5:47 PM / Friday December 1, 2023

13 Oct 2013

Michigan, A walk on the art side in Detroit and Ann Arbor

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October 13, 2013 Category: Travel Posted by:

ABOVE PHOTO: Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals


By Renée S. Gordon


“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.“ 

–Aristotle (384-322 BC)


The earliest documented works of art are generally dated as a minimum of 42,000-years old. An even older discovery made in 2008 in the Blombos Cave in South Africa is, astonishingly a 70,000-year old painter’s workshop. Artifacts uncovered inside the cave include bone spatulas, colored pigments, grindstones and abalone shell vessels. These and other similar discoveries worldwide highlight the fact that mankind, from the beginning, has sought to express its culture, beliefs, hopes and dreams through art. The tradition of creating and sharing artistic visions has not only continued but has expanded to include other mediums and we are no longer limited by the amount of space on the wall of a cave.


A Michigan art tour incorporates visits to a wide variety of types of artistic experiences representing grand old institutions and cutting edge venues and expressive exhibitions created by craftsmen, chefs, architects, landscapers and artisans. The cities in this series each make a unique contribution to the art trail and the cultural identity of the state. The trail is 136 miles long and extends from Detroit to Grand Rapids.  


King Francis I of France sponsored explorations of the Western Hemisphere in the early 1500s to find a route to the Pacific Ocean and later to establish trading colonies to facilitate exportation of goods such as furs. In the 1600s the French became increasingly aware of the threat posed by the British and began founding a series of fortifications for protection and to advance trade. The area that is now Michigan was home to more than 100,000 Native Americans, representing five tribes, prior to contact with Europeans. Samuel de Champlain explored the area in1618 and he is considered the first European to set foot in Michigan. Explorer Adrien Joliet, led by an Iroquois guide, made camp at what is now Detroit in 1669.  


In 1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac erected Fort Ponchartrain du détroit at a point called “the straits,” where the river narrowed. Détroit was a French colony until it fell under British rule 59 years later and as such slavery existed from the establishment of the colony. In 1709 the “Ordonnance au sujet des Nègres et des Sauvages appelés Panis” sanctioned slavery in New France stating that all Negroes and Panis (Native Americans) held as bondsmen were now legally enslaved.


In the 1790s possession fell to the United States. In 1793 Jacob Young purchased land and became the first black person to own land in Detroit. Detroit in the 1800s became a final U.S. terminal on the Underground Railroad with a minimum of seven routes and 200 stops that ran through the state.


D:Hive Detroit is an innovative company that is designed to attract people to the city through creative tours, information, classes, amenities and events. It is an invaluable resource for material on dining, shopping, lodging, entertainment and sports. This is a great source for visitors and residents alike and a scheduled city tour, one of seven  public tours offered, is a wonderful way to learn about the history and architecture of the 7.2-mile Downtown and Riverfront and Detroit’s 30 art museums, 39 live theaters and one of the countries leading symphony orchestras.   


Early plots of land in the city were sold in “ribbons,” so that more settlers could have riverfront property. Plots were 2 to 4 acres wide and 80 acres long with wooden farmhouses. On June 11, 1805 the largely wooden-structured city burned to the ground with only one building surviving. The governor decided to reconstruct the city using L’Enfant’s Washington, DC street grid. Detroit would go on to have the first freeway and the first streetlight.


A stroll around downtown reveals several significant sculptures. “The Spirit of Detroit” is the city’s iconic monument. Marshall Fredericks’ 26-ft., green-hued, bronze statue is located at Coleman A. Young Municipal Center. The seated figure holds a golden orb in his left hand and a family in the palm of his right hand. 


Sports Illustrated commissioned the controversial $350,000 “Monument to Joe Louis,” better known as “The Fist.” The 24-ft. long sculpture, on a scale of 1-ft. equaling 1-inch of Louis’ arm, was created by Robert Graham to honor the boxer who grew up in the city. A less controversial statue of Louis by Ed Hamilton is in the Cobo Center adjacent to the Joe Louis Arena.


“Gateway to Freedom,” a bronze and granite sculpted diorama, is located in Hart Plaza on the riverfront across from Canada. Two pillars frame a 10 X 12-ft. grouping of six freedom seekers preparing to board a boat. George DeBaptist a Detroit UGRR conductor points to Windsor, Canada and freedom. The piece was created by Ed Dwight and installed in 2001. A sculpture depicting their arrival stands on the opposite shore in Windsor.


The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) has been housed within a structure that was once a 22,000-sq. ft. car dealership and auto body shop since 2006.  The museum has no permanent collection but instead focuses on exposing the public to the divergent cultures and creative viewpoints in the contemporary arts. Art films screened on a 10-day rotating schedule and a series of readings, lectures, musical performances and educational activities are a regular part of the museum’s public offerings.


MOCAD’s current central exhibition is entitled “The Past is Present.” It is a look at Detroit at this pivotal moment in time by 17 international artists. The Fourteen murals depict a slice of Detroit’s history and invites viewers to make connections with the present. 


