Growing up in Brighton, Michigan, Alisyn Malek had a passion for art. “But when I went to university,” she says, “I knew I needed to pay for it.” Though she mulled architecture as a kind of compromise, ultimately she attended the University of Michigan’s engineering school. She kept up with her creative side by doing freelance work for a fashion designer, plus taking some architecture courses. But when she graduated in 2008, she swiftly took a job as an engineer at GM.
That’s also the year she began living what she sometimes thought of as a double life. In late 2008, Malek, along with her boyfriend Jake Chidester and two friends, Lisa Poszywak and Jaye Thomas, began renting artist studio space at a place called the Russell Industrial Center. Formerly an automotive manufacturing location, a developer had divided the complex of buildings into rooms to rent, and over the past decade or two, it had become a studio space for many an intrepid artist.
The Russell was also, reports Malek, “sketchy.” There were tenants with certain under-the-radar “horticultural endeavors” requiring large amounts of light and electricity, and it got to the point where Malek and her comrades couldn’t use a chop saw and a guitar amp at the same time without causing a blackout (these visual artists also dabble in music).
By 2011, Malek and the others had met a landlord with a run-down space near Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. Though the space was so rudimentary as to have a dirt floor, it was also large, and they began working with the landlord to fix it up. They began to have a vision of an art space to call their own–one in which they could work and also host events.
Meanwhile, Malek was hard at work in her day job at GM. How did she juggle both pursuits? “Little sleep,” she says. A day would begin at 6 a.m., as she rose to go to work. She’d get home from GM around 5 p.m., eat a quick dinner, then be at the studio space from 5:30 to 11 p.m., painting walls, fixing up drywall, installing insulation, and hanging new electrical equipment. “I’d go to bed at 11:30, and do it the next day,” she recalls. There was, she admits, a kind of “cognitive dissonance” juggling her corporate job with her artistic adventure in an obscure corner of a city with a declining reputation. “A lot of people in Southeastern Michigan back then were still really uncomfortable about the idea of being in Detroit,” she says.
Still, she and her friends kept working. Two more artists joined the collective, and Corktown Studios, as the space came to be named, had its grand opening in March of 2012. They hosted a barbeque, then a launch party, then one event after another. “Every weekend of my life, I knew what I was doing–either cleaning up after an event, or cleaning up before,” Malek recalls of that first year. The space soon began building a certain reputation, organically.
By 2013, “we tried to get more focused,” she recalls. Instead of having events every month, the team centered themselves around a few art and music shows that they felt especially passionate about. Malek began to get entrepreneurial, realizing that “there are some artists who are really good at selling work, and some who aren’t.” Though she classified herself in the latter group, she organized a silent auction where most of the 40 pieces put up for sale were sold. Corktown Studios soon began showcasing the works of other emerging artists, beyond the core six who call the space their home.
In 2014, something happened that helped resolve Malek’s feeling of living a double life: she got a new job. It was a job that felt much more in line with her Corktown work–and yet it wasn’t at an art gallery. It was simply at a different department within GM.
While working at GM’s engineering department, Malek kept mostly mum about her hobby; but when interviewing for a position at GM’s venture capital group, suddenly her entrepreneurial hustle was an asset. Now employed by GM Ventures, Malek works to evaluate potential investments the company can make in the future of cars, with a focus on charging tech. “I speak engineering-speak, but I also have a small business entrepreneurial view,” she says, adding that her current boss is “very supportive and curious” about Corktown Studios. (Malek has also sold artwork to her GM colleagues over the years, she says.)
She still dashes between her two jobs like Superman, particularly since her current job has her traveling two out of every four weeks. (She recently had to cut off a trip to Germany at the 48-hour mark to rush back for a gallery opening.) But there’s a much greater congruence between the two. “In both situations you have people who have a vision for how the world could or should be,” she explains. “In tech it’s about creating products that can change the world. In art it’s painting a picture of how you would like the world to change. But it’s the same thing.” Also, there’s a sense in which each artist is learning to “be their own little business,” she says.
And now that she’s gotten to a stable place at both GM and Corktown, she’s able to plan her schedule well in advance. “We’ve got the schedule pretty much set for next year, so I know I can line up my board meeting schedule with my gallery events schedule, and then plan when it makes sense to travel,” she says.
For years, she says, she lived in a “two-brain type of world,” divided. But now, finally, “I have the right balance,” she says. “I can be a whole person.”