THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
by K.A. Letts
Detroit is the land of do it yourself for artists. The financial and political travails of the city have paradoxically allowed room—both physical and psychological--for a flourishing underground art scene. In 21st century Detroit there is space, it seems, for a variety of visions, and scant interference from traditional gatekeepers. There are plenty of talented artists in the city, but Detroit-on-the-mend still lacks some important components necessary for the evolution of a viable cultural ecosystem.
The lack of regular and rigorous arts writing stands out as a particular problem. Promising new publications such as Infinite Mile, Arts.Black, Detroit Research and Detroit Cultural have struggled to publish regularly, victims of chronic underfunding. These fledgling publications wink into and out of existence like so many shooting stars, never achieving true sustainability .
A bright spot in this challenging environment is Essay’d.org, a one-of-a-kind arts writing project that aims to provide cultural context and critical coverage to Detroit’s artists and public through an egalitarian process that might be called cultural crowd-sourcing. The originator of the project, Steve Panton, conceived of it in 2015 as a vehicle for providing a broad, non-hierarchical overview of the community of artists in the region by allowing a variety of established and aspiring arts writers to choose the artists they will write about. Each writer writes a 750 word, one-page essay on the artist. In conversation, Panton adds, ”We simply ask the writer to write about the artist that most excites them right now.” At the end of each year, the essays are collected into a published edition, providing a snapshot of the artists active in the city at that moment.
Steve Panton describes the original germ of an idea for Essay’d:
I grew up in a fairly ordinary background in the UK, and when I went to New Zealand at 26, I had never actually been to an art gallery or really thought much about art. Part of the inspiration for Essay'd was a book called 100 New Zealand Paintings by 100 New Zealand Artists which featured a single page written overview of each artist. The format was very accessible and digestible and it gave me a pathway into an aspect of New Zealand culture that was otherwise invisible to me. As a gallerist in Detroit, I wanted to do something similar for the Detroit art world.
The scope of the Essay’d project now far exceeds the modest goals of the book that inspired Panton all those years ago, but the organizing principle remains.
When Essay’d started out, its stated purpose was to provide a broad overview of artists working in the Detroit area. The first collection in book form, with 30 short essays on Detroit artists, was printed in 2016, in partnership with Wayne University Press. Most of the early pieces were written by Steve Panton and Dennis Alan Nawrocki (who literally wrote the book on Detroit public art). These veteran arts writers were soon joined by another experienced observer of the Detroit art scene, Matthew Piper, who currently serves as editor in chief of Essay’d. Since the first edition of the book, 2 additional collections have been published.
Panton and Piper insist that they play only a modest part in selecting the artists who are the subjects of the essays (more on that later) and the artists represented in each of the collections vary widely, from eminent veterans Charles McGee and Elizabeth Youngblood to rising talents like Shaina Kasztelan, Bakpak Durden and Armageddon Beachparty.
Elizabeth Youngblood, Horizontal silver, 2018, silver paint on paper. Photo by Elizabeth Youngblood.
Over time, the development of new voices writing about artists in Detroit has become a more central part of the project’s mission. Now, along with providing an overview of artists working in Detroit--140 and counting--the editors have identified and mentored 32 arts writers of diverse backgrounds, experience and ethnicities. Some, like playwright and poet Bill Harris, arts administrator Mary Ann Wilkinson and cultural critic Vince Carducci, are experienced writers looking to have their say on contemporary art in Detroit, while others are young would-be art critics hoping to develop their observational and analytical skills with help from the editors of Essay’d. Panton says, “If you take the helicopter view, we are creating writing, but we are also creating the writers, or the culture of writing.” He continues, “What I mean by that is that we have a platform where people can publish, we have an editorial process where people can get serious feedback on their writing [and] we have an educational process of workshops that allow people to step into that.”
The Essay’d project seems to have found the sweet spot of sustainability in a challenging cultural climate through donations, grants and royalties from book sales. And true to their stated goal “to transition arts writing and curating in Detroit from low performing—and often unpaid—activities to high-performing—and paid—activities” they have been able to pay their writers nearly double the prevailing rates for arts writing. Panton says, “You pull yourself up by the bootstraps when you start a project like this. You’ve got to create the cultural capital…So when we were starting off, there was no money but the people who created the cultural capital owned the products of their labor.”
This “cultural capital” has, over the last five years, come to have a tangible value for the artists profiled in Essay’d. When quizzed about the possibility that artists and writers could—just possibly—engage in a bit of quid pro quo in the writing of their essays, Panton and Piper maintain that the project’s rigorous, multistep editing process corrects for and filters out occasional bad faith efforts. “We depend on the honor system,” Panton claims. “Our belief is that if you get a diverse group of writers together and they honestly write about the artists that they are most excited about, you will get a diverse picture of the Detroit art world.”
While this trust in the good intentions of all concerned may seem naïve on its face, my interviews with writers and artists have confirmed a high level of integrity in the process. Why this should be and whether it is sustainable as the number of writers and artists grows and as the professional stakes become ever higher, remains open to question. But for now, the system works.
