ART TRIP: DETROIT


[MUSIC PLAYING] NARRATOR: Detroit carries with
it a substantial mythology, the glory days of the
American automotive industry, the decline of the American
automotive industry, Motown, white flight, rebellions
or riots, ruins, “Robocop,” bankruptcy, more
ruins, and resurgence. The city reached its population
peak of 1.8 million in 1950 when it was the fourth
largest city in the country. And the predominant story since
then has been one of decline. But while the population
of Detroit proper may be half what it once was,
there’s still a lot here. What if we forget all
the hype and just look at the city for what it is,
what it has, and who is here? We begin at the destination
of many a Detroit pilgrimage, the Motown Museum, where the
signature sound of the city was born. Berry Gordy bought
this building in 1959 and lived with his
family in the upper unit while the first floor housed
his business, Motown Records and Studio A, where pretty
much every amazing song you associate with
Motown was recorded. Diana Ross and the Supremes,
Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the
Four Tops, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Smokey
Robinson and the Miracles– all of them recorded
in this room on these worn wooden floors
at all hours day and night. Producers gave
direction and cut tracks using the equipment that’s
still there in the control room. Motown moved to LA in
1972, but this site became a museum in 1985 to house
artifacts and photos and host exhibitions to share
the legacy of Motown. They engage future
generations in the important
musical history that happened here and have
a significant expansion in the works. The sign out front
isn’t bragging. It’s fact. And you can stop by anytime
you like to pay your respect. A short drive away is
another pilgrimage point, the venerable Detroit
Institute of Arts, which was spared from creditors
who targeted its collection to pay off municipal debts after
the city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. And it’s a good thing because
the work we came to see really shouldn’t exist anywhere
in the world but here. Diego Rivera’s Detroit
industry murals were completed over the course
of 11 months beginning in 1932. The famed Mexican muralist
had been commissioned by the museum’s
director and Edsel Ford to paint two murals related
to the history of Detroit and its industrial development. After researching and spending
time at the Ford auto plant, Rivera was so intrigued and
inspired that he suggested expanding to all four walls. They agreed, and
now we have this. We were nearly alone
in the space, a rarity, and we marveled at the
vibrant mural cycle as bright morning light
raked across its surfaces. The still brilliant color we
can credit to Rivera’s expertise in the technique
of fresco painting, where pigments are
worked directly into still wet plaster. On the east wall, Rivera
depicts new life, represented by nude women cradling
a bountiful harvest, and a child growing in
the bulb of a plant. The north wall gives views
into Ford’s River Rouge Plant where we see the
making of motors, from a blast furnace
glowing in the distance to its final stages
in the assembly line. On the south wall, we see
cars taking shape and a giant stamping press we know is
Rivera’s representation of Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a
creator and destroyer of life. Rivera was a Marxist. And his murals are
a tremendous tribute to the many workers who
fueled Detroit’s industry and whose sacrifices
to the industry gods were quite literal. He believed art should
belong to the public as it does here in this space. The west wall symbolizes
endings and last judgments with the double edged sword
of technological advancement and its capacity for
destruction on display. The invocation above the door
as you exit, life is short, art is long, feels both
true and also like a wish. There is much more here,
including a remarkable set of galleries devoted
to art created by African-American artists and
about African-American history and experience. The department
bridges seamlessly into their
contemporary galleries, but I can’t show
it all to you so just promise me you’ll go, OK? We then made our way to
the Heidelberg project. In 1986, artist Tyree Guyton
returned to the street where he grew up on the
east side of Detroit and began cleaning up
vacant lots and abandoned buildings with the help of his
grandfather and neighborhood kids. With paint and by repurposing
refuse and materials they found, Guyton
transformed much of the street and sidewalks
into this giant outdoor art environment, although
other residents do remain. The effort was incorporated
into a nonprofit community organization with the mission
of improving the lives of people and neighborhoods through art. Tires, old kid toys, signs,
outmoded electronics, and holiday decorations
form a mound from which brick columns emerge
like chimneys, reminding us that, yes, there were once other
houses on these vacant lots. Moments that feel
more random are followed by others that
are very much composed. Empty shipping
containers call out 1967, the year of the Detroit
rebellion, which began after police
raided an unlicensed bar and unraveled into one
of America’s largest civil disturbances
of the 20th century. Guyton conceived the project
as a kind of medicine for a Detroit community that had
seen tremendous and devastating change, offering up a site where
neighbors and visitors can come together to play, interact,
and reflect, and also participate in educational
programs, festivals, and forums. It didn’t take long for people
to object to what he was doing, neighbors as well as the city. Several of the
house installations have been demolished,
others destroyed by arson, and what remains is here
only through the vigilance of the project’s staff,
supporters, and legal team. Heidelberg has
evolved over the years and has the feeling
