137 Darin Darby

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).

The rendering is a flashback for Darby too. It was during a Father’s Day outing downtown, when Darby, a father of five, was walking to the Renaissance Center with his son and saw the bus. The driver had the green light but saw Darby pull out his phone to capture the scene with his son, so he waited. Darby snapped the photo, remembering the age he was when he lived off of Grand River and the age of his son at that present moment: 12. “It’s funny, God always puts me in a position to use my past for my artwork,” he says. 

Darby’s subject matter is often inspired by his loving coming-of-age memories in Detroit, some of the fondest scenes being his mother’s paintings adorning the walls of their home and those of relatives, going to grandma’s house and hanging out with cousins, and frequent family trips downtown.  

The playfulness and gush of water from the hydrant being used as a cooling agent in Hot City Day (2017), is an homage to boyhood and brotherhood and captures the mischievous innocence of youthful creativity. The sizzling days of summer and cultural essence of the action bring to mind a significant scene in Spike Lee’s 1984 film, Do The Right Thing in which a group of teenagers pry the lid off a hydrant to hydrate the neighborhood before the police intervene. 

A self-taught artist, Darby started drawing in middle school, when his family lived near Corktown. Using colored pencils, he copied characters from comic books. His toolset would later elevate to charcoal, pastels and acrylic paint. Clothes were his canvas, and his faith-based painted messages invited conversation. 

These days, his materials include textured card stock paper, mat board, wood, and, occasionally, acrylic.  Since 2014, the full-time artist has exhibited work locally and nationally that he created using a trademarked technique he calls Laypuzzim. It’s a layered puzzle image process that is rooted in a lively interplay between positive and negative space. Darby cuts the colored paper by hand, layering and piecing it together like a jigsaw puzzle to create the image. The final visual is a clever play on the eye that reels you in, especially when experienced in person or through Instagram videos that guide lookers through the stacked, dimensional artworks.

Alluding to the Christian overtones of paintings by Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937), Darby’s art is also rooted in his spirituality and is sometimes inspired directly by Biblical verses. Consider, for instance, the gentleness of Beauty Is (2019), which depicts 1 Peter 3:3-4, a verse that extols “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit,” or PSALM One 3 (2019), in which a man functions as a visual interpretation of the scripture: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.” 

In True Blue 2 (2017), a relational series dedicated to boys and men, spirit comes through in hue. Often associated with stability, faith, and trust, blue is tranquil. Through an ethereal lens, the gold adorning the bodies of the presumed father and son convey virtue and divine love. There is a bond there that is somehow solidified within the ancestral realm. 

A  research-centered artist, Darby’s craft also serves as an opportunity for him to dig into archives and relate the information that he finds. To this, he notes, “I like exposing history about my culture and finding unsung heroes that are African American.” Inspired by an historic image shown to him by his wife, Cathay Williams (2019) spotlights the first Black woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army – doing so as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay in 1866. 

There’s a soundness in Darby’s work that urges the gaze to linger, giving the viewer space to travel through a Rolodex of memories and revisit routes taken in our own coming-of-age stories.

LaToya Cross, April 2020

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