It’s only Robert Onnes’ third time actually visiting Detroit, and he bought a factory. We’re speaking to Onnes by phone, and he’s just arrived in Michigan after more than 30 hours of traveling from his native New Zealand to check out 333 Midland — his “new, old factory,” as he calls it. It’s in preparation for his 20,000-square-foot Highland Park property’s big debut as an artists’ exhibition and studio space this month.
We ask Onnes if he was shocked the first time he came here — Detroit really couldn’t be any further from New Zealand. “You know, you can tour Detroit on Google Maps,” he says, unfazed. “It’s interesting. In New Zealand, where we live, you can’t buy a house for under $600,000 — New Zealanders have a blind faith that prices will never go down. We’ve never experienced the sort of crash that America has.”
A working artist, Onnes decided he had gone as far as he could in New Zealand, where he was building metal sculptures out of a small 800-square-foot factory. He was drawn to Detroit for the same reason countless other immigrants have been drawn here at various times throughout history — opportunity.
Onnes says he and his wife read about Detroit’s story in The Economist, and its cheap real estate and reputation of becoming an artists’ mecca made it an attractive prospect. He first came to Michigan in September 2012 to scope out the scene here. A real estate agent suggested Onnes connect with Robert Sestok, an artist who’s been living and working in Detroit for decades. Sestok had driven by 333 Midland once and saw the potential for it. By the end of that trip, Onnes bought a house in Rosedale Park, and he closed on 333 Midland in March 2013.
Onnes already had an amusing connection with the region: He designs his sculptures in CAD and uses a machine to route shapes out of sheets of metal, which he then bends and folds them into their final form. Onnes originally imported the routing machine to New Zealand from Michigan, and now it’s returning to Michigan with him. It’s a small world after all.
The American Robert (Sestok, that is) greets us as we pull into 333 Midland, by all accounts the textbook definition of an abandoned factory. If you live in Detroit, you’ve seen dozens of them. Huge windows line the walls — some are blown out, but for the most part the building seems pretty sound. “It was full of garbage,” Sestok says. “It went out of business in 2000 — for 13 years [scrappers] stripped the steel out of the building.” The Roberts had to re-roof the place and bring in water and electricity to the building.
Sestok is geeked, though, as he gives us a tour of the space, which would almost be Willy Wonka-esque if we weren’t the only two people on the campus. “It’s a fine space for an exhibition because of the scale of the place,” he says. “The nice feature is the windows let in all this light. That’s kind of a premium for artists who wants to work and see what they’re doing. This is north light that we’re standing in right now, which is perfect, ideal, even light.”
Sestok is busy preparing for the Midland Invitational, the space’s debut. Called Big Paintings at the Factory, the exhibition promises just that: Sestok has curated 45 artists to exhibit large works here. There are 14 paintings already in the gallery when Sestok gives us a tour, hanging from the rafters of the factory, with more on the way.
The paintings are just painted on canvas, so they can be easily rolled up. There’s already a gamut of different styles within this simple premise. One street-art painting depicts a larger-than-life Elvira. Another is an assemblage of different materials, while another utilizes a classical approach to painting.
Sestok shows us his own contribution to the show — a towering version of what looks like a notebook doodle of a young woman. Sestok drew it based off a photo, and then made a projection of the drawing, which he painted large scale. The final result takes something that looks like it was originally Post-It note-sized and magnifies it many times, with a slightly disorienting effect.
Sestok takes us to what he calls the “Annex Building,” a 12,000-square-foot space next door that he and Onnes hope to fill with artist studios. “It’s not going to happen overnight,” he says. “We just finished roofing this section. It was raining inside the building for a long time. We’ve been in here all winter without heat — the only heat in here was in the bathroom.”
But Sestok has seen all this before. Back in the ’70s, Sestok was part of the Cass Corridor community of artists, who he sees as responsible for paving the way to revitalizing that neighborhood. “I went through everything. The Willis Gallery was a storefront that we renovated and ran for more than 20 years,” he says proudly. Now it’s Avalon International Breads bakery, in one of the hippest parts of Detroit. “People came and explored Detroit back then,” he says. “I think they’ll come here too.” He refers to Highland Park as “away from the fast lane,” and the “last frontier in Detroit.”
Sestok recounts what he knows about the property’s industrial history. It was originally a garage, and then they turned the garage into a heat-treating facility. The business started around 1920 and made parts for Ford, and eventually Chrysler and General Motors, as well, before going out of business in 2000.
There were other factories as part of the property as well, but they don’t exist anymore. “They had a factory next door that got torn down last summer for the steel,” Sestok says. “They stole the steel out of the building. The guy across the street bought [another factory] and legally scrapped it. We could have had double the size, because these factories were going for nothing. Even though you don’t have heat, you have space — which is what all artists wish for, freedom in their work.”
We look out one of the enormous glass windows at a field of foliage — it almost looks like we could be out in the country. “We’re remote out here, that’s the nice thing about this place,” he says. “There’s a certain amount of serenity that comes from being here.”
With uncanny timing, Sestok’s cell phone goes off — a synthetic cricket ringtone chirps.
Big Paintings at the Factory kicks off with a series of opening events Thursday-Saturday, June 19-21, at 333 Midland, Highland Park; 248-722-3550; facebook.com/333midland. Gallery hours by appointment only after June until Aug. 31.
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