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, 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.
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 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 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 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, 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 Karachi, Pakistan, 1973 / BSc, Columbia University, NY; MFA, UCLA, California / Lives in Detroit
An eight-foot-tall black monolith stands, 2001-like, outside an art museum in San Jose, California. To the naked eye it appears featureless, but when viewed using a phone camera, words magically appear on the screen. As one can imagine, it draws a crowd. It’s a piece from 2006, titled Seen-Fruits of our Labor, that illustrates many of the concerns of artist Osman Khan around that time, foremost among which was the need to look critically at the impact of the increasingly digitally-connected world through art. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1938 / BFA, College of Creative Studies; MFA, Eastern Michigan University / Lives in Dearborn, MI
Lois Teicher is one of the few women artists anywhere who has built a career around large-scale public sculpture. Even more unusual, she works squarely in a post-minimalist idiom of industrial materials and formal shapes. Most American women sculptors of Teicher’s generation are rightfully celebrated for incorporating the aesthetics of crafts into their sculpture, for introducing new materials, ornamentation, or a sense of working by hand. But Teicher chose a different path; her large-scale, site-specific sculptures look more like Ellsworth Kelly than Magdalena Abakanowicz. For Teicher, feminism gave the artist permission to overcome gender roles to fashion her own definition of what it means to be a sculptor. Over her long career, she has refined her ideas about shape and surface, posited new relationships of sculpture to its surroundings, and hardest of all, overcome the long odds of being a successful woman working in this manner. Finding satisfaction in learning to use industrial tools, as well as working with fabricators, engineers, and installers, she has developed a unique style for large-scale sculpture that emphasizes tension and a suggestion of movement that serves to deny her work’s complexity and weight.
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, 1946/Studied College for Creative Studies, Detroit; Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, Deer Isle, Maine; Cranbrook Academy of Art, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan/Lives in Detroit
Rarely does one get to see a full bore display of an artist’s oeuvre, all at once and all in one place. Robert Sestok counts as the standout exception in the Motor City, where he has engineered, from purchase and design to sodding and installing, an open air anthology of his sculptural practice. His City Sculpture park, located at Alexandrine and the Lodge Freeway northbound service drive, features an array of some three dozen sculptures, each centered on concrete pads laid out in a grid. Encompassing four contiguous city lots, and furnished with Sestok-built benches to offer a respite and meditative break from strolling about, this expansive public-private sward—it is open seven days a week—is a welcome oasis within Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood. Continue reading
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
Born Canton, MS, 1948 / Studies in Mechanical Engineering and Art, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Olayami Dabls’ sprawling outdoor installation at Grand River and West Grand Boulevard verges on a world where America rushes by, cocooned in tons of rusting metal – in other words it overlooks Interstate 96. Dabls knows that world. He trained as a mechanical engineer, and worked as a draftsman for Chevrolet Motors. Then in 1975 he had a serious car accident that hospitalized him for three years. During that time he turned to painting (his minor in college) as an escape from the constant physical and psychic pain. He left the hospital and never looked back, taking stints with the original African-American museum, and various theater companies, before eventually founding a gallery with his wife. Around 1998 he moved to the present location, starting the African Bead Museum that carries his name, and transitioning from an artist/gallerist to an educator/storyteller. Continue reading
Born Pittsburgh, 1945 / Studies in Industrial Design, College for Creative Studies, Detroit / Lives in Detroit
What does Matt Corbin’s performance piece GYMSHOELIFESTYLE, in which he periodically wore size 22 gym shoes to the high school class he taught, have in common with the found object assemblages he has been making for nearly four decades? Actually more than you might think. Continue reading