The editors of Essay’d exercise a fairly robust editorial process, which can result in a published essay that’s often substantively different from the writer’s first draft. The contributors contacted for this article, many of them experienced writers in other fields, seemed quite happy with their editorial interactions. Ryan Standfest, who has both written for Essay’d and been the subject of a profile, expresses the consensus view via email: “I find Steve and Matthew to exercise a very rigorous but fair editing process… In my experience, I enjoyed a little pushback on conceptual points which moved me to clarify rather than to strike out a passage entirely.” He adds, “As a writer, I want strong editors to be in conversation with, rather than someone who says “do whatever you want.” It demonstrates a high level of concern and care and respect for the text and the author. An editor who does not mind the text, is doing [a] disservice to the writer and the larger project. “
Ryan Standfest, Supply + Demand, 2019-2020, approx. 20’h x 50’w, painted mural with wood crate constructions. Photo by Ryan Standfest.
Recent contributing writer and artist Mariwyn Curtin found Essay’d to be a door into the cultural life of the city. “I started reading Essay’d in 2019 after I made a move to Detroit in 2016. I was still working (online) for other places well outside of Detroit, like Australia and Arizona, but I wasn’t engaged in [the city’s art scene] as much as I wanted to be.” So she decided to take a hiatus and to structure her own internship and to “learn” Detroit art. She says, “Early on, I came across an article about Iris Eichenberg in Essay’d, related to the MOCAD show Useless Utility… [Essay’d] really did cover who you needed to know--and then I went out into the art world, and it was like characters in a book, suddenly coming alive.” Curtin points out that as the art scene in Detroit grows it will become increasingly important to have a source of critical content specifically for Detroit artists. She explains, “In 2019 there was an uptick of more galleries opening, galleries that were showing, if not international artists, then artist who were not Detroit artists…I think it is really important to have a publication that is centered in Detroit…before the next big wave [of gentrification and internationalization.]”
Curtin’s most recent contribution to Essay’d is her profile of Dalia Reyes, a young Latina artist who came to Detroit from Mexico at 5 years of age and grew up between the Ambassador Bridge and Detroit Union Station. A graduate of the College for Creative Studies, Reyes is exemplative of the kind of artist who might struggle for recognition without the validation provided by Essay’d. While she knew of the project, she was surprised to get a call from Curtin. She says, “I didn’t know Mariwyn at all; I think she came across my work on Instagram.” Reyes brought work to Galerie Camille for Curtin to see, since Covid-19 pandemic made a studio visit impractical. After their interview, Reyes had an opportunity to see the finished essay, and gave it the green light with one stipulation: she wanted it translated into Spanish. And so her profile became the first bilingual entry for Essay’d.
While the creation, collection and annual publication of Detroit artists’ profiles continues, Essay’d adds other programs to address perceived cultural deficits and opportunities throughout the city. These include Art@The Max, a rotating exhibition that brings visual arts by some of the region’s leading artists to patrons of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, and an expanding workshop program that mentors aspiring arts writers and fledgling curators. In 2016, Matthew Piper offered the first workshop on arts writing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. Since then there have been 5 writing workshops that cover artist statements, art criticism, arts publishing and the like. Steve Panton, an accomplished independent curator and gallerist in his own right, has offered several workshops intended to guide and mentor aspiring curators in organizing and mounting their first exhibitions. His workshops cover curatorial best practices, as well as online curating and curating in ecology. These highly interactive classes have gone online during the pandemic, and have, serendipitously, begun to reach an audience outside Detroit that is hungry for expertise.
Even as they mentor new writers and run workshops, Essay’d editors Panton and Piper continue to write, themselves, about Detroit artists who they consider to be significant. This is the point at which their stated hands-off stance on gate keeping begins to seem just a little disingenuous. Indeed, Piper told me recently that although Essay’d has a solid record of writing about artists of color, he felt the need to write more, as he put it, “in service of uplifting Black voices.”
Though the editors carefully abstain from any claims to be creating an authoritative overview of artists in Detroit, they have been responsible for compiling a persuasive body of opinion that must influence the conversation about art in Detroit going forward. And they can also take credit for opening up the discussion about Detroit’s art scene to a variety of new voices and visions, while presiding over the aggregation of an elastic and inclusive stealth canon of important Detroit artists that can grow and change over time.
K.A. Letts is the Detroit editor of the New Art Examiner, a working artist (kalettsart.com) and art blogger (rustbeltarts.com). She has shown her paintings and drawing in galleries and museums in Toledo, Detroit, Chicago and New York. She writes frequently about art in the Detroit area.
Matthew Piper, Editor of Essay’d. Photo by Jeff Cancelosi.
Essay’d 3 (essays 61-90 in series), print edition cover, published 2018 by Wayne University Press.
Steve Panton, Co-founder and Associate Editor of Essay’d. Photo by Jeff Cancelosi
Dalia Reyes, Portal to Aldebaran (Portal Series I), 2020, 36” x 36” oil on wood, gold and silver leaf. Photo by Dalia Reyes
Bakpak Durden, Self-Portrait: Control, 2019, 24” x 24”, oil on handmade wood panel. Photo by Bakpak Durden
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