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 Iuka, MS, 1970 / Studies at Grambling State University, LA / Lives in Detroit and elsewhere
“Somehow, I will dissolve into one of my constructs ….. I don’t understand the process yet.”
The late Detroit poet and musician Mick Vranich described his ever-increasing estrangement from even the outermost reaches of mainstream culture as a process of moving from the underground to the underworld. There’s a similarly inexorable feel to Onyx Ashanti’s ongoing life journey of transformation, transhumanism, and, as the above quote predicts, perhaps even transmutation.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1982 \ BA University of Chicago \ MA University of Illinois – Springfield \ Lives in Detroit
There’s a mysterious but exciting energy in the images created by Precious Johnson-Arabitg, known artistically as VODKASERENGETI. Her performance-based compositions have a strong and fearless nature that arrest the eyes at a glance and draw the observer into the scene.
Often turning the camera on herself, VODKASERENGETI describes her visual voice with expressive terms like out there, weird, disruptive, uncomfortable, and shocking. A scroll through her Instagram page (@vodkaserengeti)–home to her bold images– complements her self-assessment. In a ghostly diptych, VODKASERENGETI becomes Persona Non Grata (2017), an allegorical figure who, in this set, instructs the observer to “make space to mourn past selves, lost selves, fictional selves.” The character appears, she says, in a state of limbo where there’s difficulty in processing and coping with things unsaid and unaddressed – “individually and collectively as a nation.” Each transitional state calls for an enlightened consciousness and allows rebirths to take form.
Born Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1984 / BFA Rhode Island School of Design; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
“Home is where the heart is,” as the old chestnut goes. But where is home when your life has had a multi-continent trajectory? Ceramicist, sculptor, and designer Ebitenyefa “Ebi” Baralaye explores this question through his work in clay and other materials. He draws on the spirituality and culture of Nigeria (his country of birth) and the Caribbean (where he grew up for a time) to document and mediate his experiences in living in the Midwest and on both coasts of the United States.
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 Dallas, Texas, 1988 / BA, Western Michigan University / Lives in Detroit
“Sometimes I wonder if my work is really about performance,” Kayla Powers confides, offhandedly. It is a strange conjecture from an artist whose primary medium is weaving. Still, it makes sense when you realize how deeply intertwined Powers’s art is with her desire to model a particular type of relationship to the world.
Power’s work is determinedly local. She sources regionally grown fibers, and, crucially, she has developed the knowledge to create natural dyes from plants that she grows and forages in Detroit. Powers has learned these skills through a lengthy process of research and experimentation. Still, she is generous in making them available to others through workshops and how-to articles on her website. As she says, “being a good community member is important to me.”
Born Ypsilanti, MI,1990 / BFA Eastern Michigan University; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Ypsilanti
To enter the photography of Ricky Weaver, first, take a breath. Hold it. Feel it. Float with it. Exhale.
This instruction steadies you for the type of meditation experienced when observing Weaver’s quiet but complex image-making. There’s a spiritual essence felt as the artist unpacks concepts of time, identity and lineage through photographs that pay homage to Black women who have come before, are with her today, and are of the next generation. Stylistically, her salute to them comes by way of the gold trim that frames each image (a tribute to her late grandmother’s black and gold-framed bedroom set) and quoted titles of her images, because, as the artist says of her work, “This is collective; it’s not just me.”
Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1987 / BFA & MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Highland Park, MI
Jessica Wildman Katz has been working on windows. During the pandemic, she and her husband have slowly been renovating the 54-acre Brownstown Township farmstead that has been in her husband’s family for generations. Katz has been constructing frames and screens for the window openings in the loft of an old garage, where she plans to dry the lavender that grows on the property. It’s been an iterative process and not at all unlike the way she approaches her artwork—foregrounding material, experimenting with form, fusing utility and history.
