At the end of September we went downtown to check out a really cool spot in Detroit called The Belt. Known as a “culturally redefined alley in the heart of downtown” and named for its physical orientation in a former downtown garment district, The Belt is located between Broadway and Library Street and links Gratiot and Grand River. The project was conceptualized and curated by Detroit-based art galleryLibrary Street Collective. Even the parking garage walls are painted in a graffiti-larger-than-life comic book style. As you enter The Belt you see various large-scale art installments and murals — each one curated by a different artist — that rotate throughout the years.
When we were there the Country was still reeling from the murder of George Floyd. In response, Dallas-based artist Jammie Holmes initiated a public demonstration, across five U.S. cities. On May 30, Airplanes with banners flying Floyd’s final words connected these cities in a national protest of police brutality against Black Americans.
“The Belt is another example of our growing interest in reimagining underutilized spaces throughout the city. This formerly desolate alley has transformed into one of the most dynamic pedestrian-friendly public spaces in the country.”
— Anthony Curis, founder of Library Street Collective
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recently my mom and I battled the precipitous elements and ventured out to an outdoor art fair set in the quaint little downtown of a neighboring city. This was the second day of the fair, and as mentioned, the weather was not cooperating. Many of the artists had already packed up their tents and gone home, but a few brave souls remained to battle mother nature and hopefully sell their creations.
I didn’t purchase anything but my Mom was pulled into one particular tent by a chatty owner and walked away 20 minutes later with a hand-knit wide-brimmed hat perfect for summertime gardening or lounging by the pool.
Along with the few tents, the semi-truck and trailer housing the DIA Away was in attendance. The traveling art educational exhibit is targeted toward kids with an emphasis on “thinking like an artist.” Inside there are numerous interactive stations aimed at creative thinking. The truck makes art accessible to children everywhere. Coincidentally, just a few weeks ago, it was visiting my son’s elementary school.
In addition to the tents and truck, the local Art Center was also open. The old downtown library had been converted into a beautiful center for art. Classrooms are housed in the lower level while the main and second floors hold gallery space for exhibitions. The current exhibit was showcasing works from the Detroit Society of Women Painters and Sculptors.
The rain had stopped and the sun was brightening up the sky when we had finished exploring the Art Center. We perused a few quaint shops on Main Street before putting our feet up and grabbing a late lunch at the local pub. All in all, it was a lovely afternoon!