — snail sausage with rice,” he muses. “Maybe crayfish. What’s indigenous to that area? Tomatoes, perhaps? Then I formulate my special based on that.”

He’s so charming, he almost makes you want to eat snails.

“We don’t cook much at home,” he says. “It’s not that we’re tired of cooking, but we both have to keep ourselves fresh, relevant, so we like to go out to see what other people in town are doing.”

Home is a cool apartment in Eastown’s circa 1846 Boulevard Building, with exposed brick and views of both the Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids fireworks.

And a kitchen of blissful calm.

“It helps that we’re both in the business. We understand each other,” Aaron says. “The hours are intense. It would be hard to relate to each other’s day. She knows what I go through in a day, good and bad, and I know what she goes through.”

Design inspiration
Kevin Budelmann is telling about the time his son described what he and his wife, Yang Kim, do at work every day. Both designers, they own Peopledesign, where Kevin is president and Yang is creative director.

“He said, ‘You draw squares on white boards and drink coffee and talk.’”

Kevin and Yang, sitting by their huge white board, crack up. “Actually,” Kevin says, “he’s not wrong.”

Kevin Budelmann and Yang Kim

Peopledesign is one of the city’s creative hot spots. Its owners have impressive stashes of design awards. Their book on brand building, “Brand Identity Essentials,” has been translated into six languages.

Kevin is a speaker and judge at design events across the continent. In 2013, Yang was voted one of the 50 most influential graphic designers working today.

They must be really good at drawing squares.

The fun thing about talking to Kevin and Yang is that, despite the fact that they’re tops in their field, they can simplify all the design-speak.

“Creativity is not as much of a mystery as some creative people would like you to believe,” Kevin says.
They find inspiration everywhere.

“I might be in Target and see something orange and connect it with a project I’m working on, and it clicks,” Yang says. “You have to keep your eyes open to things that come at you.”

“Our kids inspire me, like when Bruno said all we do is draw squares on the white board,” Kevin says. “They cut through the clutter of adult life. They’re observant. Kids see things through a different lens.

“A big part of design is observation — observing things you’ve never seen before.”

That’s why it’s important to change the scenery. Here’s where these two give the rest of us a creative boost.

“You know those hidden picture puzzles, where if you just turn the picture upside down, you can suddenly find more of the things?” Yang says. “It’s like that. Drive a different way. Walk a different time of day. Turn things around.”

“Stepping back to look at something differently is a critical skill in designing,” Kevin says. “The most important thing is to just keep moving. Make something — anything. Forward momentum. The biggest risk is lack of movement.”

We ask about forward momentum in a relationship. Couple time? They have to think about it for a minute.

“Last year we did something,” Yang finally says. “We went to Boyne Mountain. We got a babysitter overnight and skied.”

But usually life outside work is pretty much all about the kids, they say.

“We’re outnumbered,” Kevin points out. They’re outnumbered by Bruno, 10, Toki, 8, and Lulu, 4. Bruno’s an athlete. The girls are creators, conjuring up elaborate stories and imaginary worlds.

While other dads may balk at attending “Cirque du Soleil,” Kevin realizes the spectacle is great fuel for creativity. Just like the art classes Yang signs the kids up for every summer.

“It’s non-negotiable,” she says. “I love how there’s no wrong in art class. I always tell them, ‘You have great ideas,’” Yang says. “I think that’s better than praising them for staying inside the lines.”

The two met as students at Carnegie Mellon University, surrounded by great ideas. They say creativity is for everybody.

“People think there’s this magic,” Kevin says. “They see art on the wall and think, ‘Wow, I could never do something like that.’

“Why not?”

Making sweet music
Serita Crowley starts singing a song from “Porgy and Bess” right at her kitchen table over a bowl of savory hummus she just whipped up.

The living room of the Grand Rapids home she shares with partner Jon Hayes is filled with her vibrant oil paintings. Nearby is an African drum made of rich walnut and lamb skin. Jon, an accomplished guitarist, made it. He tiled the kitchen, too.
If you’ve heard Serita’s Black Rose perform — the group opened for Smokey Robinson last summer at Meijer Gardens — you’ve probably heard a song this duo wrote together.


