Born Detroit, 1991/ Lives in Detroit
“WE EXIST / THE FUTURE IS FLUID,” declared a billboard installed on Detroit’s east side in Spring 2020. In the bold design, styled to look like a neon sign at night, the words curled around the prominent central focus: the word “WE,” huge and proud in pink.
Designed by Bakpak Durden, the billboard was both a work of art and a promotion for a project that the artist co-curated: a citywide exhibition of five billboard artworks by queer and gender-nonconforming artists. (An accompanying gallery show would have included work by five more artists, but was canceled due to COVID19.) The centrality of the first person plural in We Exist points to something fundamental about Durden, a self-taught artist who identifies as transgender: their painstaking image-making is but one part of a broader effort to raise up the queer community they are a part of.
Born Rantoul, Illinois, 1951/ BFA, MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Painter Betty Brownleeʼs transition from landscapist to figurative painter took place more or less in the middle of her four decade (to-date) career. Tiring of scenic vistas painted in the 1980s and ’90s and wanting to inject more “reality” and “romanticism” into her art, about 2000, she turned to portraits, self portraits, genre, and still lifes. Introduced as well at this juncture is the prominent portrayal of women as subjects, in works she describes as a reflection of “the condition of the female body.”
Born Detroit, 1981 / BA, Howard University / Lives in Detroit
Multimedia artist Halima Cassells relates her artistic trajectory to the birth of her three daughters – Nele, Nia-Rah, and Nzinga. This is a perfect illustration of Cassells’s belief that creativity is a practice that is inextricably intertwined with life. Homeschooled by “hippie” parents on the East Side of Detroit before heading to Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse and Cass Tech, Cassells identifies a visit to Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (Essay’d #109) as a disorienting, but ultimately life-changing event. “It was the first time I saw art living and breathing,” she says.
Born Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, Mexico 1985 / BA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
“Functional art” generally describes objects of everyday life, such as furniture or tableware, that are fashioned in a fine art or high-concept style. Dalia Reyes flips that definition—crafting paintings and mixed-media works that function as tools to open up a space within the viewer for contemplation and reflection.
Some of the most stunning of Reyes’ works, the ones that pour forth an energy felt even through a computer screen, have a deceptively simple geometry. On square or rounded supports, multicolored circles and rings interspersed with glowing gold leaf hover, as in Rainbow Body Portal (2018) or Sound Portal (2019). These works are often reminiscent of targets, but the goal is within; classified by the artist as portals, they are purposely constructed as doorways to a meditative state.
Nacida en Valle Hermoso, Tamaulipas, México 1985 / BA, College for Creative Studies / Vive en Detroit
El “arte funcional” generalmente describe objetos de la vida cotidiana, como muebles o vajillas, que están diseñados en un estilo de bellas artes o de alto concepto. Dalia Reyes cambia esa definición: elabora pinturas y obras de técnica mixtas que funcionan como herramientas para abrir un espacio dentro del espectador para la contemplación y la reflexión.
Algunas de las obras más impresionantes de Reyes, las que derraman una energía que se siente incluso a través de la pantalla de una computadora, tienen una geometría engañosamente simple. Sobre soportes cuadrados o redondos, círculos y anillos multicolores intercalados con hojas de oro resplandecientes, como en Portal del Cuerpo Arcoíris (2018) o Portal de Sonido (2019). Estos trabajos a menudo recuerdan a los objetivos, pero el objetivo está dentro; clasificados por el artista como portales, se construyen a propósito como puertas de entrada a un estado meditativo.
Born Detroit, 1937 / BFA, MFA, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor / Lives in Detroit
It takes the village to raise a child, as the proverb goes, but what about a work of art?
Western art history hands us two over-convenient grab bags: one is crammed full of solitary geniuses, laboring alone in their studios, while the other contains a jumble of movements and manifestos clotted by collectivist élan. Generally lost in the shuffle are the simple but profound processes of interpersonal give and take that inform individual artists’ development, as well as the acts of productive exchange that can propel them, via conduits of communication and collaboration, from one mode of making to another.
This conception of the art world as a sprawling site of generative transfer is a helpful lens through which to look at the lively, multiform art of Lester Johnson, a master craftsman and inveterate community member. Over six decades, Johnson has created a capacious body of work in a dazzling diversity of forms, and he has done so in large part by embracing opportunities to step outside himself, to expand his expressive capabilities through germinal creative collisions.
