Three years ago, the Kresge Foundation announced a new arts philanthropy program, Kresge Arts in Detroit, the cornerstone of which, they said, would be an annual selection of a dozen or more fellows and one eminent artist. Years would rotate between visual artists on odd numbered years and literary and performance artists on even ones. They promised the fellows would receive $25,000. Double that for the Eminent artist. And professional development workshops would be held throughout the year.
It couldn't have come at a better time.
Weeks before Kresge's announcement, Lansing had drastically slashed arts and culture funding. That's the way it'd been going.
ArtServe, a paramount arts advocacy group, says public funding for arts and culture has decreased by more than 93 percent in the past eight years in Michigan.
We went into 2010 thinking there'd be a little more than $6 million in the coffer. We were lucky to get the $2.1 million we ended up with.
John Bracey, executive director of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (MCACA), a state agency that works with nonprofit arts organizations, says funding this year increased slightly to $2.3 million.
To help alleviate the drought, the National Endowment for the Arts, with its $125 million grant budget, extended $1.9 million to Michigan this year. That money finds its way to Detroit institutions such as InsideOut Literary Arts, the College for Creative Studies, the Detroit Jazz Festival, Mosaic Youth Theatre and the Michigan Opera Theatre.
But Detroit needs more. Individual artists need more.
This week, Kresge Arts in Detroit celebrates its third year with a second round of fellows who work in visual art. And as the program has completed one full cycle, Kresge has now invested more than $1.3 million in individual Detroit artists.
This year's class is as diverse as the first: a compelling group of designers, sculptors, photographers, painters and installation artists, all of which could describe Jon Dunivant, the artistic brain behind Detroit's legendary Theatre Bizarre, who is perhaps one of this year's better-known fellows.
Let's get to know Dunivant and this new Kresge class a bit better.
A professor of fine art theory and practice at Eastern Michigan University, Lawrence Technological University and Oakland University, Corrie Baldauf received her Master of Fine Arts degree at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. Her work has been exhibited internationally. "I am fortunate to be welcomed into a community that sees the intellect in optimism and the alchemy in art," Baldauf says. "My current drawings, paintings, animations and sculptures notate and frame the inspiration, stimulation and influences in my surroundings. By observing people interacting with my artwork, I learn how I can bring familiarity and laughter to people of different walks of life." The notations in her circular timeline drawings highlight pauses and patterning of open spaces, representing the rhythm of occurrences happening in Detroit. "Imagine that each space is a stage for the words I hear you say, the descriptions in National Public Radio stories and news, anecdotes, as well as quotidian experiences. These drawings are visual manifestations of the experiences that seduce us to be alert and alive." As an artist, Baldauf says her role is to tap into and reflect the experiences and events in the Detroit area that compel disparate communities to interact and thrive.
If you've spent any amount of time driving around the west side of Detroit, you've driven by the wondrous work of one Olayami Dabls. Most likely, it was framed in your car's window as you cruised by, distracted. Perhaps you were compelled to pull over and check it out. It happens all the time. Using a wide range of materials, sites and scale, Dabls has been at it for more than 45 years. He says he uses his work to tell stories about African people and Africa's material culture. Some have referred to his frenetic, three-dimensional, restructured art pieces as the Heidelberg of the West Side. The artist is currently working on completing a 150-by-14 foot mural titled African Language. "I have discovered at least 18 examples of written scripts in a selection of African languages that were used during the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a time when we were labor savages, primitive and uncivilized," Dabls says. "Our artifact or material culture during the same time was defined as demonic, ugly, idols, witchcraft and primitive. The languages were written in scripts using symbolism and pictographs. Using this same language, my work promotes positive images and enriching aspects of my people's contribution to world culture." Dabls is also the owner of the MBAD African Bead Museum at 6559 Grand River Ave. in Detroit — a section of the city Dabls likes to call Africa Town.
