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.

Belle Isle Park

Situated between the US and Canada, located within the Detroit River, is the recently renovated, island park named Belle Isle. It is currently managed as a state park by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) through a 30-year lease from the city of Detroit. At nearly 1000 acres, it is the largest city-owned park in the United States!

Belle Isle Conservatory
Belle Isle Conservatory

Today, the Island is home to an Aquarium, a Conservatory, a Nature Zoo, the James Scott Memorial Fountain, the world’s only marble lighthouse, the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, a Coast Guard Station, a municipal golf course, and numerous monuments.

Belle Isle Aquarium
Aquarium Entrance

Frederick Law Olmsted, the “father of American Landscape Architecture” created the original design for the park in the 1880’s. Unfortunately, due to creative differences, only some of his plans were executed before his resignation. The aquarium and conservatory were both designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn in the early 1900’s. The Memorial Fountain was completed in 1925 and designed by Cass Gilbert , another leading American architect of the time.

While researching the park, I came across an interesting bit of automotive history:

In 1908, a young gentleman stopped to help a stranded driver on the Belle Isle bridge. As he was cranking the starter on her Cadillac, the car kicked back, breaking his jaw. He passed away due to complications from the trauma. His death was the impetus for the creation of the automatic self-starter customary on all vehicles today.

We visited the park over the summer spending most of our time in the beautiful Conservatory. Here you can see some of the unique plants and trees found inside.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit

The exclusive exhibit of Diego and Frida was at the Detroit Institute of Arts from March 15 to July 12. I had seen the advertising for the event in the winter months and it was definitely a To Do art event.

Frida

My mom is a huge Frida fan and introduced me to her long ago. I had watched the movie, “Frida” with Salma Hayek in 2002 and loved it. Strange enough, as I was channel surfing a few weeks ago I caught the beginning of the movie and proceeded to watch it again in its entirety. Being back into the art world again, I had a new found appreciation for her unique style and subject matter. If you have not seen the movie, I highly recommend it! You can not truly appreciate her work, unless you know her life story.


DIA Diego & Frida Brochure

Mom and I were determined to see the exhibit, but between busy schedules we had a difficult time putting it on the books. Now that the event was ending, we had no choice but to go on the last day. Note to self: never see an exclusive exhibit on the last day! When we arrived at the DIA, the next available time was 6:30. We walked around the Institute, grabbed a bite to eat and waited for our turn to get in line.

Breadline (Courtesy of Internet)
Breadline (Courtesy of Internet)

The line twisted and turned throughout the museum like a snake. For some reason, standing in long lines feels worse for my body than

walking a mile and I was hurting! Thankfully at some points I found a chair while my mom stayed in the line to keep our place. (Thanks Mommy!) We must have waited for 1 1/2  hours but it seemed more like three and felt more like a 1930’s bread line.

Once we were finally inside we were treated to nearly 70 works of art by both Frida and Diego, including massive drawings from Diego’s plans for the DIA murals, paintings from both artists, and a short movie highlighting their story. According to the website there were 23 paintings from Frida, none of which had been exhibited at the DIA before. Since we were not allowed to take photographs inside the exhibit, I’ve included some of the paintings that we saw.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo were an explosive couple. He carried a pistol. She carried a flask. He romanticized Detroit. She rejected it. But what they shared was a belief in communism, a thirst for tequila and a passion for each other. (DIA Website)

What a couple. What a story. What an exhibit. Thank you Frida and Diego for sharing yourselves and your art with the world!