“Motown” and “Motor City” instantly set people to thinking about midcentury Detroit, home to automobile manufacturing and legendary groups such as the Supremes and the Temptations. Today the city is moving in a new direction, thanks to an artistic renaissance that has many young artists calling it home. “Detroit is a hot spot for young creative minds,” says Christina Devlin, interim chief administrative officer for Pewabic Pottery. “We want to be a place that attracts young artists.”
Despite a sharp decline in population since its heyday and the city’s recent bankruptcy filing, Detroit is poised to reinvent itself, with a growing art, craft, and design community, especially in the Midtown area. Shinola, maker of luxury watches, leather goods, and bicycles, chose to make its products in the heart of Detroit because of the city’s strong manufacturing background. “Detroit is an iconic city. In fact, it is an iconic global city. It has a heritage rich in industry,” Shinola CEO Steve Bock says.
The art community brings culture, pride, and hope to a city in the midst of a major turnaround, with the help of six neighborhoods in Detroit known for their museums, boutiques, and growing art scene.
The Heidelberg Project turned one of the city’s most distressed neighborhoods, once riddled with vacant houses and abandoned lots, into a two-block radius of colorful outdoor art that is now considered a creative gem, locally and nationally.
Artist Tyree Guyton created the Heidelberg Project 28 years ago by transforming the area’s abandoned houses and lots into art created from recycled goods. One structure, called the Party Animal house, features stuffed bears, rabbits, and other animals all over the building. Multicolored dots on Heidelberg Street lead visitors to more homes and lots filled with sculpture, decorated vehicles, and other art objects.
Unfortunately, in the last year, the Heidelberg Project has seen eight devastating house fires, most considered arson, including the House of Soul, decorated in old vinyl records. But Guyton vows to rebuild.
Located within the Heidelberg Project, artist Tim Burke created the Detroit Industrial Gallery from a house and adjacent lots that he bought and converted into a studio and gallery over the last 14 years. Burke calls himself as an outsider artist, explaining that his work does not always paint a pretty picture. The artist also makes functional art, such as furniture from old fighter jet parts and jewelry from salvaged copper. “Art here in the Heidelberg Project is good for the city because it draws people from all over the world,” Burke says, including, he notes, the film crew of the 2010 ABC drama Detroit 1-8-7, which shot some scenes in the neighborhood. “Detroit was known as the murder capital of the world, and it has shifted to the art capital of the world because of the Heidelberg Project.”
Housed in a Tudor revival home dating back to the early 1900s, Pewabic Pottery was founded more than a century ago, at the height of the arts and crafts movement. At that time, Pewabic Pottery produced architectural installations such as fountains, mosaic murals and floors in public and private buildings nationwide, and tiles and vessels. Ornate installations can be found in Detroit’s Guardian Building, the Detroit Public Library, and Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Today, however, the pottery is known for its richly colored dinnerware and ceramic tile.
The pottery is deeply rooted in Detroit, Devlin says, and because of that history, it has the support of a large community, both locally and nationally. “Many people come here after hearing about us, or they may bring people who are visiting from out of town,” from places as far-flung as Australia, Devlin says.
Pewabic Pottery is also very active in community outreach, especially through its education programs; 6,000 Detroit public school students participate in its ceramic art education program, Devlin says. The pottery also has a pediatric bedside art program through Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit.
The Detroit Institute of Arts, which was founded in the late 1800s, has one the best art collections in the United States. One of the museum’s most popular works is Diego Rivera’s famous Detroit Industry mural, whose main panels show workers on an assembly line, a tribute to Detroit’s industrial muscle. Although there has been discussion about selling off part of DIA’s collection to help with the city’s financial crisis, in January a group of foundations pledged several hundred million dollars to avoid that fate, as well as to help safeguard city workers’ pensions.
Two blocks from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is the largest museum of its kind. The museum hosts the work of local artists, along with exhibitions on a wide range of topics, from the Underground Railroad to ornate Sunday hats.
