10 Nicole Macdonald


Born Detroit, 1978 / BA, University of Michigan / Lives in Detroit

Detroit and its environs have been at the forefront of Nicole Macdonald’s art since her natal street art forays in the late 1990s right up to her current, now seasoned pursuit of Motor City subjects. As filmmaker, tagger, collagist, painter, and muralist, her practice has segued from anonymous to public interventions, from local to national topics, and from inner to outward direction in subject, format, and ambition. Early on, for instance, to intrigue viewers, she described the imagery of her collages as “the best places you’ll never see,” whereas an expansive 2014 declaration professed: “The whole point is to reach people.  I’ve done a lot of things where it’s just for myself or a particular event. The intention [now] is I want all Detroiters to be interested and engaged.”

Wherever one looks, then or now, one notes that Macdonald has always worked, as she says, from the “ground up,” whether limning the streets, thoroughfares, streetscapes, neighborhoods, nature’s rampant, omnivorous growth throughout the city, or— presently—Detroit’s sung and unsung personalities. As such, she falls in with a determined corps of regional painters who have focused on the Motor City, each with a distinctive take on its environs: Taurus Burns, Darcel Deneau, Andy Krieger, Lisa Poszywak, Bryant Tillman, Clinton Snider.

For her part, Macdonald debuted her artistic and sociopolitical intentions via signature-free, hand-cut, spray-painted stencils in countless out-of-the-way locations across the D. Among her earliest images were clusters of mushrooms emerging from the bases of lampposts, red carp swimming across manhole covers, and cheery flowers eking out a life in crevices between sidewalk and concrete wall or moldy, battered lengths of plywood, all intended to ameliorate barren, blighted streetscapes (Brown Mushrooms, Fish on Canfield, both 2006). Some of these “remedies to decay” remain in situ and visible, while many have been obscured, overpainted or effaced, and still others have faded or worn away.

Yet another clutch of Macdonald’s pointed critiques draw upon the hoary tradition of collage, to which she applies a witty Detroit inflection. Christina in Brush Park (2009) cheekily appropriates and relocates Andrew Wyeth’s iconic Christina to the Motor City, where she yearns longingly for a derelict, silhouetted-against-the-sky Brush Park mansion rather than her Maine farmhouse. In contrast, an intrepid, suited adventurer in Urban Explorer (2009) poises midrope as he stares admiringly at the Lafayette Building, one of the city’s classic 1920s skyscrapers demolished in 2009. Concurrently, painted streetscapes, rendered in traditional oil on canvas or wood, also figure in Macdonald’s oeuvre. Such examples as Fourth Street Playground (2010) and La Nortena (2003–4), whether executed on multiple or single canvases, are firmly and deftly brushed compositions. In the latter, the facile, fluent stroking counterpoints the emphatic diagonals that zoom the eye deep into the scene, while in the former the rhythmic dashes of pigment hurry the eye back and forth across the sprawl of stretchers.

But none of these multifarious directions quite prepare one for the Brobdingnagian portraits that Macdonald has unveiled of late. Titled the Detroit Portrait Series (2014–present), her tribe of sixteen heads takes on a totemic presence both in scale and persona. Each, rendered in acrylic on wood, stars an iconic Detroiter, a number internationally known, others not. Spurred by a reading of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, she resolved to visualize her own people’s “history.” “Service, sacrifice, diversity, and struggle” were her core criteria for inclusion, personified by the vivid portrayals of Hazen Pingree, Yusef Shakur, and Grace Lee Boggs standing beside the equally memorable John Conyers, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. Moreover, not content to simply portray these larger-than-life figures in isolation, Macdonald has taken her ever-expanding cast of characters on tour, having exhibited them thus far at Eastern Market, Cass Café, Central Methodist Church, and the “Big Painting at the Factory” show. Now—drumroll please—Macdonald’s full complement of protagonists, one and all, are the new residents of the second and third floors of an unoccupied building on Grand River just north of I-94. Handsomely ensconced in sixteen windows along the facade of a solid, brick structure on the corner, their effigies gaze out at the passing parade, shining forth as salutary beacons for the citizenry of Detroit.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, November 2014

Copyright Essay’d 2014