Detroit – Part II

Detroit Industry Murals, Diego Rivera,1932, Detroit Institute of Arts

The Mitchnick “Gang of 4” continued onward to the Detroit Institute of Arts; one of my favorite places in the city. Nancy had set up a private presentation of the Diego Rivera murals. If you’ve never been to the DIA or seen these incredible murals in person – you really must! I wish I could remember the name of the docent — he’s a lawyer by day and volunteers at the DIA part-time. What a crazy dichotomy! He was so knowledgeable about the Murals — Not only did we learn about the rich history, he also showed us the hidden symbolism Diego had painted into his work and told us a few stories to boot. I wish I had recorded it!

Four walls. Twenty-seven paintings. Nine months of labor-intensive work.

In 1932, Diego was commissioned by the DIA and Edsel Ford to paint two large murals for the Garden Court with the understanding that the work must relate to the history of Detroit and the development of industry. The investors knew hiring a Mexican artist during the Depression would be controversial, but the men were very impressed with his work and went forward. Frida and Diego packed up and headed East in the summer of 1932 and were in Detroit for almost a year.

Using the ancient fresco technique, Rivera and his workers created the complex murals spanning the four enormous walls. Diego depicted multiple modern industries and technologies historically rooted in the ancient Mexican Aztec people. All while weaving in controversial scenes that questioned technology’s place in the world — both socially and politically.

When the murals were finally unveiled in 1933, many people objected and said they were crude, vulgar, and blasphemous. Apparently, Edsel Ford never publicly commented on the matter, but he did issue a statement saying “I admire Rivera’s spirit. I really believe he was trying to express his idea of the spirit of Detroit.”

When Frida and Diego arrived in Detroit, she was pregnant with their child and she hated the city! It was hot and stinky near the Rouge Factory where they stayed, and she was bored! Who could blame her? Sadly, Frida lost the baby shortly after they arrived. This proved to be a turning point in her art — after the miscarriage Frida began to paint about her personal life and all its pain — surviving polio as a child and suffering in a horrific bus accident — had left her body a painful mess. This is the Frida that we’ve come to know and love – sometimes I feel that we are soulmates – or the same soul…

Day in Detroit — Part I

A Peak Inside the Artists’ Studios

In December our little “Gang of 4” were treated to an incredible field trip to see Nancy’s studio at the Russell Industrial Center in Detroit and receive an outstanding one-on-one talk at the DIA on Diego Rivera and his Detroit Industry murals.

History of Russell Industrial Center

In 1915, the Center, a 2,200,000-square-foot (200,000 m2), seven building complex, was designed by Albert Kahn for John William Murray. Over the years it has been used for various manufacturing industries (automotive, military, metal stamping, household appliances, printing) and has passed through many owners. From 1970-1991 it was even owned by the notorious billionaire Leona Helmsley, hotelier and tax evader.

In 1998 the Center was closed as it suffered major damage from storms and the printing company could no longer sustain. The RIC fell into major disrepair and sat vacant until 2003 when it was purchased by a local development company for 1 million dollars. Since then it has become a community hub for local artists and small businesses.

Detroit artist Kobie Solomon‘s “Chimera” mural is painted on the side of the RIC. Measuresing 8,750 square feet, it is the largest mural in the state of Michigan. Kobie combined a bit of Detroit history along with the four major sports teams; the Detroit Lions (NFL), Detroit Pistons (NBA), Detroit Red Wings (NHL) and Detroit Tigers (MLB) in his creation.

Fieldtrip

We made our way downtown and meandered through the enormous complex until we located the Art Building. Nancy was already there to greet us and let us in. We rode up in the old style industrial elevator — the unsteady, creaking, wire-barred kind you see in scary movies — to her studio.

We were greeted by a friend of Nancy’s, fellow Detroit artist, Darcel Deneau. She let us check out her extra large studio space filled with incredible glass mosaics of the city. When putting this post together, I discovered more about her art and her incredibly heart-breaking story.

Next we headed over to Nancy’s studio. It’s a nice size space that offers a lot of natural light. She let us explore for a bit and showed us some of her wonderful paintings. Then we all sat down for a bit, had coffee and snacks, and talked about art and life. Nancy is a natural born storyteller and she’s accumulated so many great ones over the course of her life. We all said she should write a book– it’d be a bestseller!

Just down the long corridor was another friend of Nancy’s who had agreed to let us peak inside his studio. Alan Bennetts is a young Detroit artist and recent graduate of the Cranbrook Academy of Arts MFA Program. His artist statement reveals the intention for his current project that we were treated to view up close:

I seek to examine the varied positions consumer technologies occupy in both our collective and individual perception. In particular, the way these familiar, often intimate objects fundamentally change when they cease to function in the way in which they were intended. AB

I was blown away by Alan’s eye for detail and steady hand in creating these incredible works of art. How in the world could he achieve such accuracy in the tones of grey, black, silver, white… I’ll never know.