Mitch Cope & Gina Reichert: Design 99, Power House Project
In recent years, few Detroit artists have garnered the kind of attention that art partners Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope have. The couple founded Design 99 in 2007, intent on investigating new models of contemporary art by grafting art and design with practical architectural work. Their sense of design is both utilitarian and Detroit organic, as their work is in direct engagement with their residential Hamtramck neighborhood — with the goal being to improve and protect it. Working in any number of mediums, they also play the role of art ambassadors, often found leading groups of curious foreigners in and around the city. These "tours" might begin or end at the Power House, a project Cope and Reichert have been working on since 2008. We might think of the Power House as a test site for ideas and methods, low- and high-tech building systems, and a point of conversation for their entire neighborhood. Design 99 has exhibited widely, including the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, the Smart Museum in Chicago, Kunsthalle Wien in Austria, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
Longtime Metro Times photographer Bruce Giffin has been shooting photos in the city of Detroit for almost 30 years. He's garnered attention in recent years for his Face of Detroit portrait project. The artist states one-third of the subjects are homeless, but that it's not important to know which are. "I got tired of shooting abandoned buildings when, after 25 years, Time magazine and every college student started having the same images. I had already started working on the 'Face' project, so I just went full-tilt in that direction." Giffin says lot of people can shoot abandoned buildings, but that it takes a special ability to instantly disarm a stranger to shoot their faces close up. "For some reason I have that!" Giffin says. He adds that the fellowship will perhaps give him the opportunity to make a book out of this project, but that there's more shooting to be done. This fellowship has humbled the artist. He says whenever he's heard rumors about nepotism, he's always maintained, "If I'm chosen, it's a guarantee that doesn't exist because I don't know anyone, or have any connections to any artistic group of people or intellectuals. Until now, my work has mostly been ignored by most of those types."
Theatre Bizarre was a living, breathing art piece that was installed permanently on the fringes of north Detroit. It came to life just once a year, with the help of more than 3,000 dedicated, unrecognizable people. To call it a Halloween party would be a disservice. It was an event that attracted freaks from around the globe. John Dunivant's visual artistry includes fine drawing, painting and carpentry, fueled by an incredibly fun and twisted imagination. At the moment, the artist is working on a series of large-scale paintings of mythical and theological creatures from a wide range of world cultures, as well as some legends of his own creation. "The pieces draw visually from the dioramas found in museums and roadside attractions, in that they offer an opportunity to be close to something or someone that under normal circumstances is distant or untouchable," he says. "The intention is to give you the feeling of being in the presence of divinities and demons, but presented with the shameless audacity of a carnival barker — gods as seen by the godless." Dunivant says he has an "automatic positive reaction to any artist making a go of it in Detroit," but that he's especially fond of the work from Glenn Barr, Design 99, Jerry Vile, Kristin Beaver and Mark Heggie. As far as Kresge nepotism goes: "I don't personally know a single person connected to the awards or any of the other fellows, so from my perspective I'd have to say that it's not an issue."
Born in Redford Township, Michigan in 1975, the artist Scott Hocking has lived and worked in Detroit proper since 1996, using found materials to create site-specific sculptural and photographic installations, such as pyramids made from tires, gloves or crumbling brick. His work, he says, is informed by the people and history of the place he's working. And he's done work in a lot of places. He has exhibited nationally at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Art Museum, the University of Michigan, the Smart Museum of Art, and Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, and internationally at the Kunst-Werke Institute, the Van Abbemuseum, and the Kunsthalle Wien. He recently completed projects at Sculpture Space in upstate New York, and at the Bundanon Trust in New South Wales, Australia. "Right now, I'm working on a few projects in Detroit," he says. "I also have a solo show in Maribor, Slovenia, this July, and a group show at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts Museum this October." A psychic once told Hocking he would have an "average life" and die at 88. At 19, he lived in a Toyota Corolla for four months. At 27, he lived in a French chateau for two months. He has three tattoos. He has been to 41 of the 50 states. He once hiked the Death Valley dunes on a 117-degree day, which led to a police search and a lesson from the sheriff, who said: "Son, people die in the desert." He was stalked by a New Mexican mountain lion. He slept on a Toronto billboard. He ate reindeer in Akureyri, deep-fried honeybees in Shanghai. He has one of the best bios we've ever read.
Born in Detroit in 1980 and raised in the suburbs, sculptor Laith Karmo received his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in 2004 from the College for Creative Studies and his Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2006. Karmo, who's taught at Wayne State University and continues to instruct at the College for Creative Studies and Oakland Community College, is currently at work on a series of small ceramic jars that he says will contain different medicinal herb blends. "Each jar's contents are different, a metaphorical cure for the vessel's corresponding title." He greatly admires the work of another fine Michigan ceramic artist, Tom Phardel. "Not only is he a great guy, but his artwork is just as stellar," Karmo says. "Tom is very critical of his work; if there is an aspect not to his liking, he disregards the piece and creates another. He's a great person to look up to." Karmo is also self-critical and says that most of the things he makes will never be seen, and that it gets lonely working in the studio. "It can get discouraging," he says. "So the support and recognition the Kresge Artist Fellowship has given me is going to definitely echo in my studio!"