Jon Hayes and Serita Crowley

There’s a lot going on with this couple in the cozy yellow house where tiles next to the front door spell out LOVE.
“We’re unique in the style of music we do,” Serita, 42, says. She’s wearing large, swingy owl earrings and a colorful striped scarf in her hair. “Blues, funk, rock, soul, gospel, reggae — something for everybody.”

Oh — and she also plays harmonica. “How many black women do you know who play harmonica?” Jon says.
They love surprising people.

“I might start with ‘Billie Jean’ by Michael Jackson, then transition into ‘Shakedown Street’ by the Grateful Dead,” Serita says.

“People are like, ‘What? A black girl singing a Grateful Dead song?’” Jon, 34, says with a laugh.

They met in the summer of 2003 in Eastown when Serita was assistant manager at Monster Burrito. Jon was there for lunch with a friend, who pointed out Serita and told him, “That girl does music, too.”

They exchanged numbers. Jon burned her a CD of his guitar work. They started to hang out, rehearse together. They were friends for close to a year before it evolved into something more.

“One day I told her we were pretty much an item,” Jon says.

“I said, ‘Oh. Well, OK,’” Serita says.

“I don’t take relationships lightly,” Jon says. “I don’t consider them a short-term thing.”

“It was kind of big and scary,” Serita says. “I’m eight years older than he is. But we learn things together, and I love that.”

“Part of the reason our relationship works is she has things I don’t have, and I have things she doesn’t have,” Jon says. “I’m the organizer. She doesn’t have that.”

Serita nods her head. She loves chatting with the audience. Jon is the quiet one. She urges him to sing more, shine more. “There’s creativity I see in him that he doesn’t always know how to express,” Serita says.

When they perform together, they share a common goal: “To make the audience want to see us again,” Serita says. “To leave them with that special something.”

“She can take any person or crowd and put them in the palm of her hand,” Jon says. “She’s strong and confident and powerful.”

They call performing music their “dream jobs.” But it doesn’t pay the bills. Serita works at Yo Chef’s Cafe and as a food demonstrator and cook at area grocery stores.

Jon works a maintenance job at Kendall College of Art and Design and is a weather observer at Gerald R. Ford International Airport. He often goes long stretches without sleep.

“There’s something inside that says, ‘Keep going,’” Jon says. “If I don’t have music, I get kind of depressed. I just love sharing our creativity with other people.”

Serita smiles. “We do it because it’s what we do.”

A pair of impresarios
Erin and Amy Wilson sometimes argue over which one is the impresario. It’s probably safe to say this is a couples’ discussion unique to them.

“He always said that I was the artist and he was the impresario,” Amy says, perched in a small office at Wealthy Theatre. “We both fought over who got to be the impresario.”

If you need a refresher on the definition of impresario, you’re not alone: “A person who manages a performance, such as a concert or play.”

Turns out they both win.

Erin, 42, is the director of the Wealthy Theatre, the historic theater in Eastown that has become host to some of the community’s most creative entertainment.

Amy, 40, founded the groundbreaking Dance In The Annex, a modern dance collective housed in the Wealthy Theatre annex. It offers classes by master teachers and hosts performances that bring together local dancers, musicians and choreographers.

Each of them raised eyebrows in town when they started showcasing entertainment that went beyond music and movies.

“Having events here that are unorthodox and collaborative is almost a reflex now,” Erin says. “Why not have a live rock band play while dancers do original choreography? For the first couple years, people looked at us like, ‘Hmmm, I don’t know.’

“It’s not like we were trying to be weird,” he says. “But why not a cello player plugged into a guitar amp? Why not pair that with an Afrocentric singer who’s a member of the new Black Panthers?”

In addition to his creative work at the Wealthy Theatre, Erin is board president and co-founder of arts advocacy organization ArtPeers and founder of Until Love Is Equal, focused on protecting civil rights regardless of sexual orientation.

He and Amy met in New York. When they daydream about a couples getaway, that’s where they think of going. But parenting three busy kids — Julian, 6, Siona, 10, and Riley, 13 — keeps them close to home. The family spends a lot of time at the theater. They go to gallery openings, plays and artist markets. They walk in the woods.

