153 John K. Bunkley

Born Detroit, 1964 / BA, Oakland University; MLIS, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit

I‘m a Fellini fan,” confides painter, musician, archivist, and all-around cultural polymath John Bunkley. “The question I’m always asking myself is, ‘What would Fellini do if he came to Detroit?'” It is a good question. What would the late Italian director, whose films famously interpret everyday life as a magical synthesis of dream and reality, make of the otherworldly streetscapes and raw humanity of the beautiful city of Detroit?

Bunkley’s recent watercolors, from an ongoing series he started in 2018, are landscape-based but people-centered. One figure, a young black man with a uniform-like outfit of white shirt and dark trousers, appears repeatedly. In Summitry, he stands on the parapet of an old red-brick industrial building, dramatically flanked by a tall chimney; in Crosswalker, he strides confidently in front of a rooftop water tower; and in Skylight by Daylight, he waits on the edge of Rouge Park. The situations described in Summitry and Skylight by Daylight are very different, but the young man’s body language is consistently relaxed and observant. 

The young man traversing the city in the images could be a youthful Bunkley. As he says, “I went to Cass, my friends were all over Detroit. I would travel everywhere by bus.” Later, he would cycle to legendary punk/post-punk venues like Bookies and Menjos, optimistically trying to gain entry to see bands he had heard through influential radio DJ The Electrifying Mojo or read about in the British music press. A little older, he would go deeper into the Detroit landscape, exploring empty buildings in the relatively innocent period before the crack epidemic of the late eighties.

Bunkley’s compositions often synthesize personal memories with snapshots of the city and family photos. The painting Brains, Love, Heart & Courage shows four children crossing Woodward Avenue in front of the facade of the former Highland Appliance store in Highland Park. The piece has specific memories for Bunkley – Highland Appliances was where his family purchased their appliances, and the children originate from a historic family photo of his cousins.

Other viewers will, of course, construct their own narratives from the paintings, and Bunkley has observed that his work often resonates deeply with the experiences of people who grew up in the city but can activate the preconceptions of those who didn’t. He identifies House where Nobody Lives as a particularly polarizing piece that has provoked a wide range of responses. He is especially bemused by reactions such as anger or sadness towards what he sees as a good-natured painting of a man walking down the street carrying his shopping. “What else,” he asks rhetorically, “are people seeing?”  

The figures in Bunkley’s images are often in transit – not in their homeplace and not at their destination but traveling the city, somewhere in between. They are typically self-propelled, mostly walking (Gamble of Winter or Marathon), but sometimes running (On Your Mark), or cycling (Roll), or even skateboarding (Kick…Push). The atmospheric quality of many of the images comes from Bunkley’s skilled representation of natural light, and he has a particular affinity for the transitional moment after a storm when the sun cracks through, and the streets are glistening and reflective (On Your Mark and Drive Through). Like any good impressionist, Bunkley is interested in movement of all kinds.

Bunkley is candid that his choice to use watercolor was a pragmatic one based on his domestic situation at the time. Essentially self-taught, he has brought new eyes to this traditional artform, pushing the boundaries of the technique and experimenting with new media, including homemade inks created from material he forages in his neighborhood. It is probably accurate to say that few artists have used watercolor to represent the architecture and texture of the urban environment in the way that Bunkley renders the water tower in Crosswalker

In Walking on a Tightrope, a young black woman strides aerily above a slightly surreal cityscape. The juxtaposition of imagery is undoubtedly Felliniesque, but equally, it could be channeling the frequencies of The Electrifying Mojo’s airwave-carried message – that we are not bound by the limitations of the terrestrial world we know. Bunkley was tuned into Mojo but was also, by his own description, “the city kid who was into everything,” hungry for cultural experiences. His life since then has been rich and included much travel, but his watercolors convey the sense of returning to see Detroit afresh, perhaps unconsciously echoing Fellini’s famous dictum: “No matter what happens, always keep your childhood innocence. It’s the most important thing.”

Steve Panton, June 2021

Copyright Essay’d