Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Old school fresh

Mary Herbeck, the new curator of the Ellen Kayrod Gallery, has joined the upstarts who have the gall to argue that actual culture can thrive in Detroit’s Cultural Center.

The gallery — a stone’s throw away from the more visible and better-publicized Detroit Institute of Arts and CPOP and Detroit Artists Market — is located within Hannan House, a facility that once housed Detroit seniors and now describes itself as a "senior service center." Since 1993, the Hannan House has been a place where the older set could take classes in gardening and music and writing or get some hands-on computer training or just grab a cup of joe with some other folks who desire more stimulation than sitting around watching television and waiting for their children to call.

One of the more popular outreach programs provides these folks with an opportunity to express themselves creatively through the arts, not only giving them instruction, but proudly displaying their works in a gallery setting on the ground floor of the center. Named after a former executive director of the nonprofit facility, the Ellen Kayrod Gallery and its new curator, Herbeck, have decided to give the other galleries on this busy stretch of Woodward a bit of friendly competition.

Six months ago, the gallery was strictly utilized as a place to show off the resulting pieces from the arts and crafts classes offered at Hannan. Now, under Herbeck’s enthusiastic direction, the gallery is opening itself up and inviting "professional" artists to show their work in curated shows. This new direction does not displace the creations of those took art classes in the building. It is meant to complement the usual works by "creating a new awareness of the gallery," as Herbeck puts it. It’s also a way of acknowledging those older artists in our midst whose lives and works are influenced by a long and deep apprenticeship — and careers that started way before sheep dung and urine were accepted media for expression.

The first show Herbeck has put together is a collection of work by three artists with one thing in common. They have all been, and some still are, teachers of art. Peter Gilleran, Nancy Patek, and Jay Holland have all had long careers in the academic realm. And two of them, Holland and Patek, are still active in the continuing education programs at the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. Patek also teaches watercolors at the Grosse Point Community Center.

Holland, professor of sculpture at the Center for Creative studies from 1964 to 1998, resides in a funky little house in Oak Park, also the location of his studio. The house was designed by Holland’s Cass Tech High School painting teacher. He was unaware of that fact when he and his wife looked at it while shopping for a new home back in 1971. His memory is sharp, his elocution crisp as he recounts his 75-year relationship with Detroit and its art scene. We are surrounded by numerous sculptures, an amazing library of classical records, and a cat ignoring us from its perch on a coffee table.

"That’s not my cat." Holland explains. It’s a stray, enjoying a nap away from the rain outside.

After Cass Tech, a school he describes as "tailored for orientation and preparation for someone who knows what they want to do with their life," Holland received a scholarship to what was known then as "The Art School for the Society of Arts and Crafts." Under the instruction of professor Walter Midner, he was steeped in classical and modern forms, German expressionism being his principal canon. In 1952, Holland contracted the sometimes-fatal disease known as "Gone-to-Korea" (Holland peppers his conversations with jokes such as this) and was stationed at Headquarters Company in Korea with the 25th Infantry Division.

Upon his safe return, he went looking for a job. Cranbrook Art Academy hooked him up with a job teaching four girls the ceramic trade in a dining room somewhere in Birmingham. Then came another gig teaching a sculpture class in the basement of the Detroit Institute of Arts. In the 1960s, after automotive designer Wally Ford took the reins, the Arts and Crafts College moved to Kirby and became the Center for Creative Studies the school’s reins. By 1964, Holland was a full-time instructor, primarily in life modeling. He prided himself on "reproducing the veracity of anatomical accuracy."

Along the way, Holland has produced some stunning work, in metals and other materials. Two of the pieces in the Kayrod show are metal helmets, one called "Mandrill Helm" and the other "Invader’s Helm." They both look like something out of Sam Raimi’s "Army of Darkness," foreboding and cruel in their weight and implied violence. The "Mandrill Helm" helmet juts out at the mouth, forming a horrible metallic beak that gives terrifying notice to all comers. The "Invader’s Helm" is less militaristic, more of a pagan artifact with thick symbols upon its crown. Joining these at the show are more figurative pieces, including a knight whose body is torn asunder and scattered all about him.

Along with Holland’s sculptures, the show features the much-less-dark work of painter Peter Gilleran, another Cass Tech grad and military veteran who taught art at Wayne State University for 35 years before retiring in 1989. He continues to work, and many of his "little gems," as curator Herbeck describes them, splash the walls of the gallery with vibrant, life-affirming color. His "Cafe People" captures the heart and soul of a neighborhood joint; it’s a rubbery depiction of a crowd of folks locked in a moment of accidental sharing — and not sharing — company. There is an optimistic humanity to Gilleran’s work, and it shines in his still lifes as well as his abstracts.

Rounding out this gathering of veterans is the work of Nancy Patek, large charcoal-and-ink landscapes of tired and burnt-out chunks of Detroit, as well as her oil depictions of pastoral — but equally burnt-out — countryside. Her works pull a melancholic beauty from scenes that hit us every day, but which we often don’t acknowledge.

"I think these are very contemplative works," Herbeck says, and she’s right. The landscapes are crafted with amazing detail, and one finds oneself staring deep into the scenes Patek conjures.

This inaugural show proves beyond a doubt that it can definitely compete with the bigger boys on the block.

Paintings, Sculpture & Drawings by Peter Gilleran,Jay Holland & Nancy Patek will be on display at The Ellen Kayrod Gallery, inside Hannan House (4750 Woodward Ave., 313-833-1300, extension 18) until April 9. Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. E-mail him at

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