Born Detroit, 1952 / Lives in Oak Park, MI
Jerdein Kirkland has the swag of Detroit-raised women who work hard and play hard, fedora cocked ace-deuce. She is a reflection of her art: a single loc, wrapped with sequined beads, dips past her knees, loops back up, tucks into a back pocket. Her clothes and jewelry are similarly embellished, with bespangled trim suggestive of craft stores, urban boutiques and hair shows—apropos, for in fact, she spent years selling her jewelry, and is a long-time hairdresser. Her collage paintings (her “Baby Girl” series, not pictured here) sparkle with bling, reminiscent of assemblage artist David Philpot (the late husband of this writer, and the subject of Essay’d installment #50); her “outsider” presence in the arts is reminiscent of him, too.
Born in Long Beach, CA, 1991/ BA, Bowling Green State University/ Lives in Detroit
In “All Falls Down,” arguably one of the best singles Ye has released, he raps, “We tryna buy back our 40 acres…” Thematically, the song is about a plethora of issues, such as the inherent sadness of loss, the false promise of the “American dream,” insecurities faced by Black people, and Eurocentric ideas of beauty. But in that simple line, derived from General Sherman’s 1865 Field Order that formerly enslaved people would receive 40 acres of confiscated Confederate land and a mule, Ye focuses on potential, and a desire to rebuild. In doing so, he touches upon the importance of hope and making space for speculative fictions, for narratives to unfold, and for people to dream.
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1983 / BFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Encountering Scott Berels’ work feels like a meditation on the nature of nature, a practice whose foremost concern is observation, drawing inspiration from the physical world to contemplate the phenomenon of being. Approaching 40, the painter and sculptor has already devoted half of his life to visual art, creating for his own enjoyment while also undertaking commissions for large-scale public sculptures. In each stage of his career, he has skillfully investigated materiality and the rituals of creation. But Berels doesn’t simply pause to marvel when considering nature’s ontology, he also probes its linguistic consistency to understand the messages it conveys. Through repetition and tessellations, patterns and geometric forms, the artist engages what he calls “an ancestral language,” the grammar of the ineffable that speaks through stone formations, a grove of trees, or “the brush of a plant’s frond over dry soil.”
Born Pontiac, MI, 1992 / BA, Oakland University / Lives in Oak Park, MI
“We are a collection of all our experiences,” says digital artist Frank Lepkowski. “Online, an algorithm determines what you’re shown, which influences your worldview and the choices you make. It’s a cycle.” Lepkowski’s artistic practice bridges our web-based and IRL experiences as he crafts physical artifacts through machine-mediated processes.
Born Detroit, 1980 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
In the early 2010s, the social media platform Tumblr became known for its dynamic and diverse community of users who shared a wide range of content. The appropriation of photos and images re-emerged as a trend during this time, particularly among young artists who used Tumblr as a platform to gather reference materials. Among these artists was Nolan Simon.
Born Detroit, MI, 1986/ Lives in Detroit, MI
It starts with a pig. A monolithic, mutilated mural of a pig, its intestines seeping out and wrapping around its neck. Cartoonish innards of the pig’s exposed underbelly appear referential to a confederate flag. A navy X shape with hearts instead of stars lay atop waves of red and white. Its insides are likened to a flaccid flag blowing in the wind. Drops of blood seep from its underbelly. The pig appears to be cut from its neck to the pelvic area of its hind legs.
Born Detroit, 1990, Lives in Detroit
In Transcendence: A Portrait of Corey Teamer, a 2018 mural by Ijania Cortez at Brush and Baltimore, the eponymous figure rotates to face the viewer through three successive images. Each image is slightly larger and at a slightly higher elevation, and this, combined with the glowing orange, Rothko-esque background, reinforces the ascendant trajectory implied by the title.
Born Gallup, NM, 1990 / BA The Evergreen State College, Wa / Lives in Detroit
In the hours that transition from sun to moon, Olivia Guterson’s artistic persona, Midnight Olive, emerges. For this interdisciplinary artist, the night welcomes freedom to be in conversation with herself and to respond to the observations and questions conjured throughout the day.
Born Fukuoka, Japan, 1954 / B.A., English, International Christian University, Tokyo; B.A., Computer Science, Wayne State University; MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Royal Oak
Grief is finding yourself in an unfamiliar world suddenly absent a loved companion. But grief can also be the doorway into new ways of life you could never have anticipated. For Hiroko Lancour, this passage led from a career as a systems analyst to a full-time artistic practice.
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?
Born Medina, Ohio, 1986; Studies at Memphis College of Art; Lives in Detroit
Hobo hieroglyphs and graffiti conversations of indeterminate age flashing by on successive railroad cars. Buildings, streetscapes, and the signature architectural details of long-past designers. The sun, rising in the east and setting in the west. Past histories, big and small, hinted at by countless physical marks or archived records. Every W C Bevan mural begins with one foot in its local environment and the other in the artist’s eclectic but highly coherent worldview.
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 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.
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.
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 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.