that it’s at once in the process of being
created and also destroyed, with new replacing old,
fresh paint next to faded. And I’m sure you’ve noticed
clocks are everywhere. Both a reminder of
time’s passage and also an insistent questioning
about what’s happening now and what might be in the future. Guyton started dismantling parts
of the site a couple of years ago to make room for a new
vision he calls Heidelberg 3.0. We’ll be watching. Construction, redevelopment,
and restoration can be seen in many areas of
Detroit, especially downtown. This giant hole is going to
be Detroit’s tallest tower. And beyond it we can
see murals by How and Nosm on the left and
Shepard Fairey on the right. Library Street Collective
commissioned these, as well as a number of other projects
around the city like this billboard by Willie Wayne Smith,
and The Belt, an alleyway where you can experience rotating
exhibitions of large scale paintings, get a drink, and also
visit the Collectives gallery when they’re not between shows. Library Collective works
with a number of entities, public and private, to bring
new artwork to Detroit, like this development, and
also an enormous new bronze sculpture by Kaws overlooking
Campus Martius park, a parent and child arrangement
of the artist’s signature skull and crossbones meets Mickey
Mouse companion character. Approaching the riverfront, you
can take in another huge scale bronze, Robert Graham’s 1986
monument to the legendary boxer and Detroit native Joe
Lewis, a centennial gift to the city from “Sports
Illustrated Magazine.” Beyond it lies Hart
Plaza, an expansive space that hosts large
public gatherings, provides magnificent views
of the Detroit skyline, and also contains
sculptures, including the spire on the right
by Isamu Noguchi, as well as a large
fountain behind us, also by Noguchi, which was
off and looked kind of sad that way so I’m not
going to show it to you. Here’s a pretty
picture someone took in 2009 to give you a sense. A short walk away is
the Guardian Building, an art deco building that
was completed in 1929. Its glorious interiors have
been maintained and restored to exquisite
perfection, decorated with pewabic and rookwood tile
and a central clock by Tiffany. Oh, it’s time for us
to stop for the day. We began day two in the
north end of Detroit at the studio of artist
Scott Hocking, which is filled to the
brim with the objects and evidences of his
past and future artworks. Scott has lived and worked
in Detroit proper for over 20 years and has spent a great deal
of time exploring the city’s vacant and unused
spaces, using the site and its materials to create
sculptures and installations. Sometimes he brings
these materials into art galleries in
Michigan and far beyond. And sometimes he uses
abandoned or unused spaces to create works right on site. This is has involved spending
eight months building a pyramid out of
wooden floor bricks that remained in Detroit’s
Fisher Body Plant 21, vacant since the 1980s, and
also crafting an egg shaped structure out of
marble remnants that once lined the interior
corridors of Michigan Central train station. He photographs what he makes so
that people who can’t get there can see it. The lifespan of
these constructions are uncertain and often
short, subject to the whims of other trespassers,
scrappers, and changing keepers of the properties. But he also makes
work much farther afield, like inside
a former railway station in the
French city of Lille, combining materials he brought
from Detroit with those found within the station and
nearby street market into a fantastical
cabinet of curiosities. Scott took us to see an
installation he’d just made in the Eastern
Market neighborhood for the annual festival
that takes place here called Murals in the Market. He found dozens of
discarded concrete sewer pipes on the site of this
long vacant warehouse, and out of them
created 17 towers, reaching as high
as 22 feet tall. It’s cheekily titled after Swiss
artist Ugo Rondinone’s artwork “Seven Magic Mountains”
that emerges brightly in the desert outside
of Las Vegas, made from painted locally
sourced boulders. Hocking’s version is equally
totemic but less alien, less tidy, more native
to its environment. No signage accompanies these
that says who made them and how. You find these mysterious
megalithic structures by wandering around,
surrounded by the contributions of other artists who make
their mark without invitation. There is plenty to look at
here besides the installation. Venturing into the
warehouse shows you that people have been here and
will continue to come here. Hocking’s contributions are
more large scale versions of the traces of life
that exist all around, reminders that places like
these may not be as abandoned as they’re assumed to be. All around Eastern Market,
you can see murals, many or most of which have
emerged from past years of the festival. And we enjoyed looking at them,
although not without starting to ponder over who gets to
make art legally and where, and who makes those decisions. The next we stop by the Museum
of Contemporary Art Detroit or MOCAD, on whose facade you
can see Martin Creed’s neon work “Everything is
Going to be All Right.” On our way in, we visit
“Mobile Homestead,” a work by the artist
Mike Kelly that is a full scale replica
of the house he grew up in in the suburbs of Detroit. The facade can be
detached and driven around to neighborhoods
around the city. And it’s currently
installed here to be used as a flexible
community center and space for events
and exhibitions like the one on view now
called “Pocket Size,” featuring sculpture,
architecture, painting, and historical recreations
that are all, yes, pocket size. Inside we encounter a
truly delightful pop up shop by California based
artist Katie Kimmel, who makes ceramics and clothing and
describes her sense of humor as 98% angel, 2% devil. But we were there to check
