On Sept. 18, artist Tim Burke suffered a fire at his studio — apparently part of the wave of arsons that swept through Detroit's Heidelberg Street in the past year. Dubbed the Detroit Industrial Gallery, this is where Burke has worked for the past 14 years, and where he stores treasures accumulated from 25 years of picking through the city.
"I had thousands of dollars' worth of stuff in the house," Burke says, among them blueprints from city buildings, a crucifix from St. Matthew's Church, terra cotta pieces from the demolished Hudson building, and pieces recovered from Gratiot Central Market, Cass Tech High School, and Riviera Theatre — "tons of stuff," he explains.
"The idea is to repurpose it all," he says of his habit. "Whether or not I get to that ... well, I have two lifetimes of stuff!"
For Burke, it's not just about uncovering treasures from the past. Burke says he faces his inner demons from the items he finds in the trash, which often have what he says are uncanny connections to his life.
One such example came after Burke attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (Burke says he's been sober for 29 years). "I had the blues," he says. "I had the wrong reasons for going to the meeting — there was this beautiful blond lady at the meeting. She ends up telling me she doesn't like me like that. So I leave the meeting, I'm all depressed, and I say a prayer — 'God, help me get on the right track.'"
Burke stopped by a dumpster outside Royal Oak Flea Market and found a variety of curios, such as a velvet painting of a bull and a cow with the initials "D.B." (Burke is a Taurus; the person who got him involved with the flea market shared the initials D.B.). He also found some 78 records from the '40s with the name "J. Burke" (his uncle was Joe Burke, a "Cass Corridor alcoholic" who tended bar at the Old Miami).
Burke then called up his estranged uncle and asked him to get sandwiches in Eastern Market. Two months later, Uncle Joe died.
"It's about review, and where I am," Burke says. "It's about trying to learn to stop judging, and be here, be in the moment. It takes a lot to get present. To get present, I have to deal with all the resentment, all the hurts, and hurts I've done to others in the path and clean that shit up and try the best that I can to be in the now, right now."
Creating art, Burke says, is a way of confronting these unresolved issues. Burke says he took to art as a kid, but "the drinks and drugs interrupted that," describing his youth as being "a street hoodlum." After a brief stint in the Army at the end of the '70s, he got back into making art. His father was an artist, a Wayne State-educated painter and sculptor, and Burke's therapist, Ted Church, was big on using art as therapy.
Burke took things to the next level with a welding class in 1990. "I had all these ideas, all these images in my head that I wanted to weld up," he says. "I told the teacher I didn't want to be a welder per se — too much technical shit. He said, 'just pass the safety test, and then you have free rein of the lab.'"
The first thing Burke made was a metal creature, which can now be viewed in the garden near Lafayette Coney Island. Burke says he didn't think much of what it could mean until he showed it to Church. "He said to me, 'Tim, I want you to stand in front of this thing and tell me what it's thinking and feeling.' I'm like, 'Jesus fucking Christ, just look at the art, man!'" Burke says.
"I get in front of that iron creature and I write, 'Don't blink and don't breathe or I'll kill you.' Then I thought, 'That thing's not thinking that — it's you,'" Burke says. That's when he had a memory of a recurring nightmare he had at 10 for about three years, in which an iron man comes down the back steps of the house to kill his family. "I made up rules in the dream so that he wouldn't kill me," Burke says. "'Don't breathe and don't blink, he can't kill you.'"
Upon the revelation, Burke says he kicked his sculpture over — then hugged it, sobbing for 10 minutes. That's when Burke realized the iron man was his alcoholic stepfather, a violent drunk who broke his mother's nose and once fired a shotgun through the front door.
Burke says he watched The Wizard of Oz the night of the shotgun incident, which was the origin of the iron man creature from his dream. "The Tin Man — it's an archetypal image for macho men," he explains. "If the Tin Man cried, Dorothy would oil him up. Dorothy is in every man — it's the kind, nurturing female aspect that the macho man has denied."
Burke shows us another image he's made, forged from metal — a giant bouquet of flowers made out of steel. "It's male and female, in that respect," he says.
Lately, Burke has made furniture using parts from F-18 fighter jets and Patriot missiles (he has a friend who is in the business of building them), on display at the River's Edge Gallery in Wyandotte. He's also selling jewelry at the Detroit Institute of Arts' gift shop, made from copper from buildings like the burned-down Fisher mansion in Palmer Woods.
Again, Burke says he has strange connections to many of these places. "These buildings that I've gotten into — I've been in meetings in these buildings," he says. "My mother and father worked in the Hudson's building."
He pauses to reflect, adding, "It's pieces of a broken-down city that I've put back together in a different context to build a broken-up person." — mt
The Detroit Industrial Gallery is located at 3647 Heidelberg St., Detroit; 313-742-1800; detroitindustrialgallery.com.