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Visual arts

Creative fellows

Kresge grants give a boost to artists and the Detroit art community

Clockwise from top left: Works by Ahmadi, Johnson, Orlando and Reid.
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Published 7/1/2009

The numbers are staggering. In 2007, the state of Michigan went deep into the bank, pulling out $10.1 million for arts and culture funding, but in April of that year, Gov. Jennifer Granholm put a moratorium on grants, which, with the help of groups such as ArtServe, was lifted that June. Not without consequence, however: Granholm cut the budget for the arts to $6.5 million almost immediately. Things were looking up at the beginning of 2008, as the state saw an increase of about $1.1 million. For 2009, in the face of the second most significant economic downturn in our nation's history — in the most cash-strapped state in the country, no less — Lansing set aside about $8 million to be spread across roughly 300 arts and culture programs, such as the Detroit Historical Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts. The latter institution announced a 20 percent reduction in its staff last February, which, combined with expense reductions, resulted in an approximate $6 million decrease in its annual operating budget.

But Gov. Granholm recently trimmed slightly less than $1 million off for the rest of the year's spending and wants to take her shears to an additional $6.1 million of arts funding for 2010, a move that would throw public arts and culture programs (as well as grants distributed by smaller institutions) into a tragic downward spiral. Perhaps the well is desiccated. It has to be. Why else would she even think to eliminate the Department of History, Arts and Libraries? But if Granholm gets her way, not only will the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs no longer qualify for crucial grants it accepts each year from the National Endowment for the Arts, but the Great Lakes State will once again be on the national stage for its economic afflictions: making history this time as the first state in 40 years to provide no programmatic funding for arts organizations. 

Up until last week, the search for good news — as far as monetary support for the arts in Detroit goes — was futile. Enter Kresge Arts in Detroit, a Motor City-centric appendage of the renowned Kresge Foundation, one of the world's essential private arts trusts that lends great financial sustenance (around 4 billion buckaroos) to educational and artistic institutions from Michigan to South Africa. 

There are several elements to the new Kresge Arts in Detroit layout. One is a continuation of their support for anchoring institutions undergoing capital renovations such as the DIA, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Opera House. Piece two is to elevate the Eminent Artist Award, a symbolic and abundant prize ($50,000) given to someone whose work is emblematic of what it means to be an artist of excellence in Detroit. According to Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson, a new Eminent Artist will be announced each year for the foreseeable future. Charles McGee was announced as the program's first Eminent Artist this past New Year's Eve. The third piece comprises the 18 annual arts fellowships, which, over time, will, Rapson says, "build beyond just the visual artists, which we have in this round, to a much broader spectrum of artists." Odd-numbered years, like this one, will see grants of $25,000 going to visual artists, while even-numbered years will focus on literary and performance artists. And the fourth piece, which is currently under wraps, is the attempt to work with several arts organizations (as of now unannounced) to try to figure out how they can help make those groups' collective impact stronger and more efficient. 

"It's really a difficult time for arts organizations to have a sustainable business plan," Rapson notes, "we're trying to find ways to help them look at combining back-office operations and to think differently about joint programming. The whole effort is a move to energize and help grow more vibrant and sustainable support for arts and culture in Detroit."

Until recently, Kresge had no history of supporting smaller organizations, nor was there any tradition in supporting artists on an individual level. With Granholm looking to hack $6.1 million statewide, Kresge's $8.8 million overall commitment to arts and culture in the tri-county area really couldn't have come at a better time. 

Jennifer Goulet, president of ArtServe Michigan, a statewide nonprofit arts and cultural advocacy organization whose mission is to cultivate the creative potential of Michigan's arts and cultural sector, couldn't agree more. "These grants and fellowships are an incredible affirmation of the transformative role that individual artists play in the evolution of communities — especially places that face daunting challenges like Detroit," she says. "Artists see with vision and creativity and look beyond obstacles to see potential that others might miss. The fellowship program provides recognition for this critical role of artists and invests in their creative spirit and work."

Sure, these fellowships are not large enough to completely support people, but they are large enough to really allow people to focus on their art. Rapson's take is rather pragmatic: "It would be nice if an artist could know they could concentrate on their art-making," he says, "rather than having to wait tables every night just to make ends meet." 