out MOCAD’s exhibition of work by Tyree Guyton, who makes work
beyond the Heidelberg project. This show takes a
retrospective look at the 30 years of the
Heidelberg project, including groupings
of works representing many of his ongoing series. Clocks are here, of course, from
his “What Time Is It?” series and also works from his
“Faces in the Hood” series, portraits Guyton made on car
hoods and trunks of people he’s met as Heidelberg
has unfolded. With this exhibition, we’re
able to see Guyton’s work in the white box standard
space of today’s art galleries with labels and explanations as
well as the artist’s meditation on the arson and associated
conspiracy theories that have plagued the project. It’s a valuable opportunity
to consider what’s lost and what’s gained when art made
for and from a particular site leaves its home
environment and enters the more formal spaces of art. At MOCAD, we ran
into Ricky Blanding, a young ceramic artist who
took us just across the street to Sugarhill Clay, a
community clay studio that offers classes and memberships
so you can work on your own. Ricky kindly showed us how a
person with talents such as his could quickly transform a lump
of clay into a perfect bowl. Thanks, Ricky. This is what his finished
work looks like by the way. From there, it was a short drive
to the Mbad African Bead Museum and outdoor sculptural
installations, the spectacular creation
of Olayami Dabls. Before he began
this project, Dabls had been a curator and
artist-in-residence at the African-American
History Museum, and after starting to
collect beads from Africa, began the sprawling endeavor
to encourage local access to cultural artifacts. For his work, he primarily uses
iron, rock, wood, and mirrors, which he sees as materials
able to speak universally to all cultures. And the mirrored surfaces
do the remarkable work of bringing in the additional
materials of the surrounding neighborhood, the sky,
and also you and those who are there with you. There are 18 outdoor
installations as well as the N’kisi House and
African Language Wall. Dabls has an
extensive collection of African material culture
stored in the townhouses here that will one day be
exhibited in a proposed expansion of the museum. In the meantime, you can
contribute to their fundraising efforts and also visit
the bead gallery, full of a stunning
array of African beads. Many of these are
antique, and rare, and have stories behind them
that you can learn about by talking with Dabls
himself, who can often be found presiding
over the shop, glad to share his deep knowledge
with locals and the guests who visit here from
around the world. Our last hours in Detroit
we spend on Oakland Avenue, starting at the
construction site for what has been
and will be “American Riad,” the collaboration
of Ghana ThinkTank in Oakland Avenue
Artists’ Coalition as well as North End
Woodward Community Organization and Central
Detroit Christian CDC. You can see one
of the prototypes for it hanging on at
the edge of this ditch. But it’s a multi-year
project of skill shares and public art to
create a Moroccan style riad, a central shared courtyard
between these two buildings that will and already has
served as a public space for gatherings, workshops,
gardening, performances, and the display of art. Luckily, one of the
project’s organizers was available to talk to us. I’m pleased. My name is Jamii. I’m the president and CEO of
the Oakland Avenue Artists’ Coalition, one of the founders. And I work toward building our
art corridor on Oakland Avenue in the North End. There’s a large amount of young
people in this neighborhood. And there’s not a lot
of safe spaces for them, so, you know, something
that’s beautiful, that appeals in folks of all
ages, and also is just cool, and some place where
young people to be is really important. So we deal a lot of place
making and place keeping. Like after a place is created,
not only is it beautiful, we want to make sure that
folks have an opportunity to enjoy it. So we program it,
be that open mics, be that community
cookouts, be that readings. I’m a poet and I
teach other kids how to write and perform
so they have an opportunity to have some place to share
their work and their art. NARRATOR: Jamii took us on
a tour of the neighborhood and showed us some
of the work he and the coalition have
been doing nearby. JAMII TATA: A lot
of the things we do hearken to the legacy and
the history of the neighborhood and how the current
folks of today get a chance to pay
homage to the past. So you know, what we’re doing as
creatives along Oakland Avenue is continuing what
happened not so long ago, because Oakland Avenue was
once the bustling business district of not only
Detroit but the nation. I really want people to
realize that people are here, like some folks
never left the city. And some folks will
never leave the city. And some folks have been
working their butts off on building community and
community infrastructure, and that we have artists. We have creatives. We have engineers. We have architects. We have landscape architects. And even if those things are
not present in the neighborhood, there are young people that
can grow into those things. NARRATOR: We tend to think of
architecture and infrastructure as permanent, but Detroit
challenges that assumption. So much seems to be missing,
but the people of Detroit are actively demonstrating
what’s still there and asking important questions
about what should stay, what should go, and
what kinds of spaces will bring the people and
resources already present in this great city into
collaboration, and collision, and conversation. We’ll be back to see
what happens next. Want to see where we go next? Subscribe. And if you’d like
to support our show, consider giving a little
each month on Patreon. Thanks to all of our patrons,
especially Vincent Apa and Indianapolis Homes Realty. [MUSIC PLAYING]

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