Born Newberry, South Carolina, 1983. BFA, Syracuse University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, Michigan
The observation that an artist’s surroundings influences their work finds new relevance in the delicate geometries, intricate textures, and subtle color variations of Ruth Koelewyn’s restrained abstractions. A key reference for Koelewyn is the sky as it appears framed by architecture. This has given rise to the striking cyan blue monochromes of her ongoing Skyshapes series (2014-present), and the conceptually related Blue Triangles (2014-2015), Blue Crowns (2017), and Can Serrat Skyshapes (2019).
Dorota Coy, Born Lubin, Poland, 1978 / BA University of Vermont / Lives in Detroit
Steve Coy, Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1978 / BFA, University of Michigan, MFA University of Hawaii / Lives in Detroit
Like many outside of Detroit, I first encountered the work of Dorota and Steve Coy through the film Detropia in 2012. Looking up at the glowing, gold-gas-masked Executives of the Hygienic Dress League Corporation (HDL) I never imagined that in 2020 I’d be emailing with Dorota to reschedule an interview when the opening of their exhibition The Five Realms at Wasserman Projects – along with all other social events in the city and across the world – was postponed due to a global pandemic.
As I clear my calendar, I wonder how many respirators are currently among HDL’s holdings, and whether that number affects the corporation’s value. There’s plenty of time for a deep dive on the internet to find out while I’m waiting for public life to resume.
What I discover is that Steve and Dorota Coy are not the Hygienic Dress League.
Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit
The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.
These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams.
Detroit, 1967 / Lives in Romulus, MI
When discovering the work of Detroit artist Darin Darby, it was not only the finished composition of Route To My Past (2019) that attracted me, but also the instantaneous memories that guided my curiosity about the maker and his portfolio.
The visual—a stylish young fella with a relaxed facial expression, standing on the curb with guarded arms as the number 3 Grand River bus approached—reminded me of living in Chicago and catching the number 3 King Drive bus from downtown to the South Side (never a dull ride).
Kansas City, MO, 1949 / BA and MFA, Drake University, Des Moines, IA / Lives in Huntington Woods, MI
From 1951 to 1985, Jeffrey Abt’s father worked as a traveling salesman dealing in costume jewelry. With sample cases packed, he traversed a sales region that encompassed south Nebraska, Kansas, north Oklahoma, and east Colorado. Abt accompanied him on occasion, allowing insight into what is routinely a salesman’s solitary life on the road. His father’s absence at home instilled a sense of rootlessness in Abt, compounded by the knowledge of the displacement that his parents experienced as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany during World War II.
Leyya Mona Tawil, Born Livonia, MI, 1975 / BDA University of Michigan, MFA Mills College, Oakland, CA
Mike Khoury, Born Mt Pleasant, MI, 1969 / BA(Econ) University of Michigan, MA Central Michigan University, MA Michigan State University / Lives in Northville, MI
On a sparse stage, a woman’s body rolls sideways, spinning about its central axis, ricocheting from one edge of the space to the other, back and forth, sometimes at alarming speeds and almost crashing into the audience, other times slowing down, exhausted. In comparison to the familiar, childlike, head-over-heels rolling, this movement seems alien and serious. The woman is clad in a stylishly cut, army-green, hooded raincoat and wears black boots that periodically land solidly but awkwardly on the floor, searching in vain for a physically sustainable way to continue the body’s rotation. Elsewhere on the stage, a black-clad musician holding a viola alternates between periods of repeated, siren-like glissandos and silence. There is a palpable push-and-pull between dancer and musician, but who is pushing and who is pulling is hard to say at any moment in this uncompromising performance.
Born Farmington Hills, MI, 1987 / BS, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
“What is an artist? A provincial who finds himself somewhere between a physical reality and a metaphysical one…”
Movement artist Rachael Harbert can be found dancing in that space between the lived and the dreamed. Propelled by nature, relationships, and other earthly things, she works in extremes that point to absurdities within the norm. Exaggerated gestures and surrealist imagery leap out from within her creations. Harbert’s body of work includes site-specific performances, installations, and stage presentations. Each confronts the viewer with urgent meditations on the human condition, and breathes into being the otherwise invisible, intangible, unsociable psyche.
