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 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, 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.
Born Detroit, 1979 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / Lives in Detroit
“I’m not a street artist, but I can paint on anything,” asserts Sydney James, prolific muralist, painter, and illustrator. After graduating from College for Creative Studies in 2001, she forged ahead as designer, art director, and “ghost artist” (for television dramas), at first in Detroit and subsequently in Los Angeles. Reviewing the evolution of her practice up to that point, she recalls, “I was an illustrator, [but] when I took control of the stories, I became a fine artist.” This epiphany coincided with her timely move back to Detroit in late 2011, where she encountered a burgeoning art community and street art stirrings, fueled in part by the Grand River Creative Corridor and Murals in the Market initiatives.
Born Detroit, 1966 / BFA, College for Creative Studies / MFA, Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT / Lives Detroit
Richard Lewis’s stark, striking Self Portrait in White Shirt (2004) establishes at a glance the mode of bold, arresting portraiture he has practiced over the last decade and a half. Here, his own half-length, life-size visage dominates a shallow space wherein he reveals himself at a terse, decisive moment. Though a stretched canvas at right appears primed for action, he stands stock still, his flushed face charged with emotion. In particular, the emphatic swabs of thick red and white pigment slashing across his forehead augur a deep-seated determination. Another angsty portrayal of 2004 represents Anthony, a friend whose parted lips and wary glance imply concern and vulnerability in equal measure.
Painted about a year and a half after a six year sojourn in New York (1996-2002), these bare-knuckled portrait suggest Lewis’s affirmative resolve to re-engage with his art and natal environs. In fact, his 2002 reappearance was his second repatriation to his Detroit roots; earlier, after graduation from Yale in 1993, he had relocated to his hometown but stayed only a year and a half before decamping for his six year residency in Gotham.
Born Detroit, 1976 / BFA, Eastern Michigan University / MFA, New York Academy of Art, Graduate School of Figurative Art / Lives in Detroit
Visibility, accessibility, ambitious scale, and industrious zeal are some of the constituent hallmarks of Tylonn Sawyer’s activist art and life. Such attributes are readily apparent in his very public, very large, Detroit-centric Whole Foods Mural of 2013. Drawing upon Marshall Fredericks’ iconic Spirit of Detroit sculpture, Sawyer reinvents Fredericks’ hero as a young, African-American lad with empty palms (freed of Fredericks’ fusty totems of god and family) who, while awaiting new symbols to cross his palms, glances over a colorful, agricultural grid on the left, and a tidy, green, aerial urban view on the right. Continue reading
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