63 Donita Simpson


Born Detroit, 1948 / BFA, MFA, MEd, Wayne State University / Lives Royal Oak, MI

Donita Simpson’s regal portrait of Gilda Snowden (2014) is a commanding example of her ongoing series of photographs of Detroit artists. In Snowden’s pose, as if athwart a throne—as one respondent opined—Simpson nails her fellow artist’s magnetic, larger than life persona as painter, teacher, and indefatigable arts activist. Casually dressed and ensconced amidst a cluttered studio, Snowden (1954-2015) all but bursts into the viewer’s space, dominating both pictorial field and spectator’s territory. Snowden’s open-armed enthusiasm vis-a-vis the metro art community is mirrored in Simpson‘s brace of photographic studies—and, one might add, Essay’d’s ongoing profiles too. Such expansive efforts, including canvassing and connecting with an array of area artists, inform Simpson‘s own creative practice.

Initiated in the late 1980s, her project has sought out “the artists of the city that have remained, endured, enlivened, and enriched a city that has otherwise been crushed,” and titled two of her exhibitions “The Spirit of Detroit” to reflect “the pride and exuberance with which they share their art.” Acknowledging the influence of such photographic luminaries as Dawoud Bey, Jeanne Hilary, and Arnold Newman, she follows her arrow in a metropolitan milieu where other limners of artists, albeit working from rather than making photographs— Matthew Hanna, Deborah Kashdan, Ann Mikolowski—have plied their painterly visions.

Two of Simpson’s early likenesses include the black and white portraits of multimedia artist Coco Bruner and photographer Marilyn Zimmerman, both from 1989. Bruner, preternaturally calm and self-possessed, gazes out from the middle of a high-ceilinged veranda, a full leafed tree beyond the railing providing a lush, tapestry-like setting, while the table in the foreground serves to distance both artist and observer from one another. Upfront and personal, the free-spirited Zimmerman, precariously perched on and straddling a high stool, appears on the verge of leaping out of the picture, an impulse subtly moderated by her cool, wary expression. An even closer close-up of painter Bryant Tillman (2013) merges one of his swirling, restless paintings with his tilted, go-with-the-flow pose and wavy brimmed hat. Photographed the next year, a full length Lynne Avadenka greets us at the threshold to her work space, flanked by an orderly array of rulers and pens to the left and cluttered bulletin board on the right. Behind and above, fluorescent light fixtures, like perspectival orthogonals, hasten one toward the marvels of her printmaking studio mere steps away.

In the course of Simpson’s years-long project, facets of her practice have shifted, as she has traded small, portable cameras (100 photos per shoot to yield a keeper) for a large format camera (50 frames max from which to cull the defining image); or switched from posing artists in domestic environs to studio settings, and then segued from static studio spaces to incorporating examples of the subject’s art or working process within the image; and most dramatically, recently eschewing canonical black and white impressions for the irresistible imperatives of color.

Among the recent color portraits, two 2016 compositions capture artists Olayami Dabls and Gary Eleinko at work. Compositionally, in the latter, Simpson propels the viewer front to back across a tablescape of cylinders and shifting tectonic sheets of watercolors, as Eleinko, in mid process, looks up, barely ruffled by the invading camera. Rather, immersed as he is in the midst of the creative chaos of his studio, he multitasks on several renderings in front of him. Dabls too is seen in medias res, as he perennially refines and adds to his magnum opus, a sprawling outdoor sculpture installation at his African Bead Museum.

Three other depictions present artists in various states of engagement with their art. Gesturing ecstatically, Nancy Mitchnick (2014) stands before the mural-scale painting in progress that eventually portrayed artist and mother at opposite poles of the composition. Here, Simpson snaps Mitchnick as she bares something of the intensity occasioned by the rendering of a fraught relationship. Stephen Magsig (2016), by contrast, backed into the corner of his studio, arms protectively crossed at his chest, forms a blocky, formidable silhouette as solid and substantial as his delineations of steel and concrete factories. Alone in her studio and surrounded by the utensils of her craft, Jo Powers (2016) seems bereft and stymied, momentarily overwhelmed by the sinister agent of upheaval drawn, painted, and displayed on her easel.

In these “photographic endeavors,” Simpson, while gleaning both nuances and astonishments from collegial, one-on-one “conversations” with her subjects, also evinces something of the resilient pulse of the city’s aesthetic life, no mean feat for artists as well as their photographer ally, in these fractious, volatile times.

Dennis Alan Nawrocki, January 2016

Copyright 2016 Essay’d