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.
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 Toledo, OH, 1969 / BFA, The Ohio State University; MFA, Ohio University / Lives in Ferndale, MI
Adrian Hatfield begins a painting with the most paradigmatic of painters’ actions—a gestural flooding of the surface with paint, a fast fluid marking and puddling of the space, abstract, colorful, atmospheric, lyrical. But the next steps in the process are much slower, more thoughtful and measured. In executing his most recent paintings, Hatfield makes a digital image of his abstract beginning before inserting and arranging various collected graphic imagery, planning the painting digitally. Eventually, graphic images are screened onto the actual painting surface, and fragments of various canonical artworks are painted into the piece. Each painting is a startling mix of quoted images, torn from some other context and pushed together into something new: a mash-up of high and low culture, scientific and religious signs, and an anxiety-laden blend of the sublime, uncanny and abject.
Born 1976, Detroit / Lives in Macomb Regional Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan
The sun is out, the sky is blue, and people are committing suicide on a rainbow. Some hang by their necks from the fuschia inner arc while others jump or lay dead in the grass as a squirrel watches (Rainbow Drawing, 2014). The scale of the dead in relation to the rainbow is deliberate. “This is life,” writes James Dean Fuson, “A lot of times things seem to be fine but if you look closely, things are not fine.”
Born Wyandotte, MI, 1952 / Studies at the College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit, MI
Art, for Vito Valdez, is about expressing something real – an idea, an emotion, an experience, or, even better, all of the above. Valdez’s visceral 1999 paintings Columbine and Kosovo, for example, combine dynamic brush strokes, intense colors, and fragmented references to the perpetrators and victims of violence to convey a sense of deep anger at the senseless massacres that occurred in these places. It is impossible to deconstruct the exact experiences that underlie these paintings, but perhaps they include the time Valdez spent working as a surgery technician while a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, or his childhood growing up in a tough environment where masculinity and violence were often interchangeable.
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 Rochester, MI, 1992 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
Recall a time in your childhood when you were asked—perhaps by a teacher or parent—to draw yourself. A dizzying effort to help us think about ourselves in terms of scale, color, surroundings. Who are we at such a young age, and what do we look like at the basic level of anatomical structure? When asked to create his very first self-portrait in kindergarten, Detroit based painter/poet Bryan J. Corley drew Godzilla—a prefiguration of the richly realized and curiously sympathetic monsters that presently populate his spellbinding visual universe.
Born Clemson, South Carolina, 1924 / Lives in Detroit
“The creative mind continues always to test the parameters of conventional knowledge, forever in pursuit of new vistas. Trying to understand life, death, the totality of existence, and the logic or order that governs our moral being is the forum from which all of my creative offerings extract meaning,” Charles McGee wrote in 1994. It is safe to say that he has lived this thought, since almost 25 years later, he is still pushing his limits as an artist. In so doing, he has changed the face of Detroit, the city he has lived in since childhood and where he has embraced intersecting careers as artist, curator, gallerist, teacher, author, and outspoken critic and champion of art in the city.
Born Detroit, MI, 1952/Art studies at Wayne State University, Detroit/Lives in Hazel Park, MI
James Puntigam’s artwork has come a long way since 1986, when he quit his job at the Michigan Department of Social Services, obtained a city vendor’s license, and began making money drawing caricatures in downtown Detroit during events at Hart Plaza and the Eastern Market. Though he might still do the occasional caricature, his main work now is in making linocut prints. His extensive experience over the years has included drawing with graphite on paper, and painting with acrylics on canvas, sheetrock, board, and other surfaces. Continue reading
Born Detroit, MI, 1955 / DFA (ad honorem), College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
It’s all about YOU.
In his book Free Schools, Free Minds, Ron Miller describes two ways to imagine the relationship between radical education and social change: the first (exemplified by A.S. Neill) says that if you liberate the mind of the individual they will go on to change society, and the second (exemplified by Paulo Freire) says that you change individuals by working collectively on projects to change society. But in Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, it’s all about YOU – first discover who you really are, and then go on to change the world.