In recent weeks, a panel of judges composed of local and national experts scrutinized the works of more than 350 locally based artist applicants for the 2009 Kresge Arts Fellowship. The 18 Fellows selected, originally hailing from as far away as Germany, Iran and Zimbabwe, represent an array of visual styles, and, while some are well-known (Gilda Snowden), others have been operating under our radar (Cedric Tai). We present them here as a cross-section of creativity in metro Detroit today. 


Shiva Ahmadi

The Iranian-born Shiva Ahmadi graduated from Tehran's Azad University in 1998, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree. Shortly thereafter, the artist moved to the Detroit area and enrolled at Wayne State University, where she earned a master's of fine arts degree; a couple years later, she attended the prominent Cranbrook Academy of Art and earned an MFA there too. Taking her birthplace into consideration, the rug patterns, horses, poppy plants, bullets and oil barrels that show up in Ahmadi's abstract paintings are like intricate hieroglyphs and can be unsettling or simple. But these are also, by and large, regional, if not global themes. "To me art is a response to the life experiences," Ahmadi says. "I think what makes my art different from others is my background, since I grew up in Iran during the war and revolution. So the way I approach art is a little bit different."

On the topic of location, Ahmadi's largest artistic obstacle at the moment is the lack of adequate working space, something she hopes to change with the grant money. "My current studio is the largest room in my house, and since my paintings are quite large, I cannot work on, or even store, several at the same time," she says, noting her frustrations with not being able to explore the concept of an installation piece. "Painting at my home has other serious drawbacks: The smell of the oil-based paint that I use is very strong and permeates throughout the house, creating an unpleasant and unhealthy situation for my family. This fellowship will allow me to rent a studio with proper ventilation and explore creating much larger, installation pieces." 


Kristin Beaver

Drawing inspiration from music (specifically album art), fashion photography and the rich history of painters throughout time, Hamtramck-based artist Kristin Beaver, whose work is featured on this week's MT cover, paints large, photo-esque portraits, crammed with attitude; her subject's expressions are impossible to casually pass over. 

And there's something unmistakably "Detroit" about her work. "Moving from rural Illinois to Detroit nine years ago definitely had a big impact on my work. I am still taken with the city. I love it here and have chosen to make it my home," Beaver says, who found a muse in the city's music and the dated fashion shops in Hamtramck and Detroit. "I love looking through all the beauty supply, wig, hat and second-hand shops, but more than anything, it is the people and relationships I've formed in Detroit that have influenced my work."

Initially, the culture shock she had was strong. In reaction to city's decay, she dove into bright, saturated colors. "The ways in which the banal could be juxtaposed with the bright and garish piqued my interest," she says. "I'm still amazed while driving around at the way the old and the new are coexisting in the city."

Last year Beaver taught at Wayne State University, where she earned her MFA, but she had little time to work in the studio, a problem she's happy to remedy with the help of this fellowship. "I could create a scrapbook from all the rejection letters I have received over the years from various grants, scholarships, galleries and competitions, but they all made me work extremely hard, and it has finally paid off," she says. "I feel very lucky to be in the company of those who were named Kresge Artist Fellows this first year." We look forward to Beaver's solo exhibition at the David Klein Gallery in Birmingham later this year. 


Hartmut Austen

Rochester Hills resident Hartmut Austen is a native of Germany, where he studied painting and drawing at the University of the Arts in Berlin. A founding member of Detroit: Telegraph, a literary and visual arts journal published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Austen's use of pattern and color offer tangible abstractions that deal with vague faces and industrial structures.


Lynne Avadenka

You might've seen Lynne Avadenka's recent solo exhibition at Lemberg Gallery in Ferndale. Avadenka was recently awarded the Dorothy Saxe Prize as well as residencies at the Oberpfalzer Kuntslerhaus in Schwandorf, Germany, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, Va. An artist Detroit continues to celebrate, Avadenka shows continued interest in reimagining text and investigating Judaic content in informal modes, such as ancient-looking Hebrew etched into orbs and bowls. 