“Our kids have a huge sense of community, which I love,” Amy says.

Amy and Erin Wilson

She and Erin each have memories from childhood that help define them. Amy tells of attending her first dance recital as an 8-year-old to watch a childhood friend. She was transfixed.

“I was a shy kid and I’m still pretty introverted,” she says. “But here was a way I could express my feelings without having to talk. I don’t think I ever lost that feeling. It got into my head and my heart and my soul.”

She went on to study at some of the most prestigious dance studios in New York, including the Merce Cunningham Studio and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre.

When he was a kid, Erin was moved from his classroom each afternoon to a room off the school library, for independent study. “I thought there was something wrong with me and they didn’t know how to fix it,” he recalls.

Turns out he was gifted. But nobody bothered to tell him.

“Whenever I do something well, I still have this latent insecurity — was it a fluke?” he says. “I guess in a way it’s good to go into things not thinking that you’re special.”

They’ve been in Grand Rapids for a dozen years now, but don’t call them settled.

“One of my favorite words is ‘risk,’” says Amy, who teaches dance at Grand Valley State University.

“I always teach my students to take risks. Going out on a limb as an artist, pushing boundaries, is important. I want to do things that are unexpected, surprising. You have to be willing to put yourself out there and be vulnerable.”

“You need to be afraid,” Erin adds. “I’m a little afraid all the time with everything I do here. If everything is effortless, that would just be boring.”

Artistic teamwork
Downstairs is the bakery that turns out delectable banana peanut butter cupcakes and German chocolate cake pops, but we’re transfixed by the deer antler perched on an antique sideboard. The smooth antler is artfully tied with a ribbon and a sprig of berries.

Somebody creative lives in the apartment above sweet-tooth hot spot, The Cakabakery. Actually, two creative somebodies.

The chic, cozy apartment is home to Cakabakery owner Jason Kakabaker and his partner, Peter Jacob, a furniture designer.

Jason, 43, became famous last May when he competed on the Food Network reality show “Cupcake Wars.” He came in second, wowing the judges with his dark chocolate merlot cupcake.


Peter Jacob and Jason Kakabaker

Peter, 32, a graduate of Kendall College of Art and Design, got his start as a designer at Kindel Furniture Co. Today, he has his own design business, Peter Jacob Design, where he dreams up lighting and home accessories.

This spring, he will hit the big time — high-end upholstered furniture company Wesley Hall is launching a line with his name on it.

In his work, Peter has to think ahead. By the time you see something at a store, it’s so yesterday. Meanwhile, in Jason’s business, it’s all about what people want right now — a wedding cake sporting a trendy zigzag chevron pattern.

Peter lends his artistic flair to the Cakabakery, too, pitching in on occasional cake decorating. He does the bakery’s marketing, designed the logo, helps out at events and works in the shop on Saturdays.

“Most people don’t know how much Peter’s creativity spills over into this business,” Jason says.

“Teaming up is the way to work,” Peter says. “We’re both so driven to put things out into the world, to create things.”

They met at a dinner party, each admiring the other’s cuteness. It’s hard to tell who boasts more about the other one.

Peter tells of his partner’s huge following and his ingenuity in the kitchen. “You can throw him any challenge — he rises to it, every day.”

Jason gushes about Peter’s drawings. “I want to frame everything he’s ever drawn,” Jason says. “The detail is amazing.”

Jason grew up in Kalamazoo and started working at Baskin Robbins at age 16, where he first learned to decorate cakes. He had to work fast: Ice cream melts.

Armed with a marketing degree from Western Michigan University, he went on to a career in retail and a marriage. He has three kids: daughter Alex, 19, and sons Zach, 18, and Luke, 16.

When he was laid off from Meijer in 2010, he decided to launch his own bakery. His cupcakes, cake pops and cookies fly off the counters.

“My name doesn’t hurt,” Jason says with a smile. Lately, he’s been pondering beer bread made with Founders stout.

Sometimes he or Peter will return home to discover the other has packed their bags for a spur-of-the-moment trip.

Because they’re spontaneous, “We might have the weird room in the bad hotel in Traverse City,” Peter says. He smiles. “But we still get to go to the winery.” GR

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