Also in the neighborhood is the College for Creative Studies. About 1,400 students are enrolled, mostly in the BFA program; the college also offers an MFA. When Shinola was launched in fall 2011, company leaders decided to locate its 60,000-square-foot watch and leather manufacturing assembly facility within the College for Creative Studies.
Shinola is deeply committed to the partnership and to the city. “We came to Detroit fully aware of its financial challenges, and the bankruptcy is, of course, a result of those challenges and a way forward,” Bock says. “Were we to make the decision today on where in the U.S. we would situate our factory and our first store, the decision would be the same.” The company’s flagship Detroit store opened in Midtown last June, and the company is securing space for a warehouse and distribution center.
On the first Saturday after Labor Day, the northern end of the Cass Corridor is abuzz with activity during the annual Dally in the Alley festival.
Touted as the city’s largest yearly festival, Dally in the Alley features music, visual arts, food vendors, and performances. For the 2013 edition, the festival featured Torri Ashford of PuppetART, who led several workshops on puppet making. Festival art director Andy Durkacs created art installations throughout the event, including work by Nick Pizana, a Detroit street artist.
A few blocks away, City Bird and Nest carry a variety of Detroit- and Michigan-themed goods, ranging from coasters and cookie cutters to journals and T-shirts. Brother-and-sister team Emily and Andy Linn opened City Bird in 2009; two years later they opened Nest, specializing in unique housewares.
The Russell Industrial Center in North End is a prime example of creative reuse in the city. Originally designed in 1915 by noted industrial architect Albert Kahn (the “architect of Detroit”), the site had fallen into disrepair until it was purchased and rehabbed in 2003.
The complex, spread out over seven buildings, contains roughly 2 million square feet of former factory space, housing a community of more than 140 artists and small-scale manufacturers, including glass sculptor Albert Young. His 4,000-square-foot hot and cold shop gives him plenty of space to work on large-scale sculpture as well as pass on his craft through the Michigan Hot Glass Workshop.
Letterpress printer Amos Kennedy was drawn to Detroit’s affordable cost of living and recently set up shop in the Russell Industrial Center with plans to open a space where anyone can learn letterpress printing.
Every weekend throughout the summer, a lively outdoor market occupies the grounds, complete with artist booths, music, and food, taking advantage of the warm weather.
Sugar Hill Clay Studio was born out of two passions for Diane Van Buren and her husband, Ernest Zachary. The couple rehabilitate and redevelop old buildings, and the 71 Garfield Building, where the clay studio is located, was one of their efforts. The couple gave the building a modern makeover with solar power and a geothermal heating and cooling system. The building offers studio space and artist apartments. It has also hosted 71 Pop, a pop-up shop featuring emerging artists such as Emily Thornhill, creator of Homeslice clothing.
Van Buren and Zachary took classes at Pewabic Pottery, which fueled their idea to open a pottery studio. Sugar Hill Clay has 10 pottery wheels, and neighboring SocraTea, a teahouse that the couple launched, doubles as a gallery space for the studio’s artwork.
Sugar Hill Clay launched its second annual “empty bowls” campaign in March to raise money for local food shelves, which are feeding more people on fewer donations than ever after the economic downturn. Participants buy a meal of soup, bread, and a beverage, and receive a handmade bowl from Sugar Hill Clay as a reminder that someone’s bowl is always empty, Van Buren says.
Sugar Hill Clay is located between the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, which host exhibitions in all mediums. The nearby Detroit Artists Market, founded during the Great Depression to help artists earn a living, today showcases local and regional artists, including students from the College for Creative Studies as well as Cranbrook Academy of Art.
“There are so many people coming to Detroit, and it’s becoming the center of the arts,” Van Buren says. “It’s easy to see the possibilities for Detroit. There is room for new ideas.”
Melanie Scott Dorsey is a freelance writer and native Detroiter who now lives in Austin, Texas.