I fondly remembered that we had many of the stereo pieces in the 1980’s and a wave of memories came flooding back — dancing to Madonna and listening to U2s, “The Joshua Tree” in our basement and watching my step-dad spend countless hours making mixed-tapes. It was a great trip down memory lane.

After meeting the artists and touring their studios we headed over to the Detroit Institute of Arts for a phenomenal private lecture from a DIA docent who really knew his stuff! It was turning out to be an incredible day! Stay tuned for Day in Detroit — Part II.

Bad News

By this time, I had been painting for two months, at least 3-4 days a week outside of the classroom plus class time. When I paint at home I usually start in the evening and paint into the wee hours of the morning. My right arm— fingers.. hand.. wrist.. elbow.. neck.. shoulder— were all getting very sore. I carry my supplies in a Husky roll-cart which is very light on wheels to pull around. However, once full, it is very heavy for me to lift into/out of trunk (I’m limited to lifting 10 pounds per elbow due to my replacements). I thought I was being careful, but not careful enough.

In mid-November, I noticed a small protruding bump about three inches below my elbow that was painful to the touch. I made an appointment the next day to see my orthopedic surgeon. He confirmed what I suspected; a small fracture of the radius bone. What I was not expecting to hear was that both components of my elbow replacement were loose! Dr. Michael Wiater passed me over to his brother, Dr. Brett Wiater for the revision process; apparently he had more experience in the area. From here on out, Brett would now be my surgeon. I would have to have my elbow redone or “Revised.” Since it wasn’t painful and the fracture would probably heal on its own, we set a surgery date for January 9th, 2020 — my 21st wedding anniversary!

Well, at least it’s something you can use! said my friend when I told her I was getting a new elbow for my anniversary.


Needless to say, I had to leave Nancy’s class and slow down — again. I was very disappointed and depressed. Once again, I felt like my body let me down and fucked me over.

Diptychs

Our next assignment, and last for me, would be a diptych. Wikipedia defines a diptych as, ‘an artwork consisting of two pieces or panels, that together create a singular art piece that can be attached together or presented adjoining each other’. Earliest pieces were frequently hinged and depicted biblical or religious themes. Diptychs often represent opposition/contrasting objects or elements. A triptych (three panels) might represent a sequence or a change; like those prints you see in stores of the different seasons.

I couldn’t really decide on an idea for the diptych so I went with a picture I’d saved to paint some day. The image is of several farm animals standing together and taken by well-known animal photographer Rob MacInnis.

We worked on our pieces for the next several classes. These were to be our pièces de résistance — our masterpieces! Below you can see a few of the multiple iterations the animals went through as I tried to figure them out.


Unfortunately I wasn’t able to complete the diptych by the end of class term, but I did finish it up in the new year! More about that in my next post. Stay tuned…

Historical Art

One of our assignments focused on historical art. We were to paint something that we were drawn to from history; e.g., Japanese/Chinese scrolls, African or Native American designs/patterns or even a particular wallpaper pattern. Nancy gave so many examples, but I couldn’t find a one that I was particularly fond of or drawn to. So she helped me find a beautiful Kimono Dress online whose colors and pattern I liked. I focused on a small section and with large brushes on wood panel, I began painting.

I’ve never painted on paneling and it wasn’t the easiest. Although it had been gessoed, the paint didn’t want to flow easily, or maybe it was just me; afterall I hadn’t worked on anything that size before and maybe subconsciously I was intimidated not only by the scope, but the subject, since it was just chosen, I didn’t have any time to noodle it over — plan my attack– if you will. Looking back, yet another exercise in stretching that comfort zone I guess.

Kimono — 18″ x 48″ Oil on Wood Paneling

It’s not like anything I usually do, and when class came to an end, I wanted to paint for 5 more hours to get it up to my standards but I couldn’t. My family liked it, so I left it alone. But part of me wants to gesso over it and make something new. Any thoughts?

Paint

We talked a lot about the PAINT itself. Nancy was interested in how we ‘laid out our palette, moved the paint around, messed with it and put it on.’ She would say that we have to ‘attack’ the paint, not mix it gingerly, all willy-nilly; after all the goal is to create an original chemical compound from two or more — you have to use strength to recombine the molecules.

This idea of ‘recombination’ had never occurred to me. Now, every time I mix paint, I think of her words and remember how vigorously she mixed the paint and try to do the best I can with my messed up arthritic hands/ wrists/ elbows— it’s not easy. Instead of the effort and force shown, I mix the paint for longer hoping to achieve the same effect. It’ll have to do.

