Art all night 

Streetlights hum as starlight slowly fades. Dust settles into the sinuses of dreamers all over town. It’s the time of reverie, when day trippers sink deeper into their pillows, and folks on the night shift break for steaming coffee; even junkies slow down to nod; cabbies yawn and wonder what it’s all about.

Somewhere in Eastern Market, a painter sizes up a canvas — and in a loft near Tiger Stadium, a huge sculpture starts to take shape. Artists work while the world is busy with its own affairs or recuperating from them. And nowhere in the metro area is there more after-hours art making than in the studios of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

Leaning over fields of yellow and blue that seem airbrushed on, photographer-turned-painter Matthew Penkala carefully works another micro-layer of polyurethane acrylic into the smooth surface of his latest piece. “I’m trying to see what’s gained by technology, what’s lost by it,” he says, wielding a small brush, the least technological of tools.

In a neighboring building, Fabio Fernández, a sculptor who majored in business as an undergrad, has stacked up a wall of suitcases in front of his studio window. Red, blue, gray, green, yellow — they’re a backdrop installation for his research into coffins, the unmistakable containers of death. Making his own coffins from strawboard, from “the aftereffects of harvesting,” Fernández thinks of their eventual disintegration as another instance of “the dead giving back.”

A few studios away, sculptor Eric Symons is sitting in front of a mirror trying on his copy of Bob Dylan’s famous nose. Symons’ own body has been the primary material for his recent work, a series of short performance videos on the theme of fame. Right now he’s preparing to film Bobby D, but earlier this year he was Marilyn Monroe in Marilyn Returns, a cowboy in Pontiac for Lost Without My Horse and Princess Diana in Diana, the Movie.

Light pours from the windows overlooking Academy Way, the main drag of what architect Eliel Saarinen founded as an artists community in the 1920s. It has grown into an arts-education-museum complex, but it is still renowned for its seclusion from life’s daily distractions. A solitary figure dressed in white walks through the softly falling snow — it’s a young woman from sculpture heading over to the design department for a heady confab or maybe just an encouraging chuckle. From the outside, the department home is just one of a dozen clean-lined, early modernist buildings. Inside it’s a labyrinth of cubicles worthy of the back alleys of Hong Kong or Calcutta, lit by glowing computer screens and spiced with the ambient sounds of quietly gurgling fish tanks and intimately muted stereos. She winds her way through this postmodern tangle and stops at a drafting table to visit.

On the cusp of midnight, Cranbrook’s workspaces are just starting to fill up. Students from all over the world — Mexico City, Seoul, Beijing, Indianapolis, New Orleans — attracted by the school’s heavy rep, are feeling the freedom to focus on ideas for their own sake.

Chris Lopez, a 2-D design student from L.A., usually works till 6 a.m., then sleeps till noon. Having left behind a secure position at Imaginary Forces, the outfit that did the credit sequence for David Fincher’s groundbreaking film Seven, Lopez relishes being out from under the thumb of clients. Manipulating typography with computer programs and video, he’s exploring “this hybrid place between graphic design and film — I’d like to fill in that gap.”

In another quiet byway of design’s maze is a young woman who has come a long way to be here: Shanshan Li from Beijing did her undergraduate work at Zhe Jiang University, couldn’t help hearing about the “great design program” at Cranbrook, and has spent five months getting used to the United States. In quite good English, she talks about her 3-D design project, a display frame for fruit that she calls “Orchard on the Table.” Its purpose: “to bring nature indoors.”

Since 1943, the academy’s two-year MFA program in fine arts has attracted some of the world’s more daring aesthetic investigators to what are now 10 departments: architecture, ceramics, 2-D and 3-D design, fiber, metals, painting, photography, print media and sculpture. In the light of day, Cranbrook’s grounds are lush and inviting. Visitors to the art museum and the institute of science see the academy buildings and imagine all kinds of creativity taking place. But from the program’s beginnings, perhaps the best time to get some serious concentrating done has been after dark.

One of the more curious aspects of the academy experience is the latitude students have. Sculptor Audrey Heimgartner makes videos recording her performances with objects and materials: for example, a fast-animation document of her lying on a pile of snow that melts, grows back, then melts again, in quick succession. Ceramicist David Jordan is sewing a huge stuffed-cloth model — more than 7 feet tall — of the U.S. military’s Daisy Cutter bomb. At 75 percent of the weapon’s actual size, it’s a grimly funny toy that Jordan says is “aimed at raising political consciousness.”

Paul Fox, a second-year student in print media, is filming a miniature landscape complete with figures and vegetation as a “formal experiment, working with montage on different contexts for the same story.” Sculptor Andy Jordan is making often unwearable clothes out of unlikely materials: gum-rubber suits with upholstery thread, or blue plastic body suits that make their wearers look like Gumby.

While the work in some of the studios — design and photography, for instance — is inherently individual, ceramics feels more like a team effort. The firing and maintenance of the kilns are always group endeavors — and ceramics head Tony Hepburn has had all of the doors removed from the student workspaces, emphasizing the village spirit of the place.

Pipo Brockman, a painter-now-ceramicist from Mexico, is working on brick-clay renderings of chickens, ducks, dogs and other life-forms. Sometimes the faces are just emptied places, making the dogs look like the hellish creatures in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Pipo’s dog Chapa, a Mexican hairless, comes sniffing around for a snack, then starts squealing in pain, her paw caught in a worktable seam. Within seconds, everybody’s in Pipo’s studio, concerned, soothing Chapa.

Of course, every now and then, regardless of discipline or department, someone just sits staring at a blank wall. Pencil in hand, coffee mug ignored, oblivious to the activity of others, this catatonic person is actually hard at work — lifting and displacing blocks of memory, sketching out and erasing possibilities on the mental chalkboard, making room for new connections. It’s the tango of night moves par excellence, the invisible dance that takes the work into its next phase.

A last predawn stop in painting takes us to Moon-Joo Lee’s studio. Her large acrylic work in progress covers one wall with sketches of houses in blue and orange — rows of individual dwellings that recall neighborhoods in Boston and Seoul, Korea, that Moon-Joo has known. But, she explains, the combination is more theoretical than autobiographical: “Here my motivation is more conceptual than personal, more objective” — “here” being Cranbrook, where she’s been encouraged to think further, past the old definitions, late into the night.

George Tysh is arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail

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