Lifelong Detroiter Saffell Gardner has a survey of his work at the new 9338 Campau Gallery in Hamtramck 

Back to the Beginning

The storefront at 9338 Campau has been abandoned for the last six years — its previous tenant, a clothing store, closed shop after suffering a small fire — but now something new is starting to take shape. The requisite white walls are now up, and owner Steve Panton is laying out the paintings for his art gallery's debut show, figuring out how they should be hung.

We notice Panton's English accent and ask what brought him Detroit. "The good weather," he jokes, but today he's actually right — the sun shines on Hamtramck, and lots of people are walking on the street outside. Panton used to have a gallery just around the corner — the pragmatically named 2739 Edwin, which he ran from 2008 to last October, but its second-floor location made it a less-than ideal venue for a gallery. Here, there's street access, visibility, and plenty of space. Panton says he wanted a space "where artists could stretch out, and take a good look at their work."

Painter Saffell Gardner is the perfect artist to do just that. A lifelong Detroiter, Gardner has decades of work — abstract paintings, charcoal drawings, and assemblages — dating back from the '70s and continuing up through the present. "We don't do 'retrospectives,'" Panton jokes. "My friend says when you do a retrospective, it's over." Panton prefers the term "survey" instead.

It's not the first time the local spotlight has been shined on Gardner. He had a solo show at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in 2000, and has created commissions for the city of Detroit and the Detroit Public Schools. But the vantage point of a survey affords the ability to view as a whole what was previously only visible as moments. Though Gardner's paintings are primarily abstract, looking at the breadth of his work, some recurring shapes appear.

Gardner walks us through his art laid out in Panton's gallery. An ax shape appears across many drawings and paintings — that's the Yoruba deity Shango's ax, he explains. The ocean can be seen on multiple paintings, as well as a shape evocative of a ship. That suggests the Western Passage. A door is another recurring motif — that's the "Door of No Return" from the fort on Senegal's Goree Island where thousands of slaves passed through.

Gardner says he didn't know that's what he was painting at the time, though. "These pieces occurred in 1980," he says of some early paintings featuring doors. It wasn't until '85 that Gardner visited Senegal on a trip organized by the National Conference of Artists, a group of African-American artists. Gardner was particularly moved by Goree Island. "In the middle there was this door, and you would look out and it was just the Atlantic Ocean," he says. "The ship would come up to bring the slaves in. Once you left that door, it was goodbye to Africa. They said some of the slaves didn't know where they were going, and they jumped off. At high tide the ship would come in, but also the sharks. I didn't know it was going to have any influence over my work.

"I really didn't connect it at that time, but then subsequently I started having doors in my work," Gardner says. "Those things started connecting more — the Shango piece, the door, the boat."

Gardner works using whatever materials are available to him, turning cut-up wood into stencils for spray paint, collaging elements and painting over in acrylic, and sanding down his paintings to create scratch marks. There is an undeniably physicality to his paintings — a sense of motion and tension. There's also lots of layers of under painting before Gardner paints the door on the top. "It seems like it's going to another dimension," he says. Gardner works fast, saying he often works in a series, working on anywhere from seven to 10 paintings at the same time. During this winter, the extreme cold caused Gardner to "compress his space," as he says, so he simplified his process and translated his work to charcoal drawings instead.

Lots of his paintings are made on old sheets of paper. "There was a printing company that used to throw out stacks and stacks of paper on a palett," he says. "I had an old Nova, and I used to go by and fill the trunk of it up."

Gardner says that reading Robert Farris Thompson's Flash of the Spirit helped him understand what he was painting, or at least to stop worrying and just love to paint. "He talks about how maybe psychologically or intuitively that you think about these things," Gardner says. "Thompson's book made me realize I need to start being more true to my intuition and to my dreams," Gardner says, things that art school can "train out of you."

Gardner studied painting at Oakland University and Wayne State, and earned a living as a graphic artist for 30 years working for AAA and AT&T. A jazz fan, Gardner makes a few references to synaesthesia, describing trying to make paintings look like how jazz music sounds and how musicians think, and describes it as a foundation and inspiration for his work.

When Gardner was attending Oakland, the jazz great Sun Ra came through town, and Gardner spotted him in a coffee house. "I don't know if we ever made eye contact, because he was writing music," Gardner says with a laugh. "I was trying to get him to look at some paintings. I think he managed to look at a couple slides and then he kind of waved me off."

It was through music that Gardner and Panton met. After a stint doing avant-garde jazz music programming at the Bohemian National Home, promoter Joel Peterson brought in some acts to Panton's former gallery.

Panton says should one ever have the pleasure of visiting Gardner in his studio — a former fire station in the North End — one would inevitably hear Gardner listening to jazz nonstop as he works. We have to ask: Is there a fire pole? "That's the question everybody asks," Gardner says with a chuckle; it was removed at some point. "Right now I've got my punching bag hanging there," he says.

Gardner describes himself as an "outsider looking in," and notes that he didn't grow up knowing about Yoruba culture. "It was something that I was fascinated by, and it had a lot of different interpretations to it." Gardner attributes his ability to interpret from his father. "He was into interpreting different things out of the Bible, and he would interpret them in a way where I could understand them," he says. "He wasn't just somebody pointing at you and preaching."

Gardner grew up in a two-family flat, where his father kept stacks of books on every surface. "They went from the floor to the ceiling," he says. Though he worked alternatively in a factory, in a landscaping business, and in a machine shop, Gardner regarded his father as a philosopher. He says it was unknown to him until recently, but his brother revealed that his father had a doctorate in metaphysics.

Gardner's father died in '82, but he did manage to see a one-person show of his son's work in the McNamara Federal Building.

"He would see me working and he would say, 'Your spirit goes into that painting,'" Gardner says. "Even if I never sold another painting ... that's not why I do it. There's a lot of other things I could do with a painting if I wanted to just sell it."

Until Something Else Comes Along opens from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. on Friday Aug. 22, at 9338 Campau Gallery, 9338 Campau, Hamtramck; 9338campau.com. Music by Marion Hayden and friends. Regular gallery hours are 1-5 p.m. on Saturdays or by appointment.

More by Lee DeVito

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