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Visual arts

A grand visionary

Artist Matthew Blake helped make Detroit the city we love

Photo: Enis Sefersah
Photo of artist Matthew Blake, taken by collaborator and friend Enis Sefersah. They were invited by UNESCO to promote culture in war-torn Sarajevo in 1994.
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Published 5/21/2008

Detroit lost a dear friend and tremendous asset last week. Scores of people in all walks of life — from the neighborhood kids he mentored in inner-city Detroit to friends and fans of his artwork and music from California to Hawaii, from New York to Germany and Japan — will miss him dearly. Matt Blake, a prolific artist, musician, abandoned-home-renovator, die-hard Detroit booster and passionate vegetarian, died from a massive heart attack, due to a congenital condition unknown to him, while he was playing drums with his heavy metal band. He was 43 years old.

Blake's legacy in Detroit is hard to define because his impact was wide, his work, diverse. It is safe to say that he embodied the heart and soul of Detroit. He was constantly making art, making music, doing projects, working on his house, collecting junk and trash from around the city and turning it into beautiful works of art.

In 1983, at age 18, the guy got an Eagle Scout Court of Honor Award, the Boy Scout's highest rank of achievement. He managed Wayne State University's wood shop, helping repair old and valuable musical instruments and helping students with their projects. He was always doing.

Blake was a founding member of the Propeller Group, a handful of sculptors from the then Center for Creative Studies who were the hottest thing in the Detroit art world, the wunderkinds, the "mad talented guys that nobody wanted to touch," as sculptor and friend Ed Sykes describes it, from the late 1980s throughout the 1990s.

Sykes describes Propeller Group work as "elaborate industrial rococo Louis XIV assemblies." The group exhibited across the country and in Japan. In 1994, Blake and Enis Sefersah, his longtime friend and collaborator, were invited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to Sarajevo to promote culture in the war zone.

Blake's experience in Sarajevo left a deep impression on him, and images and commentary on war could be found in many of his subsequent works. At one point he took an old 5 Series BMW, "cut the whole body off the car and started making an armored vehicle out of it," says Taru Lahti, a close friend and fellow member of the Propeller Group.

Casual travelers and city dwellers might know of Blake from the work he did with artist Chris Turner on the Millennium Bell in Grand Circus Park, a large metal bell commissioned by the city. Blake made the large bronze ringer for the bell.

One day, years ago, Blake discovered the ringer was missing. Different stories circulate about how and where he found the ringer. In any event, according to artist and friend Jerome Ferretti, Blake took the ringer to his garage and sent a "ransom note" to the city, demanding that officials protect the ringer before he would return it. "Matt was outrageous," Ferretti says.

Blake will probably be remembered most in the art world for his recent sculptural works, the friezes. For more than a decade, he developed the form, in which he incorporated all sorts of found objects: toy soldiers, toy tanks and guns, Barbie dolls, Transformers, pieces of industrial metal. He attached the objects to large panels and painted over the works to give a smooth, monochrome finish. The friezes look like Greco-Roman architectural reliefs with a satirical, pop sense of humor.

A purist, a perfectionist, a lover of all things authentic and antique, it is said that Blake does not have a thing in his homes that is plastic. But he recycled plastics extensively in his works, thereby giving them a new life.

In order to trash-pick more efficiently, Blake developed an 8-foot-long mechanical arm he stored in a "pseudo" gun rack in the back of his truck. For this reason, Sykes calls Blake the "sheriff of trash."

"Everything was theater with that guy," Sykes says. "He'd reach behind him and whip the arm out the door, hyper extend the telescope, squeeze the trigger, and he would pick through the trash without even leaving the truck. He'd inevitably find that incredible piece, a 1960s black Jesus with a gold cape or whatever it was. The sheriff of garbage always got his stuff. And he was emotionally invested in getting what you needed too."

Blake was also well-known in his neighborhood in Southwest Detroit, down the street from the Hotel Yorba, for taking street kids under his wing and giving them odd jobs. A neighborhood oddity named Cliff, known for knocking on doors several times a day to ask for any number of things, would ask Blake for clothes. Blake gave him some expensive designer garb, so Cliff made his rounds in style.

When neighbor Manuel Gonzales was 15, Blake took him under his wing; Gonzales is 21 now.

"He came to my high school graduation," Gonzales says. "He was probably the most genuine person I've ever known. He's like the big brother I never had. He would take us places, parties and events and stuff, art openings. I had my first introduction to the art scene with Matt. He showed me a whole other side of what goes on around here.

"He showed me to appreciate quality more than anything, about music, working on a house, craftsmanship of anything he built," Gonzales says. "He took something that was nothing and made a lot out of it."

A few years ago, Blake and his wife, Hazel, fell in love with an abandoned wreck used as a drug den in Southwest Detroit. They bought it for less than $10,000, and then got saddled with paying thousands in unpaid taxes and utility bills.

They lived in a tent in the house for months while renovating it. There was no heat. The plumbing was a mess. And Blake wasn't the kind of guy who'd simply go to Home Depot to stock up on all the stuff he needed. He drove around the city searching for wood, cornice pieces, bronze plumbing. The tile in the kitchen, a stunning showpiece, was handmade by Hazel. Within a couple years, the house became a work of art. Matt and Hazel built a large wooden loft bedroom upstairs; downstairs had a soaring front room. Blake and his father carved pocket doors for the house, a special touch to Hazel's liking that visitors mistake as an original feature.

In 2006, Hazel and Matt decided to purchase a much larger, grander house, in incredible disrepair, nearby the one they had transformed. The larger brick and stone house had a commanding staircase and three full floorss, even a garage with a car-washing apparatus, but was missing a working boiler, windows were boarded and massive weeds surrounded the property. Still, Hazel and Matt saw the potential. He installed brass plumbing and fixtures into the upstairs bathroom. They sanded down the floors.

And while he was such a prolific man of action and creativity, it is Blake's unmistakable charm, kindness and compassion that made him a man widely mourned. On Thursday, a service for Blake was held on the third floor of the Piquette Model T Plant, recently opened as a museum. Blake is said to have loved the space, which most folks had never heard of or visited. Some 600 people showed up. The room had huge windows and lots of light, and was lined in two long rows by old experimental cars. The St. Andrews Pipe Band, of which Blake had been a member, wailed "Amazing Grace." Faces twisted in grief. Even the rockers cried.

Anyone who's ever met Blake talks about two things: 1) his million-dollar smile, a smile that brought the sunshine of the heavens right into your heart; 2) that crazy face he made when he played drums. Blake played in Bogue (with musician Dan Maister, who passed away three years ago), Misty and Hexane, and sat in on several jazz groups. He was an incredible drummer; he played fast and hard with a white-heat intensity. While he played, he'd look upward, his face contorted, in pain, in ecstasy, his mouth gaping. Some of his friends like to think that Blake's musical bliss was what he was feeling when he took his last breath.

"He hit some other dimension when he was drumming. He was dialed in so deeply, it looked like he was on some high, some religious thing. I don't think he could have picked a better way to go. He loved making art and creating music," his close friend Sefersah says. "If he had to go, he did it right. He went out like he came in, with great intensity."

Lisa Collins is a freelance writer who lives in New York. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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