Chances are if you have been to Hamtramck, you have witnessed our trash. It blows down the street, collects in our gutters, and builds up in the empty tree grates, which once contained somewhat majestic locust trees but now are simply open holes for fast-food wrappers. You have seen how we save our parking spots with busted plastic chairs, construction buckets — even satellite dishes propped on stolen milk crates will do.
Since 1999, when artist Emily Jane Wood moved to town, she has made a point of noticing Hamtramck's trash. In fact, she gets excited about it. One of her paintings contains a broken Obama phone, a small plastic goat, a losing scratch-off ticket, a half-smoked cigarillo in its original package, even the saggy skin of a used condom — all stuff she found in an alley.
Wood talks about it as if these finds are artifacts. "Trash," she says, "is the alpha and omega of people's lives, the flotsam, the krill all around us. It shows people that everyone is similar. It unites us." She is dead serious. Then her expression softens. "I know it's probably politically incorrect to like garbage, but I do."
Wood's ability to paint the buildings, the landmarks, and the trash of the city with a recognizable clarity is self-taught. Though she wanted to study art, there was no money for that. Her field of study was biology and genetics. She has a master's from Wayne State University and has all but completed two doctorate programs. Her research on the human genome has taken her to conferences in Japan and San Francisco, where she presented papers on Junk DNA, or the so-called "junk gene."
"It's part of the human genetic code," Wood says. "Everyone said it was useless, but I found that it actually does something. It's there to regulate other genes. So my whole thing was that junk is not junk, but is actually really, really important and makes us who we are as human beings."
For the same reason she likes our trash, Wood is also fascinated by Hamtramck's houses. The majority of her paintings focus on them. One of her favorite things is all the half-ass repairs that adorn them. "People around here do it all themselves," she says. "You can really see the human touch. So like, here's a house with four different kinds of siding. Those imperfections make it real. It's just like story layered on story layered on story. It's really invigorating."
Last September, Wood began work her largest and most significant project, a mural on the stockade fence that flanks Trixie's Bar. One side depicts our neighborhood houses with their many satellite dishes, plastic chairs, garbage cans, and shopping carts. The other represents the business district complete with mosques, doughnut shops, burger joints, bars, and art spaces too.
I came to see her on the final day of the project. The light was fading, and Wood was still working on the lower edge of the mural, lying on her belly, surrounded by paint cans, rags, roller trays. She was adding the finishing touches to a garbage can while bar owner Andrew Perrotta, smoking a cigarette and eating a slab of cold pizza, worked behind her with a sealer.
"Did you know that the city spelled 'Michigan' wrong on all the garbage cans," she says. She points it out. "They have an extra H. It's ridiculous. It's laughable. It's so Hamtramck. You gotta love this city!"
In contrast to her small, detailed oil paintings, the buildings depicted in her mural are spare line drawings. "So they shouldn't have taken so long," Wood says, "but they did. I budgeted for three weeks and it's taken 12 weeks."
All pumped on the adrenaline of accomplishment, Wood drops her brush in the pail and says, "I wanted to do something to represent the city and really show that we're proud of Hamtramck. You know it would be so easy to feel bad about what we have or think that it is not as good as other things. Sometimes it takes seeing it large to realize we have something to be proud of. Like we're not doing the best with what we have. We actually have the best to start with."
Check out the mural for yourself. The official inaugural celebration is happening at Trixie's Bar, Friday, Jan. 13. The event will feature music by a heavy Hamtramck lineup: the Potions, Connor Dodson and Quickdraw, and a reading by Danielle Étienne.
Steve Hughes is the writer and publisher of the zine Stupor. He collects his stories in Hamtramck bars. His forthcoming issue, in collaboration with Emily Jane Wood, considers all aspects of the word "trash." Issues available at Stuporzine.com.