Tyree Guyton

You've seen his work. You might not realize it, but you have. The purple polka dot on the side of a power transistor, an abstract assortment of shoes, faces, clocks and more polka dots on a garbage truck, a painted face with a mouthful of crosses on the extracted hood of an old Ford — Guyton's work is strewn about the city. His opus: the world-renowned Heidelberg Project on Detroit's near east side. A painter, installation artist and embodied silver lining in Detroit's tattered fabric, Guyton is not only one of the Motor City's most prolific artists, but one of the most investigational. "This fellowship is going to help me to get to a place I have always wanted to go: Africa," Guyton says. "For many years I have heard, especially from Yale University professor Dr. Robert Farris Thompson, that my work is closely related to the art created in the Congo. This will give me an opportunity to go for myself, to see and to explore what I have been told and have heard for many years."

Asked what Detroit public place he'd like to work on next, Guyton says he'd like to polka dot the moon from the east side of Detroit, "and have the entire city to look up and see the beauty; it'd be a way of elevating our thoughts and minds to a higher plane." But he has more tangible plans for Heidelberg too. "The first thing I'm going to do is to give the Dotty Wotty House (aka Polka house) a facelift." Guyton then plans to return to Europe to complete unfinished business that he began in May. First, he'll travel to Bolzano, Italy, to complete an installation, and then to Bern, Switzerland, to work on a new series of prints with new styles and techniques. Finally, he'll travel to Africa to explore the Congo. "The purpose of working around the globe is to demonstrate the importance of networking and connecting the city that I love, Detroit, with the rest of the world through art. This city has made me believe in the impossible."


Chido Johnson

From Nyadiri, Zimbabwe, to Athens, Ga., to Notre Dame, Ind., sculptor and installation artist Chido Johnson has traveled a long road that eventually brought him to Detroit, where he works as the Section Chair of Sculpture at the College for Creative Studies. Asked how this latest location has inspired his work, Johnson says it's the city's sense of humor. "Having been raised with the blues, and I mean it metaphorically, where one learned to dance amidst struggles of existence, I felt it was necessary to make those struggles known in the U.S. Shortly after arriving, I suddenly realized that Detroit, in comparison to most of the U.S., truly did know what struggle meant. I was preaching to the converted, so I had to find a new way to approach my work, and that was humor."

Johnson's looking forward to using award money to go back to his birth country where he lived during his formative years. "Most of my current work speaks more directly to the tension between a space of a past in southern Africa, seen from my present and immediate experience of living in the Western world, Detroit," he says. "I am excited at the possibility now of being able to go back to Zimbabwe and Zambia, and see what happens when I reverse my position of gaze. Will their roles change? What would Detroit look like from there? These are the questions already running through my head. I have thought about this journey for some time."


Ed Fraga

A recipient of several national and international awards, Ed Fraga has been a local artist of note since his days making waves in the 1980s Cass Corridor. Born in Imlay City, Fraga earned his BFA from Wayne State University where he honed his figurative yet imaginative painting style. You can find his paintings
and drawings locally at the DIA, Cranbrook Art Museum, and the Flint Institute of Arts.


Susan Goethel Campbell

This printmaker got her master's at Cranbrook Academy of Art and since has gone on to create allusive monochromatic pieces, full of space and possibility. In 2008, Goethel Campbell was awarded a printmaking residency at the Flemish center for Graphic Arts in Kasterless, Belgium. Her work can be found in major public and private collections around the United States.


Russ Orlando

Some of Russ Orlando's work has been seen in Detroit public locations, as he's an artist who's rather interested in getting his work out in such a way, but his current consideration of taking on some of Detroit's landmarks has stirred up further curiosity.

In "Take Me Out," Orlando, a one-time advertising agency art director, addresses the now-demolished Tiger Stadium. "I prefer being out in the public and less so in galleries," says the sculptor-installation-performance artist. "For me, it is much more stimulating to be with the people of Detroit, whom I have a great deal of respect for." Being born and raised in Detroit has had a powerful influence on Orlando's work. "It's actually at the core of it," he says. "I treat Detroit as the stage and backdrop for my performances." And his performances, as well as his sculptures for that matter, Orlando refers to as "experiences," which often see the artist use his body in juxtaposition with the space it's in.

Aside from the easing of financial burdens, Orlando says he's still processing what the fellowship means to him. "Hopefully, receiving the fellowship should allow me to thoughtfully consider which project I would prefer to dedicate myself towards; I do have projects that I'm currently considering at this time, and all I can say is that they are site-specific and would be performance-based." Mysterious indeed, but who doesn't dig a bit of ambiguity?


