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Visual arts

In progress: The Lot

Corktown-based artist Kathy Leisen is behind Detroit's latest public art site

MT Photo: Travis R. Wright
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Published 7/22/2009

Inspired by the Ox-Bow School of Art and Artists Residencies in Saugatuck, where Corktown-based artist Kathy Leisen works on staff, the Lot is the latest in Detroit's lineage of public art sites. Leisen says that site-specific outdoor artwork is a natural part of the experience at Ox-Bow because of its exceptional setting on the dunes of Lake Michigan, surrounded by woods.

"There were some particularly memorable outdoor works and performances this past winter, but what was most compelling about them was the energy they produced," Leisen says. "Artists there are encouraged to take risks, to experiment, and that's what excites me most about art. When I came home, I looked at the empty lot next door and knew what I wanted to do." That was in February, and by late March Leisen had a solid concept laid out.

"I spent the spring refining my written material, communicating with artists and fleshing out the calendar," she says. "In my down time, I would go through the empty lot next to my house picking up endless chunks of concrete and rebar."

The Lot's just a couple weeks old — the first exhibition, "Cooking with Power Tools," proved to be an engaging and entertaining spectacle — so the space is very much in its formative phase, still defining exactly what it is and in what capacity it'll function. If anything, Leisen says, the Lot is "primed to be art space that features a lot of crossover — we don't need things to fit into any category."

The city of Detroit would sooner see the Lot as just another thicket in its expansive concrete jungle, so Leisen looks to her landscaping neighbor, Howard King, to keep the lawn kempt. The rest of the neighborhood is cool with the Lot too — Leisen went door to door making sure.

"Kids in the neighborhood always ride by on their bikes and give us the thumbs-up; sometimes they stop and ask questions but sometimes they just yell, 'Yeah, that's the Lot, man!' Leisen says, noting that, because of this project, she's gotten closer to everyone in the neighborhood.

"I don't think that what they are saying is, 'Yeah, experimental outdoor art spaces that reclaim unused land are cool!' I think they just like the letters, and that it makes them feel like they're a part of something." Vandalism is a concern, but Leisen is confident that people generally respect what's going on there. She also says the Lot could only exist in Detroit.

"Space is readily available here. We are crawling with empty lots — but what's more important is the attitude here, that's what makes it possible," she says. It's this sentiment that informs the Lot's slogan: We live here for a reason.

"Living in Detroit is very different from living in other cities — we have different expectations," Leisen says. "Just living here is a radical notion to some people, but a concept such as putting art in an empty lot is something that people in Detroit are quicker to embrace."

Leisen has been living between New York and her home in Corktown for the last three years, and her bilateral domestic approach plays right into the Lot, as each exhibition will pair a Detroit artist with one from out of town. Part of this is because Leisen wants to introduce others to the scene in Detroit, but she also hopes this approach might provide a potential network for Detroit artists to show in other cities. See, the Lot isn't a social experiment; it's a response to the restrictions of gallery space and the possibilities of public art.

"I like to think of the Lot as combining the best aspects of both," Leisen says, "allowing for the spontaneity of a gallery with the all communal aspects of public art."

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