Katz’s most recent project, Things Being Felt (2018-19), began with an epiphany. While looking at a stack of Metro cards from an unhappy year-and-a-half living in New York, Katz finally recognized a use for a collection of wool roving she’d amassed: she would felt the cards. The project grew to include a multitude of items representing fraught experiences in Katz’s life—the types of memories many of us try to forget, but which are, ultimately, the bedrock of being human. The items are also preposterously unfeltable: strappy shoes similar to a pair she once attempted to steal from her sister, a bra reminiscent of a bikini top that she stuffed as a teenager and inadvisably wore swimming, a copper rose gifted by a borderline stalker.
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 Detroit, 1981 / BA, Howard University / Lives in Detroit
Multimedia artist Halima Cassells relates her artistic trajectory to the birth of her three daughters – Nele, Nia-Rah, and Nzinga. This is a perfect illustration of Cassells’s belief that creativity is a practice that is inextricably intertwined with life. Homeschooled by “hippie” parents on the East Side of Detroit before heading to Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse and Cass Tech, Cassells identifies a visit to Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (Essay’d #109) as a disorienting, but ultimately life-changing event. “It was the first time I saw art living and breathing,” she says.
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.
Born Newberry, South Carolina, 1983. BFA, Syracuse University; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit, Michigan
The observation that an artist’s surroundings influences their work finds new relevance in the delicate geometries, intricate textures, and subtle color variations of Ruth Koelewyn’s restrained abstractions. A key reference for Koelewyn is the sky as it appears framed by architecture. This has given rise to the striking cyan blue monochromes of her ongoing Skyshapes series (2014-present), and the conceptually related Blue Triangles (2014-2015), Blue Crowns (2017), and Can Serrat Skyshapes (2019).
Dorota Coy, Born Lubin, Poland, 1978 / BA University of Vermont / Lives in Detroit
Steve Coy, Born Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1978 / BFA, University of Michigan, MFA University of Hawaii / Lives in Detroit
Like many outside of Detroit, I first encountered the work of Dorota and Steve Coy through the film Detropia in 2012. Looking up at the glowing, gold-gas-masked Executives of the Hygienic Dress League Corporation (HDL) I never imagined that in 2020 I’d be emailing with Dorota to reschedule an interview when the opening of their exhibition The Five Realms at Wasserman Projects – along with all other social events in the city and across the world – was postponed due to a global pandemic.
As I clear my calendar, I wonder how many respirators are currently among HDL’s holdings, and whether that number affects the corporation’s value. There’s plenty of time for a deep dive on the internet to find out while I’m waiting for public life to resume.
What I discover is that Steve and Dorota Coy are not the Hygienic Dress League.
Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit
The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.
These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams.
Detroit, 1967 / Lives in Romulus, MI
When discovering the work of Detroit artist Darin Darby, it was not only the finished composition of Route To My Past (2019) that attracted me, but also the instantaneous memories that guided my curiosity about the maker and his portfolio.
The visual—a stylish young fella with a relaxed facial expression, standing on the curb with guarded arms as the number 3 Grand River bus approached—reminded me of living in Chicago and catching the number 3 King Drive bus from downtown to the South Side (never a dull ride).
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.
Leyya Mona Tawil, Born Livonia, MI, 1975 / BDA University of Michigan, MFA Mills College, Oakland, CA
Mike Khoury, Born Mt Pleasant, MI, 1969 / BA(Econ) University of Michigan, MA Central Michigan University, MA Michigan State University / Lives in Northville, MI
On a sparse stage, a woman’s body rolls sideways, spinning about its central axis, ricocheting from one edge of the space to the other, back and forth, sometimes at alarming speeds and almost crashing into the audience, other times slowing down, exhausted. In comparison to the familiar, childlike, head-over-heels rolling, this movement seems alien and serious. The woman is clad in a stylishly cut, army-green, hooded raincoat and wears black boots that periodically land solidly but awkwardly on the floor, searching in vain for a physically sustainable way to continue the body’s rotation. Elsewhere on the stage, a black-clad musician holding a viola alternates between periods of repeated, siren-like glissandos and silence. There is a palpable push-and-pull between dancer and musician, but who is pushing and who is pulling is hard to say at any moment in this uncompromising performance.