Senghor Reid

With a stroke and palette that suggests a subtle fascination with van Gogh, Detroit painter Senghor Reid is out to develop a deeper understanding of the world and a greater appreciation for its diversity. "That approach positively influences the scope of my work," says Reid, who plans on using some of the money awarded by Kresge to participate in "creative experiences while immersed in fresh and unfamiliar cultures, working with established artists that live abroad, and children in the communities in both formal and informal educational settings." It's an outlook that weaves through Reid's conscious and subconscious connections to the arts in Detroit. Reid says he's recently been experiencing vivid daydreams of doing a performance piece somewhere in Midtown. "The vision is filled with DJs and artists making art in the same space at the same time in between two buildings," he says, noting there are several themes and issues specific to Detroit — such as education, population shifts, faith-based institutions and the lives of everyday citizens — he wants to pursue further in his work. "At the crux of my desire to make art is the need to tell untold stories," Reid says, "as well as the need to create historical documents that will hopefully contribute to future archives that tell the story of Detroit."


Rod Klingelhofer

Working in the automotive industry as concept and prototype fabricator, Klingelhofer, a transplant from Macon, Ga., graduated Cranbrook Academy of Art where he received his MFA in fiber. His artwork — sculptures created with castoff materials and industrial fabric — reinterprets urban spaces and comments on systems of ecology and trade.


Abigail Anne Newbold

She's a teacher, she's a collector, she's a designer — she's crafty! Utilizing a "domestic vocabulary," Newbold collaborates on local design-building projects when she's not manufacturing furniture and quilts that are as practical as they are profoundly artistic. Her imaginative internationally exhibited installations examine issues of comfort, survival and portability.


Gordon Newton

This sculptor and drawer was a big figure in Detroit's Cass Corridor during the 1970s. His work was included in the inaugural exhibition at the Willis Gallery, and has been included in exhibitions at the Guggenheim Museum, the DIA and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. In his work, which is in several different mediums — paint, construction, sculpture — texture is as thick as the subtext, which riffs on industrialization. 


Michael Edward Smith

A student of the College for Creative Arts and Yale University School of Art, Smith's heady, minimalist installations have been exhibited locally and nationally, though his first major solo exhibition will be in March 2010 at Knoch Oberhuber Wolff in Berlin. He shows a fondness for space and light and the rethinking of everyday objects.


Gilda Snowden

The long and the short of it: Gilda Snowden is an embodiment of the arts in Detroit. Having graduated from Cass Tech high school and having gone on to receive a BFA and Master's in Painting from Wayne State University, Snowden's role in the arts extends beyond making and exhibiting her own work, as she's the Interim Chair of Fine Arts at the College for Creative Studies and gallery director of the Detroit Repertory Theatre. Her lively, conceptual paintings are wrought with drips, splatters, spheres, rectangles and diamonds, all washed in vibrant colors.


Cedric Tai

For Cedric Tai, one of the youngest in the lot —24 years old — art is material-specific. Whether he is painting on Plexiglas or ceramics and installation, Tai uses art to explore various resources until he feels satisfied with understanding the ways in which he can manipulate the material. An artist who actively promotes the Detroit arts community, Tai works out of a studio in the Russell Industrial Center and offers time to educate at the DIA. 


Corine Vermeulen-Smith

This Dutch photographer, who cut her teeth at the Design Academy Eindhoven and earned her MFA in photography from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, shows a special interest in the phenomena of post-urban culture. Vermeulen-Smith, who recently contributed to a group show entitled "Walking Distance" at Hamtramck's 2739 Edwin Gallery, came to Detroit in 2006. She has since been drawn to documenting the flux of this city's social and geographical ecologies. Her work, which is exhibited nationally and internationally, brings images of Detroit to places like Beijing.


Sioux Trujillo 

From Spain to Ireland to France to Ferndale, Sioux Trujillo is indeed one of Detroit's acclaimed artists. Her mixed-media work is modern and weird and altogether mystifying. For 11 years, Trujillo's work as an artist and arts administrator in Detroit has seen her exhibit wondrous works at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Susanne Hilberry Gallery and inside the amazing Pioneer Building artists collective in Detroit.


Special thanks to art & culture intern Sara Axelrod for her help and dedication.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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