It's said that the Detroit-born and -raised artist Richard Lewis started drawing when he was 4. At 10, his godmother told him to study his family and draw them. He started looking at faces quite differently after that. Lewis graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1985 and earned his B.F.A. from the College for Creative Studies and his Master's degree from Yale School of Art. He went on to become an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Upon coming back home to Detroit, in 2002, he drove a cab and taught African-American art history. When it comes to the artist's role in the community, Lewis looks to writer and activist James Baldwin. "He said that the role of the artist is to bear witness to the truth. And to be humane, relevant, conscious and connected to the community in which you function," Lewis says. Artists he sees doing just that include current fellow Hubert Massey and 2009 fellow Gilda Snowden, as well as Sabrina Nelson, Athir Shayota, Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, Lester Johnson, Nancy Mitter, Bill Girard and Tony Williams. "They all have or had a strong concern for community, which they expressed mostly through teaching, but also political action," Lewis says. "They completely immerse themselves in their craft, like jazz artists. They truly believe in it, and they helped me believe in it too."
Current artist-in-residence and head of the sculpture department at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Heather McGill studied at the University of California at Davis and received her MFA from San Francisco Art Institute in 1984. A West Coast native, McGill has lived in the Detroit area for the past decade. Here, she says, she has the proximity to manufacturing to construct her sculptures and drawings. "The city's industrial heritage, specifically the auto industry and Ford's philosophy of mass production continues to intrigue me," McGill says. From her time spent in southern California, her work was influenced by the region's fetish artists, custom car crowd and surf culture. "Colliding modes of mass production (laser cutting) with customization (idiosyncratic sprayed patterns), I create work that appears seamless, mechanically wrought and gesture-free," she says. "I feel my voice is unique to the usages of these mediums, which are primarily employed within the gender-specific domains of customization and commodity production. Custom culture is implicitly based in male sexuality, where the painted surface embodies the object of desire and ultimately power. How can this thin veneer reflect so many stereotypes, project so much conventional imagery and accrue gender assignment?" McGill has received support for both permanent and temporary installations from the National Endowment for the Arts, LEF Foundation, California Arts Council and the San Francisco Arts Commission. Her work is found in the public collections of Sprint, Albright Knox Gallery, Fidelity Investments, Progressive Art Collection, Hallmark, Daimler, Compuware, Miami Art Museum, Kresge Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts.
When it comes to large murals, mosaics and public art installations in Detroit, Hubert Massey's name is most likely the first that comes to mind. And he's somewhat of a people's champion, intent on collaborating with communities to create art that tells their stories. Among several other locations, his work can be viewed at the Museum of African American History, in Paradise Valley Park, at Campus Martius, and across the I-75 Mexicantown Bagley Bridge Gateway. A Grand Valley State University grad, Massey studied at the University of London, Slade Institute of Fine Arts. He studied with Stephen Dimitroff and Lucienne Bloch, both apprentices to muralist Diego Rivera. Massey is one of the only African-American artists who paints in the true Buon Fresco style. Massey says that he enjoys the work of Robert Tomlin, Henry Heading and Richard Bennett. "They're three extraordinary Detroit-area artists with very different talents," Massey says. He adds that the greatest impact the Kresge Fellowship will have on his career is that it will allow him to delve deep into the exploration and expansion of his art in new settings and cultures. "My passion for community artwork is rewarding because of my love of portraying the people that it represents," he says. "But these are often people who are economically challenged. Kresge's support is like a form of commission that allows me to continue serving the artistically underserved."
With work shown throughout the United States and Europe — including solo exhibitions at Salon 94 in New York, Galerie Laurent Godin in Paris, and Fargfabriken in Stockholm — the Phoenix-born artist Liz Cohen is currently an artist-in-residence and department of photography head at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Cohen was recently included in Neville Wakefield's Commercial Break for the 54th Venice Biennale, Car Fetish, I Drive Therefore I Am at the Museum Tinguely, in Basel, Switzerland, and Femme Objet/Femme Sujet at the Centre de Art Contemporain in Meymac, France. Cohen is best known for her subversive auto sculpture project, "Bodywork," in which she transformed an East German 1987 Trabant into a 1973 Chevy El Camino. (See more of her work at tinyurl.com/3e629p6.)
Before Mark Newport landed in the Detroit area (he's an artist-in-residence and head of fiber at the Cranbrook Academy of Art), he lived in Amsterdam, New York and studied undergrad at the Kansas City Art Institute and received his MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Since then, he has exhibited internationally, including having work in collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. At the moment, he's in the studio working on a series of small-scale carved figures based on the G.I. Joes and action figures he had as a child. "They are carved of wood and are costumed in either a knit or flocked costume," he says. "The figures have posable arms, heads and hips. Some explore the body type of the hero while others explore the relationship between the costume and the body underneath." As Newport sees it, artists themselves are posable as well. "I think there are many roles for artists in society. Some engage the community directly through social interactions, performance, public gardens, in order to explore a range of issues," he says. "Others observe and experience their daily life and make work in response to those experiences." Newport says he respects the commitment in work and teaching of Gerhardt Knodel, whose efforts, he says, "expanded and defined the field he works in."