Born Royal Oak, MI, 1970 / Lives in Hamtramck, MI
On the once blighted northwest border of Hamtramck stands a well-lit building with a geometric pattern painted on its facade. This is Popps Packing. Graem Whyte and his wife, artist Faina Lerman, built Popps together. There is art in this building, and arguably Popps itself is an artistic undertaking. Since 2009, Whyte and Lerman have invested themselves in programming gallery events. They’ve built a sculpture garden and created a residency program, and they continue to activate their section of town by facilitating the work of artists from Detroit and overseas. This is about community. This is where Graem Whyte’s work is rooted.
Whyte keeps his studio in the back of Popps. It’s part woodshop, part material storage, part workspace for the artists on Popps’s residency program. In the summer, bands play here and the dogs wander in and out the open door, but in the winter cold, the space is less hospitable. The concrete walls, a good 20 feet high, are neatly arranged with shelves and crates holding tools, jars of fasteners, and casters of varied sizes. Large racks hold plywood and door slabs. Most of this stuff is pulled out of the alley or given to Whyte. It’s waiting to be repurposed. “That’s mostly what I do now,” Whyte says. “I manage materials. I reassign use.” He didn’t always work this way.
Some of Whyte’s earlier sculptures are studies of possible worlds. They begin with a common object like a record player and re-imagine it as a scale chunk of the world. In Let Yourself Go (2008), a wildly warped record, felted with grass and dotted with little human and animal figurines, suggests that something weird or wonderful has happened there. In Camping with Gaia (2008), the interior of a polished aluminum pod splits open to expose small trees, a park maybe. It’s a place of peace amid an otherwise inhospitable vessel.
“I’m not interested in commodification as it relates to art. My work is more about spiritual, ancestral and community value. Check it out.” Whyte points to a 12-foot horn on wheels that he fabricated from fiberglass. He carries it down the ladder, inserts the mouthpiece, and blows. “I think it’s in G sharp,” he says. “That was unintentional, but that’s how it turned out.” The piece, Wishing for Mountains (2013), puts out a call like a dinner bell. It lets people know that something is happening in the neighborhood. It’s inviting them to participate.
In the piece United Rambler v.1 (2010), also on wheels, a giant chromosome stands alongside an 8-foot fluorescent tube light. Here a microscopic component of cellular life is made giant and leaned on a dolly for easy transportation. “One of my main philosophies is to put everything on wheels. Makes it easy to move. Makes it more versatile.” He points to Lighthenge v.2 (2012). Standing 10-feet tall, it currently includes 3 towers of fluorescent tube fixtures salvaged from a drop-ceiling tear out. They too are mounted on dollies, and utilized for events at Popps such as lighting the track of the biennial summer fundraiser, The Pinewood Derby (2011–current).
Besides programming Popps, the focus of Whyte’s recent work is scaled for human use. The Squash House (2011–2016), a collaboration with Powerhouse Productions, transforms a burned out house in Banglatown to create a squash court. “In fact,” Whyte says, “I’ve heard one of the neighbor’s sons is a squash champ. I’m looking forward to taking him on. Fact is, the neighborhood needs more space and more opportunities for play. Food is important too. So we’re going to grow squash out back as well.” Over the course of three years, Whyte and a team of artists and contractors has reconfigured the building, opening it up completely, adding a series of metal beams, and soon will be applying plywood to the walls and striping the floors.
“My work often begins like this: I think about what will add to our quality of life. Then I look at what I have, like my old Mitsubishi van. It’s not running so good. Well, a sauna would be nice.” Whyte, with the help of Danish artist Benny Henningsen, covered the interior walls of the van with cedar and installed a stove, which provides heat for the rocks. “You can sit here in and have some beers and sweat out your toxins. It makes us healthier.” It’s Popps Mobile Sauna (2013), right in the sculpture garden. “It’s there to be used,” Whyte says. “Come over sometime. We’ll fire it up.”
Steve Hughes, February 2016
Copyright Essay’d 2016