THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
“No matter what becomes of it, art is local, local to a place and to a person, or group of persons…it happens somewhere, not everywhere,” said the late Robert Creeley, poet and sometime Detroiter. His observation fits Detroit to a T. Responding to the Motor City’s recent brush with financial disaster, the city’s creatives have developed unique coping schemes and survival strategies born from the relative scarcity of established commercial galleries and a countervailing abundance of entrepreneurial ingenuity. Here is what a tour of the city’s rich DIY scene revealed.
1XRun, an ever-mutating constellation of creative enterprises under one roof, takes full advantage of the possibilities presented by the city’s rebound. 1XRun moved into Detroit’s Eastern Market neighborhood in 2010 and has since morphed into a downtown art leviathan, featuring online print releases, a yearly mural festival, musical events and art exhibitions. 1XRun’s CEO, Jesse Cory, describes its curatorial approach: creative populism, influenced by SoCal custom car culture, skate culture, graffiti writing, techno music and the rave scene.
Business partners Cory and Dan Armand, who is 1XRun’s creative director, started out small. “We would screen print all our own t-shirts, we would build all our own structures, we would be vendors at street fairs in the city,” says Cory. “My partner Dan and I come from very humble backgrounds. Our parents had enough for us to get by and that’s it. But we knew that, if we put in the hard work, we could actually make a living from our efforts and see a return on our labor.”
Over time, the partners conceived the idea of developing their shared interests in graffiti writing, skateboarding and techno music into a creative concept that didn’t so much oppose established artworld orthodoxies as blow right by them.
(Left) Scott Hocking, 17 Shitty Mountains 8692, archival pigment print on Moab fine art paper, 18” x 13”. Scott Hocking’s photograph of his site-specific installation. (Right) Shaina Kasztelan, Regurgitate, acrylic and resin on canvas, 8” x 10.” Photos courtesy of 1XRun.
The original revenue-generating arm of 1XRun is an ingenious, limited-edition online print sales enterprise designed along the lines of a sneak release. Art prints by street artists and fine artists from Detroit and beyond are offered for a limited time online. The number of prints in each edition is based on sales generated during the release, with a small additional number archived for future sale. It’s a clever way of matching supply with demand combined with a sort of aesthetic crowd-sourcing.
Murals in the Market, now entering its 5th year with over 125 murals installed throughout Eastern Market and beyond, is a natural outgrowth, Cory explains, of 1XRun’s relationships with its printmakers, many of whom are muralists who travel and paint internationally: “The goal of the mural festival is multi-faceted. What we learned from other festivals, the best ones that we had gone to, was that they would teach people about their culture, why they were there. [Murals in the Market] provides an opportunity for our friends, neighbors and people that we are inspired by locally to have a significant amount of exposure and priority in the festival. That’s really critical to our mission.”
“We’re bringing in people…who travel the world,” Cory continues, “We introduce them [to Detroit artists] and they become friends, and the [Detroit artists] can teach the visiting artists a little about who we are as people, what our city is like, what we’re like culturally … and they become ambassadors for our city. We’ve created this really unique opportunity that gives local artists as much credibility as it does to the international traveling artist. We don’t have any hierarchy.”
In 2017, 1XRun found itself in transition. They had outgrown their building in Eastern Market and needed to find a larger space--and one in better condition--to house their growing print operation and accommodate their expanded needs for storage. They also welcomed the opportunity to rethink their business plan and develop new programs that would be possible in a larger space. So they sold their Eastern Market building in 2017 and moved to a much larger commercial location in Islandview, near Tyree Guyton’s landmark Heidelberg Project.
They are hard at work now, developing a partnership with Guyton called Heidelberg 3.0, with plans for a gallery/performance space/café and bar called Spotlight to be curated and run by 1XRun chief operating officer Roula David. To cap it all off, 1XRun recently bid on and won a contract with the City of Detroit to supervise the new City Walls project, Detroit’s first government-sponsored art project since 2000, when Detroit’s Department of Cultural Affairs was disbanded.
The one constant for 1XRun seems to be change. “Do we have to continue to do the same thing forever?” asks Corey. “I don’t think so. Do we have to do the same thing next month as we did this month? That’s not in our DNA.”
In stark contrast to 1XRun’s populist approach is one of Detroit’s newest and shiniest galleries, PLAYGROUND DETROIT. The elegantly-appointed commercial gallery has landed, like an exquisite alien spacecraft, on a fairly desolate stretch of Gratiot Avenue, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares. Part independent gallery, part talent incubator, and open for one year, it is owned and operated by art entrepreneurs Samantha Schefman and Paulina Petkoski.
The two have roots in Detroit and decided a few years ago to come back to the city to support the art community here. Schefman lived in New York City for a time and worked in Chelsea’s elite galleries before returning to make her mark in the Motor City’s contemporary art scene. She describes her decision as both pragmatic and idealistic.
