We've already spilled lots of ink about the Red Bull House of Art — the Eastern Market gallery curated by local art luminary Matt Eaton that first opened its doors two years ago. Every three months a new group of artists is chosen to gain 24-hour access to the House of Art's studios to create a new body of work for a final exhibition, and each cycle is a carefully curated and diverse group of artists. Meet Cycle 8.
We caught Rashaun Rucker by phone from the National Association of Black Journalists conference in Boston, where he was working as a mentor for young reporters. Rucker, 36, is deputy director of photography and video at the Free Press.
Though he's a photojournalist by day, for his House of Art residency Rucker turned to drawing to create a series of striking images. "I come from a fine art background. No matter what I'm doing, I'm a storyteller," he says. "I didn't think I was going to get in because I had this social message to my art. I was pleased that Matt allowed me to be me. That's what made the opportunity so dope, because of that."
For his residency, Rucker created a series of larger-than-life graphite and ink drawings of portraits of Detroit's homeless. Rucker spent weeks interviewing people, taking photos of them and creating the drawings. Some even feature the subject's own writing right on top of the drawing, allowing the people to tell their stories in their own words.
Rucker wanted to create something that was impossible to ignore. "We walk past them every day," he says. "We don't even generally take time to look at them. It's more (about) forcing somebody to actually look at humanity, even at its lowest point."
The first drawing Rucker did was of "Dreadlock Mike" Alston, well-known in Detroit for panhandling near Comerica Park. "I drew a picture of him, and about three weeks later he died," Rucker says, referring to the hit-and-run car crash that killed Alston last year. Rucker brought it into his initial interview with Eaton to show him what he had in mind for the show. "I call it 'Detroit Street Jesus,'" he says.
Rucker says it was challenging to find time to work on his series on top of all of his other commitments. "It was really a sacrifice to get it done," he says. "I always draw in the middle of the night because that's when I have the most free time in my household." Rucker says he has two young sons, and one of them has autism. "That's what sparked off my body of work," he says. "Most of the homeless in Detroit have mental disabilities. The (state) shut down all the services for them. I realized the only thing standing between my son when he's older and the street is me."
Most of Rucker's models came from the Cass Corridor and the Eastern Market area. The ones who wrote their stories on the drawings were from the homeless shelter and rehab clinic Mariner's Inn. Ruckers says that because the House of Art does not take a commission on art sales, he will give 20% of whatever he makes to Mariner's Inn. "I wanted it to be something that gave back," he says. "Even if it doesn't do anything but let them buy another TV for the guys in the shelter or something."
On his philosophy for his work, Rucker paraphrases the author James Baldwin: "The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see."
"That's how I approach my art," he says. "I want to show you what you don't see."
For his House of Art body of work, 38-year-old Paolo Pedini mashed up Greek sculptures, neon colors, spray paint, collage, and even a flyswatter to create what he calls his "personal mythology."
"It's taking modern art ideas and techniques and mixing them with the ancient," Pedini says of his anachronistic style. "I feel like that contrast is really interesting." A recurring motif depicts an astronaut, but inside the helmet is a face with the whitened, stoic gaze reminiscent of a Greek statue. Pedini even painted some self-portraits in the Greek statue style.
Originally from Saginaw, Pedini now lives in Lathrup Village, having moved recently for work. "I was doing art shows down here all the time anyway," he says. "It seemed like a natural fit."
Of his process, Pedini says everything starts out with acrylic paint. Then he starts collaging — stuff gets glued on, stuff gets sanded off. A number of paintings have a sort of spray-painted radial effect. Pedini says he created those from using either the grille of a discarded fan or a fly-swatter as a stencil. "I found (the fan) out back in a dumpster," he says. "I love it. It's one of those things that's too good, so I try not to use it too much."
When we speak to artist Chad Davis, 34, he's at work in the House of Art's wood shop, sawing pieces down into small rectangles while his young daughter occupies herself with her own art in the corner.
Davis says he finds the wood in old houses, buildings, and the trash and reconfigures the pieces into wall-mounted assemblages. "In Eastern Market down here, there's pallet wood everywhere," he says. "If I find a really weathered, cool-looking piece I give it a new home and purpose."
Davis says the different types of wood gives him different values, which add visual interest to his pieces. "Sometimes it's there naturally, but sometimes I use a torch or spray paint or sanding and try to get different patinas or values," he says. "I try to achieve different textures with the grain of the wood."
The final step sees Davis hammer tiny nails into the surface, giving the piece a well-worn look, like an old telephone pole with decades of posters tacked onto it.
