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: 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 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.
Born Houston, TX, 1978 / BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
Born in Texas to a family of laborers, Peter Daniel Bernal says that he has always thought in color. But if it is color that first drew Bernal to painting, it is through dimension that he has shaped a place for himself. As Bernal paints, his brushstrokes build and blend to create depths and massed textures that he slowly, iteratively reshapes and repaints. His figures, often draped over each other in acts of care, violence, or some combination of the two, rise from the canvas. Through the vivid, evocative imagery he creates during this assiduous process of layering and scraping away, Bernal centers his practice in the intersection of his own identity and the broader politics of cultural heritage and masculinity.
Born Detroit, MI, 1959 / Studied College for Creative Studies, Wayne County Community College, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
“I am still an Impressionist after thirty-five years,” boasts painter Bryant Tillman. Born years after the death of the French artists linked with this storied model of modern art, Tillman’s rootedness in the style is as much a surprise to him as to his viewers. His original quest was to wend his way through all the isms of the modernist era—from Impressionism to Abstract Expressionism–in order to become a skilled maker. But, as it turned out, he became besotted with Impressionism and continues to practice his scales, as it were, in this mode. “I learn more and more each time I pick up a trusty filbert and attempt to finesse a photo-expressionistic slurry, approximating a blurred Polaroid, shot by a jiggling hand.”
Born Detroit, 1987/MFA, Yale University; BFA, College of Creative Studies/ Lives in Brooklyn, New York
Mario Moore has learned to slow down. His paintings and drawings reflect his personal journey, his evolving understanding of the world, and his desire to spark conversation about the complexities of contemporary society. His powerful and assertive body of work channels narrative painting, social protest art, and traditional approaches to craft, and centers around revealing portraits of family and friends. A more recent series turns introspective, his personal story expressed through nearly-lost techniques and an interest in earlier periods of art that lend richness and sensitivity to his highly detailed compositions. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1996 / Lives in Royal Oak, MI
Clay sculptor Austen Brantley is unmistakably young—in his years and in his practice.
This is not a conversation Brantley likes to have. He knows, however, it’s where many people start when they talk about his artworks, primarily figurative. To ignore the obvious would be to miss part of the wonder of his work. There’s also this: he’s completely self-taught.
Of course, Brantley’s actual body of work contradicts much of what his youth and lack of formal training imply. His command of craft is evidenced in the lifelike quality of his sculptures. The eyes, the shapes, speak to a nuanced understanding of the human form as a language all its own, and to a disciplined commitment to learning by doing. Yet for those who must know, Brantley is 22. He’s only been making work since age 16 and only because he thought a ceramics class would equal an effortless A for his plunging high school GPA. The A eluded him (he earned a C) but a life’s passion emerged.
Born Detroit, 1967 / BFA, College for Creative Studies, Lives in Detroit
Every artist has an origin story—a tale of becoming.
Some artists remember, as Sabrina Nelson does, “like it was yesterday.” In fact Nelson’s moment dates back to 4th grade—around Valentine’s Day. “The teacher had asked us to draw a heart. So I did and this boy said, ‘You didn’t draw that; girls can’t draw.’” Nelson chuckles, recalling how swiftly she schooled the boy (“I was like, ‘Yes, I can.'”) But the humor in her voice and lightness in her eyes fade as she explains the moment’s imprint. “He really gave me my feminist wings and my artist wings. I’ve been drawing ever since.’’
All these years later, Nelson’s art is far more textured, socially inspired and multidimensional. She is a lover of work that ignites conversation, of muses who defy easy understanding, and she is a proud maker of imperfect figurative drawings and paintings that intentionally call viewers closer.
Born Detroit / BS, Central State University, Wilberforce, OH
Consider the art of Carole Morisseau as a bridge—as an expansive structure made of color, composition, and story that is intended to join differing generations, cultures, ethnicities, and classes.
Morisseau makes art, she says, as an expression of her soul, but accepts that approach to be non-paradigmatic. On a universal level, she sees the role of an artist as one of sharing: of ideas, a story, an aesthetic experience. Hence, the bridge analogy; one has to be willing to step on it and cross to the other side to see, to understand and to learn. As she puts it, “There is always something to learn, something to experience and, therefore, always something to express.”
Born Detroit, 1979 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
“I’m not a street artist, but I can paint on anything,” asserts Sydney James, prolific muralist, painter, and illustrator. After graduating from College for Creative Studies in 2001, she forged ahead as designer, art director, and “ghost artist” (for television dramas), at first in Detroit and subsequently in Los Angeles. Reviewing the evolution of her practice up to that point, she recalls, “I was an illustrator, [but] when I took control of the stories, I became a fine artist.” This epiphany coincided with her timely move back to Detroit in late 2011, where she encountered a burgeoning art community and street art stirrings, fueled in part by the Grand River Creative Corridor and Murals in the Market initiatives.
Born Detroit, 1966 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / MFA, Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT / Lives Detroit
Richard Lewis’s stark, striking Self Portrait in White Shirt (2004) establishes at a glance the mode of bold, arresting portraiture he has practiced over the last decade and a half. Here, his own half-length, life-size visage dominates a shallow space wherein he reveals himself at a terse, decisive moment. Though a stretched canvas at right appears primed for action, he stands stock still, his flushed face charged with emotion. In particular, the emphatic swabs of thick red and white pigment slashing across his forehead augur a deep-seated determination. Another angsty portrayal of 2004 represents Anthony, a friend whose parted lips and wary glance imply concern and vulnerability in equal measure.
Painted about a year and a half after a six year sojourn in New York (1996-2002), these bare-knuckled portrait suggest Lewis’s affirmative resolve to re-engage with his art and natal environs. In fact, his 2002 reappearance was his second repatriation to his Detroit roots; earlier, after graduation from Yale in 1993, he had relocated to his hometown but stayed only a year and a half before decamping for his six year residency in Gotham.
Born Detroit, 1976 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / MFA, New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art / Lives in Detroit
Visibility, accessibility, ambitious scale, and industrious zeal are some of the constituent hallmarks of Tylonn Sawyer’s activist art and life. Such attributes are readily apparent in his very public, very large, Detroit-centric Whole Foods Mural of 2013. Drawing upon Marshall Fredericks’ iconic Spirit of Detroit sculpture, Sawyer reinvents Fredericks’ hero as a young, African-American lad with empty palms (freed of Fredericks’ fusty totems of god and family) who, while awaiting new symbols to cross his palms, glances over a colorful, agricultural grid on the left, and a tidy, green, aerial urban view on the right. Continue reading
Born Detroit 1951/BFA Wayne State University; MFA Syracuse University, NY/Lives Royal Oak, Michigan
Soundlessly, without stirring a ripple, a woman glides into view in Jo Powers’ Lake, the painter’s haunting self-portrait of 1993. Garbed in pink and borne on a watery expanse of azure, she drifts, Ophelia-like, calm, composed, and with eyes wide open, all-seeing. Continue reading