Eastern Michigan University
by Kody Klein
Artists were among the first people to revitalize the barren streets of Detroit in the dusty aftermath of the exodus that befell the Motor City. While most stared solemnly with grim fascination at the starkly decrepit remains of a once thriving metropolis, artists saw an inspiring human tale of triumph and loss. That which terrified most people intrigued the artist. Where an average person saw lawless social decay, the artist saw true freedom.
“It’s become a playground for artists because the disintegration in every way has attracted artists of every type,” Ray Katz (BS65) says. He would know. Though he currently lives in Pontiac and teaches at Oakland Community College, Katz was born and raised within the city limits. He watched the city crumble and is watching intently as a new generation of artists pick up the pieces and try to create something new. “Detroit is going through a whole new creative regeneration in every creative field,” he says. “Artists are moving to Detroit from all over the world. It is a renaissance.” Artists are taking advantage of the cheap property and relatively low cost of living. They’re coming to Detroit and rebuilding the community.
“People are moving into Detroit and buying these buildings,” says Chris Sneed (BFA08), a graduate student in Eastern’s ceramics program. “They’re renovating them and turning them into art spaces and living environments.” Fortress Studios is an art studio that used to be a warehouse with an adjacent lot. The lot is an unpaved collage of dirt, gravel, and weeds, littered with a motley assortment of industrial materials. Its perimeter is lined with a stark silver fence laced with vines that weave in and out of barbed wire. The aesthetic is somewhere between prison and playground.
Sneed was invited by fellow artist, Henry Crissman, to help construct a kiln in a corner of the lot. It’s made of bricks recycled from an old salt kiln at the College of Creative Studies. They fire it with scrap wood they gather from around the city, often harvesting logs from trees that the city has cut down and left behind. “We clean up the scraps that other people have either left or torn down,” Sneed says. “So it’s helping the community and also it’s trying to give back to Detroit.” This type of common-sense, do-it-yourself ingenuity pervades Detroit’s art community.
“People are doing things on just a shoestring budget,” says Christina Gibbs (BFA04), assistant registrar at the Detroit Institute of Arts. “You can do that in Detroit. Things are cheap. Rent is cheap. There’s a lot of property that can be developed. People are inhabiting spaces and beautifying them on their own, which is wonderful.”
Among the abandoned spaces that have been lovingly annexed by the art community is a former car dealership that was renovated and repurposed as the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. In any other city, that might seem a surprising rebirth, but in Detroit, the concept is fitting, perhaps even poetic.
“When I was a kid, I went to the art institute, but I also went to the Ford motor company to visit the assembly line,” Katz says. The building is aesthetically fascinating. Despite renovations, it has retained its austere industrial character. Its heritage has been artistically accented, but in no way forgotten. The cavernous interior feels poignantly minimalist; wooden rafters tower over a concrete floor; the brick walls are mostly unpainted, proudly boasting their age; and one of the entrances is a transparent garage door.
Lauren Rossi (BFA04) was intimately involved with the establishment of MOCAD. She worked there for the first four years after it opened. She started as a volunteer, before the museum had the budget for multiple employees. For her, it wasn’t about money. In fact, she says it isn’t for most Detroit artists.
“It’s more about passion,” Rossi says. “People know that being in Detroit isn’t necessarily the place you want to be if you want to be a wealthy artist. People move to New York or L.A. so that they can make it as an artist. People don’t necessarily move to Detroit so they can make it as an artist in terms of becoming rich and internationally known but there are people in Detroit who are making a living as working artists.” Rossi says the life in Detroit isn’t as glamorous for artists as what they might find in other cities, but “the majority of people living in Detroit aren’t looking for something glamorous.”
Looking around the city, it seems people are looking for the opposite. It’s as though they’re attracted by how unglamorous the “industrial prairie” is.
“I would say the Detroit art scene partly was influenced by the disintegration of the city,” Katz says. “It was influenced by industrial materials and industrial debris, the availability of a lot of found material and kind of an atmosphere of ‘you could do whatever you wanted to do.’”
The most famously extreme example of this is the Heidelberg Project. It straddles either side of a block-long stretch of Heidelberg Street on the east side of Detroit. There, a collective of artists have gathered an enormous plethora of discarded items and arranged them in artful displays up and down the street.
The project represents art without rules or limitations. Shopping carts hang from tree trunks alongside rusty bicycles and clocks that no longer tick nor tock. The colorfully painted hull of a small boat, inscribed with the words “NOAH” and “GOD,” shelters an enormous mound of tattered stuffed animals from an imaginary flood.
The whole landscape feels surreal, as though passersby have tumbled down the fabled rabbit hole and ended up on Heidelberg, where houses are painted with polka dots and trash is thoughtfully repurposed and arranged to capture the conflicting hope and fear of the human experience.
By taking the unwanted garbage of the community and turning it into an inspiring testament to human creativity, the display challenges passersby to look at all of Detroit with hopeful imagination for what it can become.
Perhaps that’s what is most striking about the Heidelberg, and most art in Detroit: despite the city’s reputation for being dangerous, dirty, and relatively deserted, its art is irreverently optimistic.
“It’s just the idea of rebuilding, like the phoenix coming from the ashes,” Sneed says.
What’s more is the optimism is paying off. The community is growing. It’s becoming more active and it’s starting to change the way people think about the city.
“It’s evolved in leaps and bounds,” Katz says. “I think it’s at the highest point that it’s been in decades.”
Despite how much the art community has advanced, it hasn’t become any less accessible. It’s almost as though anyone can become part of it— even people who have no professional or academic background in art at all.
While other art scenes suffer stereotypes of socially stagnating elitism, the Detroit scene is void of those types of pretensions. People from all over the world are openly accepted and integrated into the community.
Sneed is a prime example. Though from Mississippi, he says the artists he’s met in Detroit welcomed him immediately. Chance acquaintances have invited him to fire some of his pottery in their kilns or aid in projects like building a kiln. When he talks about the people he’s met there, it’s apparent they’re not just colleagues, they’re friends.
“This community of artists kind of welcomed me in with open arms,” he says. “At first, I thought they were kind of intimidating. (But) I realized these people are just like everyone else.”
While there are likely many reasons for the art community’s come-asyou- are ethos, the most common explanation is that the people really believe in their city and are eager to turn new people on to it. With the spirited enthusiasm of zealous evangelicals, they reach out to newcomers. They try to show them what Detroit can be if everyone works together and supports each other’s endeavors.
“When there’s a place that’s dying and you’re fighting to bring it back, it’s definitely more of a vital or important community,” says Bridget Burke, a graduate student of photography at EMU. “The people you see working there would like to keep it alive. It’s growing, that’s the important thing. It’s really getting a strong sense of community and everyone’s working really hard to make something happen.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time people have said Detroit was coming back and naysayers could easily find symptoms of continued decline. After all, the city’s population declined roughly 25 percent between 2000 and 2010; the neighborhoods that were shady still are; and a millage has just passed to keep the beloved Detroit Institute of Arts from closing its doors.
It’s an uphill battle and the people there know it, but they’re not ready to give up. They don’t see it as an option.
“People don’t understand how long it’s been around and what we have there is so important,” Burke says. “We made these places. There’s nowhere else to go. We can’t just leave.”