An exterior display, “The Mobile Homestead,” is both a work of public art and a community activity space. The homestead is a full-scale replica of the one-story ranch house in which the artist, Mike Kelley, grew up. The house was designed to be driven to local communities for use as an event and service area. Tours are available.


The Heidelberg Project (HP) in Detroit is an outdoor art gallery and 28-year dissertation on art begun in 1986 by artist Tyree Guyton with the assistance of his grandfather Sam Mackey. Guyton returned to his old neighborhood after serving in the armed forces to discover a once thriving black community devastated and filled with derelict houses. He decided to use the neighborhood’s houses and vacant lots as vehicles to provoke thought, lead to a reexamination of our world and generate a sense of community through art. Installations on and around the houses are created using found objects.


The HP covers two blocks in the lower east side neighborhood once filled with handcrafted houses that was home at one time to Coleman Young and Peabo Bryson. Wilson Pickett’s former home is adorned and is situated next door to The House of Soul, a residence covered with records. Lisa Marie Rodriguez is both Chief Curator and contributor to the project. Her innovative gateway and sundial are situated at the entrance of Mt. Elliot and Heidelberg Streets.


The Beaux Arts Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) was established in 1885 and relocated to its current location in 1885. The museum has a 600,000-sq. ft. footprint designed by Philadelphia architect Paul P. Cret, designer of Philadelphia’s Rodin Museum and constructed at a cost of $4 million. By 2007, two wings had been added and the museum had undergone a restructuring that made the art more accessible to the public. This was accomplished with new, more in-depth signage relating the history of the artwork, and a repositioning of the artworks including eye level labels for children.


The DIA’s 60,000 object collection boasts the first Van Gogh ever acquired by an American museum as well as a suite dedicated to art by African Americans and is considered an “encyclopedic” art museum based on the diversity of its collection. Even with this treasure trove of art the work that receives the greatest amount of international attention is Diego Rivera’s mammoth fresco “Detroit Industry.”


Rivera’s 27 panel mural is on the walls enclosing the Kresge Court. The work was commissioned by Edsel Ford and the Ford Motor Company and was completed in 1933. The industrial spaces in the murals are modeled after Dearborn, Detroit’s Ford Rouge Plant that at the height of the Depression employed 100,000 workers. The facility was 1.5-miles long and 1-mile wide. When the work debuted it was highly controversial. Visitors should take note of Edsel Ford’s inclusion in the mural and a scene depicting people taking plant tours that are represented by cartoon characters of the day. IPad tours are available online.


David Whitney Jr., a lumber baron, was the wealthiest man in Detroit during his lifetime and his net worth upon his death in 1900 was estimated to be $2 billion. The Whitneys began work on their Romanesque Revival home in 1890 and the 52-room home, the first with a residential elevator, was completed at a cost of $400,000. The mansion was constructed of rare pink South Dakota jasper and adorned with stained glass windows by Tiffany’s, three types of wood, a bronze staircase, 10-ft. high library fireplace, hand-woven silk ceilings and brass light fixtures installed by Thomas Edison capable of operating with gas or electricity. 


The Whitney currently offers visitors the best of both worlds. Guests can dine in the restaurant and explore the historic house. Gourmet cuisine and a stellar wine list complete the “Whitney” experience.


John Allen and Elisha Rumsey established Ann Arbor in 1824 and according to local lore named the town after their wives, Ann Allen and Mary Ann Rumsey. The city, 33-miles from Detroit, is home to the University of Michigan Central Campus, arts and cultural institutions, and has been designated ”one of the foodiest towns in America” by Bon Appétit Magazine. There are more than 250 dining options, many of them presenting creative menus using locally grown produce.


Motawi Tileworks had its origins in 1992 when artist Nawal Motawi began crafting tiles in her garage. Motawi has now grown into a studio that creates field and relief tiles in the polychromatic “Cuenca” style. The tiles are collectible as well as utilitarian and can be special ordered and Ms. Motawi has been featured on PBS. Interactive experiences and tours can be arranged.


We will be continuing our tour through Michigan’s art scene in part two. You can access additional information at the individual links listed. Planning and research tools are available at Pure Michigan’s website.


I wish you smooth travels!





“Forging Faith, Building Freedom: African American Faith Experiences in Delaware, 1800-1980” is currently on view at the Delaware History Museum until June 15, 2014.  The exhibit will showcase the achievements of four Delawareans, Samuel Cornish, Peter Spencer, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, ho were instrumental in establishing autonomous African American faith institutions. Additionally focus will be placed on the role of religion and religious institutions in the black experience.


Be on the lookout for the opening of chef and owner Kevin Sbraga’s newest restaurant The Fat Ham. The restaurant, his second, will be located in University City and will introduce Kevin’s newly created menus showcasing southern cuisine reflecting the history, heritage, traditions and ingredients used to craft unique tastes and a special vibe. 


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