As you walk up to this red, one-story structure surrounded by trees, vacant lots and houses built at the beginning of the 20th century, it starts to become clear that Alley Culture is truly one of a kind.
A renovated garage-turned-gallery in the alley south of Willis, between Trumbull and Lincoln, it has been showing work by local and nationally known artists since 1995. The brainchild of painter and former plasterer Sherry Hendrick and poet-musician-carpenter Mick Vranich is an instance of some very old and patient ideas taking physical form.
It expresses attitudes towards the earth and community that have been around for a long time. The boards and beams that define its space — some old, some new, some bought, some recycled — were cut and nailed by Hendrick and Vranich with something more than workmanlike precision. The style of the carpentry — the way it avoids the overly finished, the too-carefully polished — reflects the couple’s immersion in Native American traditions, Eastern thought and American postmodern art. Which is quite a feat and quite a combination.
“In ’94, we said, ‘We’re gonna get this garage done in two days ... or two weeks,’” remembers Hendrick. “It took us from August until the snow falling, when we got the last shingles on. A lot of people would go by down the alley. One guy who lived in the projects and walked every day to his job at the taxicab stand by Tiger Stadium, he’d say, ‘Hi.’ Another guy coming north at a certain hour, he’d say, ‘Hi.’ That’s where we got the name of Alley Culture ... culture of the alleys, from people we don’t usually pay attention to, and also friends and bike-riders.
“[Painter] Michael Mikolowski wandered by one day and said, ‘This would be a great place to have a show.’ And I basically said, ‘I dare you.’ So we worked on it, but it wasn’t until the fall of ’95 that we finally finished the wiring for the lights. And Michael opened on Dia de los Muertos [the Mexican Day of the Dead], Nov. 1, 1995.”
The thing that distinguishes the handsome yet humble gallery from any other can be a shock to first-time visitors: Instead of an art-world-fashionable pristine white, Alley Culture’s interior is all raw wood, studs and silver conduit, with movable lights hanging from the rafter beams. But the lack of a conventional ceiling or walls gives each show here a special glow. And a wood-burning stove, its stovepipe going out through the roof, caps it all off with a down-home, general-store feeling.
As to how the gallery decides what to display in this unique space, Hendrick offers a simple criterion:
“Need might be the word, what needs to be in confluence. And what that need is changes from season to season, year to year.”
Vranich adds, as an example, “Sherry put together a kids’ art show with [Detroit writer and artist] Lolita Hernandez called ‘Dignidad,’ which means ‘dignity.’ It involved all the kids from southwest Detroit that Lolita had been teaching. All the various people from the southwest side came — the moms and grandmothers, aunts and uncles cooked all this food, made a huge feast. We had kids doing a dance routine they had worked up and reading their poems. … So there is this overlay where it’s very much community-oriented. The choices evolve organically.”
The current exhibit (the gallery’s 17th), called “Event Horizon: A Drawing Show,” features work by 17 artists — Steve Weller, Chris Turner, Robert Sestok, Dave Roberts, Judy Rifka, Kurt Novak, Gordon Newton, Florence Neal, Ron Morosan (pictured), Richard Mock, Michael Mikolowski, Ruth Leonard, Germaine Keller, Christine Hughes, Mathew Hanna, Diana Alva and Hendrick — mostly from Detroit, but also from the wider, transcontinental community that Hendrick and Vranich share in. The preview last Friday night, called “(Earth Day) Bucket Circle,” included communal drumming on 5-gallon buckets and a sideshow of handmade books and zines.
Alley Culture refuses to be pigeonholed into the usual art-world customs and concerns. For instance, it organizes just one show each spring and one each fall — and these focus alternately on political, ecological, spiritual or psychological themes, without ever forgetting where the grassroots space is located and the hard work it grew up from. Also, each year, Hendrick and Vranich expand their “aesthetic” project into more worldly activities: an early spring organic seed exchange; a winter solstice bonfire and potluck dinner that the art, literary and rock subcultures always look forward to; and an ongoing effort to free American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, imprisoned since 1975.
Alley Culture is far off art’s beaten path.
“Event Horizon: A Drawing Show” is at Alley Culture (alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, red building south of Willis, Detroit) through May 23. Hours: Friday and Saturday, 3-6 p.m. No phone available.George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org