Elena Smyth, Born Detroit, Michigan, 1990 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Aubrey Smyth, Born Detroit, Michigan, 1990 / Lives in Detroit
Artists Elena and Aubrey Smyth, working together as Armageddon Beachparty, have created a universe, an epic narrative of deities and powerful beings in vivid images across a wide range of media. A shared, life-long love of comics, street art, and mythology permeates their paintings and sculptures while their canny sense of branding propagates their vision via prints, clothing, watches, and other objects. The artists paint contemporary pop surrealism scenes while surrounded by their considerable output and the energy from a steady stream of admirers and buyers in what Elena calls a “perpetual motion machine” of creativity.
Born: 1952, Detroit, MI; Studied at Spelman College and Clark College, Masters of Art from Olivet College/ Lives in Romulus, MI
Trading low saturated pastels for eclectic textures of colored paper and acrylic paint, Judy Bowman’s recent bold and often jubilant collages have been years in the making. After a 35-year hiatus from art-making—a period during which she worked as a Detroit Public Schools educator and raised a family of 10—Bowman describes her return to canvas and to documenting the black experience as a “gift from the universe.”
Born Royal Oak, Michigan, 1965/ BFA, University of Michigan; MA, Wayne State University; MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago/ Lives in West Bloomfield, Michigan
Striped cubes, spheres, wooden limbs, wheels; Jen Fitzpatrick’s sculptures are like bizarre children’s toys, boiling down complex experiences into simple shapes to wrap your hands around. She encourages imagination and observation, endowing her minimalist geometric sculptures with bright colors and a hint of character, then handing them over to us to parse their meaning through active, tactile engagement.
Born Flint, MI, 1988 / BA, University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, MI
Can you grow an apple with an Apple? Can you ever really describe the wind? These are the sort of questions – often at the intersection of culture and agriculture, and at the boundary between the digital and the physical – with which Ash Arder likes to engage. Her investigations are esoteric but allude to something universal. Trained in media studies, Arder uses art, with its essentially undisciplined relationship to knowledge, to explore the world she has been born into.
Born Chicago, IL, 1984/BA, Western
Illinois University, Macomb, IL/MFA, University of
Wisconsin-Madison/Lives in Detroit
Decisively and colorfully, Tyanna Buie contends that “getting out of the storm” of an overwrought psyche and easing into a calm demeanor is a crucial prerequisite for conceiving rich, reverberant art. She observes as well, “My art is much louder than I am,” metaphorically describing her inclination to work on a muralistic scale, of limning larger than life figures, and of rendering complex, multilayered images. In response to the troubled, sundered families (her own, and one senses, untold numbers of others) who are often her subjects, such tactics and an exploratory mindset beget deep-seated emotions, ranging from bittersweet to extremes of joy and anguish.
Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1978 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Ann Arbor, MI
John Maggie practices an exuberant form of syphilitic painting, a disease of imaging afflicted merrily upon the construct of painting itself; a good-humored sickness that attacks the root of pictorial convention. This is both painting and anti-painting. Maggie takes the banal trappings of tradition—the landscape, the still life, the nude, the maritime, the equestrian—and joyfully slings mud at them. In a work such as Frankly Feather (2019), there is an embrace of thrift store painting—found images that allow the artist to revel in failed attempts at image-making where notions of good and bad are jumbled. (A painting is good because it is bad.) Adam & Sue (2015) is both right and wrong: the proportions of the figures are off, the composition is imbalanced, foreground and background seem dislocated. Comedy results as the frolicsome beach couple are clumsily sexualized, with Sue’s breasts squeezing together above her distended belly and Adam’s erect penis glowing and pointing toward a branch. Within a single work, Maggie uses clashing approaches to representation, as Sue’s tightly rendered face is partnered with Adam’s ham-handed visage. In Night Rider (2018), he renders illusionism absurd and the oft-applied conception of conventional beauty as useless. Employing an abject Romanticism, he one-ups English horse portraitist George Stubbs (1724-1806) and pushes his regal subject into outrageous theatre with excessive baubles evocative of My Little Pony.
1982, BFA: Maryland Institute College of Art, MFA: Cranbrook Academy
of Art; Lives in Detroit, MI
A painting by Alison Wong typically represents the most ordinary things—a square of tissue and small scraps of crumbled wallpaper (Tissue Tears, 2018), or a dog’s mangled chew toy (Tattered and Torn, 2018). The painting technique is virtuosic, and the materials are the stuff of high art. She applies the paint thinly, layered, wet-into-wet; one delicate, detailed area at a time. The small scale of the works, objects depicted close to their actual size, deny any heroic, monumentalizing impulse. Why, one wonders, does she lavish so much effort on something so ordinary, so insignificant? But this questioning is right where she wants us.