It's a style he started back in 2007, but backed away from in recent years, favoring collage instead. "It's more time-consuming, it's more messy," he says. "I can't do it at home — it's not fun to be in the garage in the arctic cold." He was grateful for the opportunity to use someone else's facility.
Davis lives in Redford and works as an art teacher for high schoolers in Garden City. He's shown and sold his work at a variety of venues around town, from the now-defunct People's Art Festival at the Russell Industrial center, the DIY Festival, and Rust Belt Market. But he always had his eye on the House of Art.
A year ago, Davis tried to grab Eaton's attention by wheat-pasting some street art outside the House of Art. He tagged Eaton and the House of Art on Instagram and captioned the photo, "Cycle6? Cycle6? Cycle6?"
It worked. Eaton was amused, but doesn't advise this method of applying for the House of Art. His original comments on Davis' Instagram: "After I power wash all the wheat pastes surrounding the door from various people so we don't get yelled at constantly from the building owner ... then we will chat."
At age 22, Tony Lee of Sterling Heights is the youngest member of the House of Art's latest cycle. A fine arts major at the College for Creative Studies, Lee's artistic interests are all over the map — abstract paintings, surrealistic sculptures, and performance, to name a few. But for this cycle, Lee created what he says is his first true cohesive body of work.
For Red Bull, Lee pursued what he calls an "illustrative narrative," something that's been on the back of his mind for the past four years. "I was afraid to do it at first — they came from a very peculiar place," he says. He describes his work as "robot-themed" and says that it "has a lot to do with free will, with ideas of being plugged in, and being unplugged."
"I was deciding not to do when I realized that I just needed to get it out of my system," he says. "This way I can just move on and do something more fun. It comes from a place that really hits home," he says, adding that after the show he wants to create soundscapes, installation, and experience-based art. "I just want to have fun and not take it too seriously," he says.
Eaton says he met Tiff Massey, 32, only a week before inviting her to participate in Cycle 8, after she held a show at the Re:View Gallery in Detroit displaying metal work inspired by traditional African hair styling and hip-hop jewelry.
A Detroiter, Massey is a recent graduate from Cranbrook Academy of Art in metalsmithing. She originally got her undergrad at Eastern Michigan for biology. "I was taking a lot of metalsmithing classes in between biology and chemistry to keep me sane," she says. "I just knew that was the direction I wanted to go, but I wanted to get the degree first. It is definitely a way of life now."
For the House of Art, Massey switched gears once again, this time creating what she calls her take on a quilt. She created modular wooden wall-hanging works of art that will be tiled together, creating a bigger piece but functioning as individual works of art as well. Massey doesn't consider it to be too much of a departure from her usual work. Again, she found inspiration in African art, emulating the blocky designs of an African
kente cloth. "I would definitely say historical references pop up quite often in my work," she says. "It's hard not to be influenced by history."
Age 23, Austin Brady says he "sort of grew up all over the state" before moving to Detroit where he's lived for the past six years. His work for the House of Art depicts large panels of black and white portraits — if it's possible to create a portrait by completely concealing the subject's face. Brady obscures the identities of his subjects by painting, collaging, or adding other embellishments over the faces, which perhaps reveals something else about their individual personalities.
The series, Brady says, started as a photo shoot. "I wanted to get people that I knew, and people that I didn't know very well, and some people who were complete strangers," he says. "I wanted to have a nice blend of people, and to get an opportunity to get to know people who I didn't know."
Brady says he approaches collage with "a painter's mindset," saying that "each collage is a brush stroke." Brady made a small digital print of his subjects, which he manipulated by hand — scuffing, drawing over, and otherwise warping — no Photoshop. Then he blew the black and white photos up to 2-foot by 4-foot panels, which he then embellished with neon spray paint, collage elements, or whatever else struck his fancy to individualize the portraits. The stark black and white and obscured identities add something of a sinister quality to Brady's paintings.
Despite an edgy, dynamic quality to his paintings, Brady catches us off-guard by speaking in an understated deadpan. When Brady recalls his first interview with Eaton, he catches us even more off-guard. "I actually got hit by a car," Brady calmly recalls, having borrowed a friend's bike to travel to the meeting. "I got dragged down the street for like 15 feet."
An ambulance and the cops showed up, but Brady tried to decline treatment. "They wanted to take me to the hospital. At that point I really didn't care. I said, 'No, no, I've got to go to this meeting, it's really important.' I ended up showing up to the interview in the back of a police car, limping and bleeding to the front door. I was so nervous before that but having a near-death experience took the nerves right out of me. I was like, 'I just faced death. This is nothing.'"
Cycle 8 opens at the Red Bull House of Art from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 8 at the Red Bull House of Art, 1551 Winder St., Detroit; redbullhouseofart.com. The gallery is open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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