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, MI, 1949 / A.A. Henry Ford Community College, Dearborn; Coursework in Ceramics, Wayne State University, Detroit / Lives in Hazel Park, MI
Lines! It all started with lines for Detroit artist Diana Alva. Before she could recite the alphabet, Alva’s artistic-minded father, Julian, had her filling page after page with lines, any kind of lines, whether or not they made sense or were part of a coherent drawing, just to get her used to the feel of a drawing instrument in her hand and the mental process of creating something. Continue reading
Born Chicago, IL, 1964 / BA, University of Ife, Ile-Ife, Nigeria ; BFA, Kansas City Art Institute / Lives in Detroit
There is, it’s fair to say, a lot going on in a typical Jide Aje painting. Aje is both a visual interpreter of West African culture, and an interpreter of West African visual culture. If his starting point is fairly traditional, there is nothing conservative in his approach. Instead, his paintings illustrate a worldview in which cultures are dynamic, extensible, and in constant dialog with each other. It is a vision that, perhaps not coincidentally, is paralleled by an open-ended approach to painting that involves constant experimentation with process and media. The result is an immense body of work in which Aje simultaneously abstracts and explodes, constantly working to reduce his source concepts and visual language to their most fundamental forms, while never allowing them to settlIe.
Take, for example, Untitled with Blue Cowries #1, a relatively small work from 2007. The overall structure is a four-by-four grid, and many of the individual cells imply a further division into a smaller four-by-four grid. The work refers to the Ifá, the divination system that plays a central role in traditional Yoruba culture, and which is based on sixteen main books, each of which has sixteen parts (or Odu). The title, and the physical presence of the shells, refers to a method of divination in which eight Cowrie shells are cast, and depending on how they land (up or down) one of the 256 possible outcomes is indicated.
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Born Detroit, 1979 / Lives in Macomb Regional Correctional Facility, New Haven, Michigan
In 1996, when Yusef Qualls-El was sixteen years old, a Wayne County judge sentenced him to mandatory life without the possibility of parole in the Michigan prison system. Though his original sentence has since been ruled unconstitutional—a violation of the Eighth Amendment—he remains incarcerated, one of hundreds of juvenile lifers awaiting re-sentencing in Michigan. As Qualls-El puts it, “they threw away the key.”
Qualls-El was born in Detroit in 1979 and moved from neighborhood to neighborhood with his family before ending up on the city’s east side. He grew up watching morning syndications of Merrie Melodies cartoons and learned how to draw them; Bugs Bunny, Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, and Yosemite Sam were all part of his self-blossomed art education. Drawing cars, often flying ones, was a recurrent pastime; their unfettered mobility represented “ultimate freedom” for him. A few years later, Qualls-El would be sentenced to mandatory life without parole for being involved—as a driver, not the shooter—in a homicide that would change the entire course of his life.
Born Detroit, 1953 / BA, University of Detroit / Lives in Detroit
Where do you begin with Maurice Greenia, Jr., aka Maugré? This painter, sculptor, blogger, actor, musician, cartoonist, pamphleteer, puppeteer and all-around walking art project is a bundle of creative energy focused through a lens likely ground in some dimension far, far away but somehow reflecting so much of our world.
His prolific works in watercolor, acrylic, oil, and pen and ink, such as View of a World (2007), create in viewers the irresistible urge to consider how, under what circumstances, the strange and colorful figures prancing across a strange and fantastical landscape could make sense. Look at one of his estimated 10,000 (!) drawings or his pieces hanging in a gallery exhibit, such as the huge section of Detroit’s Museum of Contemporary Art given to Greenia in a 2008 show there. Some will jump out and resonate for reasons that may immediately call to mind something of personal significance. Others may resonate for reasons that may not become clear for a long time, if ever, yet they will continue to compel and intrigue.
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.