“I had at the time become a little disenchanted with New York,” she says, “and realized all the artists we were working with here [in Detroit] really needed support on the ground.” She continues, “I wanted to do something bigger, and I didn’t want to do it in a shoebox space where we couldn’t show much of anything, where we couldn’t frankly afford to do anything. So, a lot of it was about price, but it was even more about community.”
Although Playground Detroit represents artists who live and work in Detroit, Schefman dismisses the idea that there is a particular sensibility inherent in the work made here. “I don’t think there’s a New York look and I don’t think there’s an L.A. look. I don’t see that. I see such a wide range of work out of every city.”
When pressed, Schefman admits there is such a thing as a Detroit look “But I would say that it’s true, more so, in the public art spaces,” she says, referencing public art installations by self-taught artists such as Olayami Dabls’ MBAD African Bead Museum and Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project.
Judging by the accomplished artworks lining the gallery walls, it’s clear that the artists represented by Playground Detroit would feel at home in New York, Los Angeles or any major American city. As a group, they are mostly young, many of them graduates of Detroit’s College for Creative Studies or other top area institutions.
They speak the language of the art world fluently, and their work is certainly on a par in quality with anything to be found on the coasts. The only thing they don’t share with their coastal compatriots are high prices. Schefman points out that Playground Detroit focuses on representing young Detroit artists whose work is priced below 10k, prices that make their work attractive to a growing audience of young collectors.
Over coffee at Cafe 1923 in Hamtramck, artist/community activist Ulysses Newkirk makes the wry observation that “art is the bulldozer of gentrification.” A life-long resident of Detroit’s in-transition North End, Newkirk views projected improvements in the neighborhood with a mixture of hope and apprehension. He is a member of the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, which has teamed up with the international collective Ghana Think Tank, a local faith-based non-profit, Central Detroit Christian (CDC), and others to design and run a project they are calling American Riad.
Ghana Think Tank/artist's rendering of American Riad. Photo courtesy of Ghana Think Tank.
Ghana Think Tank, a well-intentioned and energetic group that aims to solve major social and environmental problems by connecting the first world with the third world, is leading the project. They gather individuals from various developing countries, often those most affected by first world interventions, to create third world think tanks.
These, in turn, identify some of the developed world’s most vexing social and environmental problems and propose innovative solutions based on third world perspectives. The audacity and complexity of Ghana Think Tank’s animating concept is matched by their fundraising prowess. They show an impressive ability to bundle matching funds and grants from governmental and cultural sources that enable their visionary projects to move forward.
Ghana Think Tank has tackled Islamophobia in Houston, immigration on the California/Mexico border and worldwide climate change, to name a few of their projects. They have now come to Detroit’s North End for their most ambitious and sustained effort, American Riad.
American Riad is designed in collaboration with Moroccan and Indonesian think tanks to combat social isolation, a problem they feel is exacerbated by America’s obsession with privacy and the single family dwelling. The design, inspired by Islamic architectural forms, includes a covered courtyard of pierced metal columns surrounding a garden for the North End neighborhood. Their plan includes an adjoining 8-10 units of affordable housing and 6 businesses with a single entrance to encourage social interaction.
The project partners expect that the graceful stainless-steel sculptures and open space will provide a public venue for gatherings, workshops, gardening, performances and the display of local and international art. Newkirk, an enthusiastic proponent of youth arts education, hopes that eventually the skills that are learned in the context of building the project can translate into long-term employment for community youth.
Project members also hope that American Riad will prevent gentrification and displacement, a goal that seems, on its face, to be somewhat self-contradictory given the undeniable boost that well-designed public art often gives to real estate values in a changing neighborhood. It’s hard to expect so many ambitious—and possibly competing—goals to be realized within a single project.
The project partners are aware of the inherent pitfalls but calculate that the potential benefits outweigh any unintended negative consequences. Even if only a portion of American Riad’s idealistic social agenda is met, it will be a win for the community.
(Left) Olayami Dabls, MBAD African Bead Museum, permanent art installation. Photo: Knight Foundation. (Right) Said Dokins, mural at Murals in the Market. Photo: K.A. Letts.
One of the dubious advantages of building up a city from physical and financial ruin is an abundance of space for creativity. With cheap real estate and a steady supply of young creatives coming out of Wayne State University, the College for Creative Studies, and nearby Cranbrook Academy of Art, Detroit-on-the-rebound is enjoying an infusion of creativity and do-it-yourself optimism. The story of contemporary art in Detroit is being written right now, one project, one painting, one performance at a time.
K.A. Letts is a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Nic Norton, Cautionary Tale #1, Mixed media on canvas. Playground Detroit. Photo: K.A. Letts.
Bre’ann White, Untitled (Definition of Red Series), digital photographic print , 40” x 51”. Photo: Playground Detroit.
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