We did class exercises in Fast and Ugly and Pale Tonality using large canvases and brushes in order to get more fearless and “push the paint around more.” One of our home assignments was to make a small copy of a Van Gogh since he was a master ‘paint pusher’. I chose to copy one of his self portraits on a small square canvas. I used quick visible strokes and worked way faster than I usually do. In the end, he looked like a skinny version of himself, but I kind of liked that.

The experience of making the paint becomes part of the subject of the painting…if it is any good at all…

beautiful paint is honest paint…

and the great artists are our teachers…

Whose paint do you love the most?

NMM

6″ x 6″ Oil Painting on Canvas adapted from Van Gogh Self Portrait

Compromise

Our next assignment for the “Mitchnick Gang” was to work with, “UGLY PAINTINGS FAST and STRONG… to get into risk taking mode…and get energy flowing…” Nancy set up individual still lifes, at eye level, with various light sources and we went to work.

Although I heard her words, there is something within me that prohibits the sort of frenzied painting I interpreted as her meaning. A few times I have tried this, it usually turns out looking like a preschooler attempt and gets scrapped. I realize that is whole point of this type of exercise–right?–to move through and past your comfort zone so that you can make successful paintings.

Why am I so tentative– wanting to plan every detail, before even placing a single stroke down? I’m sure it comes down to a myriad of things: past teaching styles, my own slow, methodical nature, not wanting to waste precious paint, energy, time, etc. I’m sure the best answer is somewhere in the middle — a compromise if you will — Well, isn’t everything in life a compromise — when you really think about it?

Later that week I sent Nancy a note regarding my ideas for the painting and mentioned my thoughts on being a “fast” painter. Her response was most insightful, as always.

“You don’t have to go faster, you just need to simplify and get all the parts of the painting to hold together more beautifully and count (this is not easy… it is the abstract nature of all painting) different artists knit it all together in ways that have to do with their own vision and being… it is something you have to want to do… (not just get a clear image of what you are seeing… but build a little world where the absence of one part would have the whole set up fall apart… and not to many extras either… what is fine and necessary…sometimes a pretty bit is just in the way and has to GO… this really is work!

“The different bits need to depend on each other. It is another way to think… to make a painting that is always a pleasure to look at, the balance is mysterious… as you work towards this you may feel it in your spine, one thing for sure is to work seriously in connecting all the shapes and forms and SPACES…The space is still PAINT YOU KNOW… it is not nothing… it counts as much as an object… even if the observer never notices… we have to notice… All the elements have to connect and interact and hold together. All at the same time. Otherwise it is skillful and decorative and shows what you can do, but that’s IT! …it doesn’t always go anywhere or give you a base to build on… or simplify from.

“It’s bad news and good news. And one never stops learning… each body of work sets up new problems…and that is why it is so interesting and compelling… and never ends…

NMM

For some reason I can’t even remember the light source painting from class, but I went home and put together a little composition of my own using a bright table-top desk lamp as my light source. I raised it up a bit, so I didn’t have to deal with too much perspective.

Painting with Attitude

The name of our class was Painting With Attitude. Each week we were treated to new “Nancy Notes”– a bit philosophy, a bit about art – a bit about our upcoming class assignment. Here are a few of my most favorite nuggets from the third week of class.

Get The Paint On…

20” x 20” Oil on Canvas

…Your’e going to paint with strength and vigor…and not be afraid of making a mess of it…I hope we don’t have to get drunk like those dreadful painting parties….”

To the left is my completed assignment for the week. Began in class and finished at home.


“The way paint gets onto the canvas…attack… advance…softly… intensely brave…capable of being reworked.. scraped off and put back..but mostly with intention, force (light or heavy), fearlessly, serenely, but NOT tentative and weak…Or so thin that it’s barely there…

We have to go back…It is your nervous system that you need to connect to, your touch, your aggression that so many of us don’t allow ourselves. It isn’t easy to make gentle work that is strong… all the forms depend on each other… There is a way to be in the moment, conscious, where every mark does something…

One of the tests of a good painting is ‘how long can you look at it?’, Hang your work on the wall…if you get tired of seeing it after a few weeks or notice you never look at it…Well?

What makes the art we love so possible to never get tired of… has to do with the state of the artists mind as the work was being made …the kind of connections that were happening between the eye, and the hand and the mind.

“Why are mistakes so scary? Why does getting it ‘right’ mean only how it looks and not how it feels? What happens when it feels great but looks a mess? What do you have to do to make the paint alive and as necessary as the picture you are trying to copy? How do you the means and the subject to be equal to each other?

“When it works is it Magic?”

“How can you stand it when it is strongly painted but ugly?”

Can you leave your comfort zone? How far? A little tiny bit… a jump off a cliff? NMM