Stephen Magsig puts Detroit’s changing cityscapes down on canvas 

The patina of life

Back in the ’80s, artist Stephen Magsig had a studio across the hall from rock poster artist Mark Arminski, and the two would go on photo expeditions around town. “You could do much more than you can now, what with homeland security and stuff like that,” he says of the time before urban exploring was called “urban exploring.” “We’d go down into the salt mines, and we could jump fences and stuff like that. Nobody paid attention to it. There were areas that weren’t fenced off,” he says. That’s when he realized Detroit was what he wanted to paint.

Magsig still occasionally paints from those same photos he took with Arminksi back then. He says that spending so many hours painting the minutiae of Detroit’s buildings has made him hyper-aware of changes in the city, and he says he’s always pointing out little changes in the cityscape he notices while driving around. 

“Visually, it’s composition, color, form — all the things that artists find interesting,” he says of his subject matter. “I’m not per se looking for abandoned houses.” Magsig says he’s not drawn to any particular aspect of the city — he’s painted everything from industrial areas to abandoned buildings. 

The urban landscape may have a special appeal to Magsig since he grew up on a farm outside of Toledo. It was a much different life — Magsig talks about a childhood of riding horses, and woods, and an idyllic creek. An aunt who lived nearby gave Magsig his first and only painting lessons when he was 10 years old. 

Magsig says he studied engineering and worked a stint as a commercial illustrator at Skidmore Studios, but he painted all the while. “I always considered myself a painter rather than an illustrator,” he says. “For most painters, you have to have a second job, a day job. I would do illustration — I thought I was at least practicing my craft, and learning, and solving problems, and working with colors.” Magsig says 15 years ago he was able to quit commercial art and work on his paintings full-time.

“Maybe it romanticizes it — I hate to use that word,” he says of the decision to render the scenes in tight oil paintings. “People do respond to it, especially with Detroit being in the news so much right now.” Magsig sees Detroit as a tale of two cities today. “You’ve got people having their water shut off and their pensions being taken away, and city people are going to be building that stadium for that billionaire,” he laments. 

Masgig’s cityscapes are often empty, but he says that doesn’t mean they’re devoid of humanity. “To me, the mark of the people are there in what we’ve done to the landscape or the buildings,” he says. “It’s a history — the patina of life is on these buildings.”  

Check out Stephen Magsig’s work at smagsig.com.

More by Lee DeVito

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