700 miles in a box

He went out in blackface once. He covered his fair skin and wore sunglasses to shield his green Irish eyes. And when he walked in to the hospital where he worked, he sent a co-worker running and screaming into a linen closet — she thought it was her ex-boyfriend back to stalk her. Another time, he got completely naked and stood on the Lodge overpass. Channel 56 came to cover the event, he says, but took off when state troopers wheeled in.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise when artist and gallery owner Aaron Timlin announced he was walking to New York City in a refrigerator-sized box that read “Got Art?” It’s true, he wasn’t prepared for some of the dangers that he encountered on his journey — like people throwing glass bottles at him, shouting “faggot” and “idiot.” But he faced the challenge head-on — which is to say he walked on.

Timlin, 29, who recently returned from his trek, says the idea came to him sometime last August — and for three reasons:

Reason No. 1: To get his circulation flowing again. Timlin says: “When a stream doesn’t flow, the rocks in them don’t move and grow moss. People are the same way.”

Around the time he was worrying about his circulation, some neighborhood kids visited detroit contemporary, his gallery at 5141 Rosa Parks Blvd. in Detroit. Later that evening, they brought their parents to check out the exhibit.

Reason No. 2: To sponsor a youth/art mentorship program called Got Art? If he could find the funds to take inner city kids to foundries, glassblowing studios, museums, etc., maybe they’d find one thing that really interested them.

Reason No. 3: Timlin was born with bad feet. When he was younger he had to wear braces on both legs. The walk was a personal challenge.

Before embarking, he had only practiced walking from downtown Detroit to his grandparents’ place in Dearborn. He’d never practiced with a backpack attached to him or crawled inside a big box lined with pipe and wire. And his hike wasn’t exactly across the Midwestern plains.

During the trip, he recalls, he found himself jogging down quite a big hill in Pennsylvania. When he reached the bottom, one guy felt for him. “Stay at that hotel up there,” he offered. “Tell them Bill, the owner, said you could have a few drinks, on him.”

Plenty of other strangers showed such kindness and generosity. People bought him lunch, donated $20 bills to “Got Art?,” and one family even put him up for the night. This family ordered him a vegan pizza, washed his clothes, let him e-mail home and had a reporter and breakfast waiting the next morning. So that balanced out such bad experiences as the awful night he spent in Toledo between an abandoned house and some trees. He fell asleep swatting mosquitoes and praying that the mean kids who’d harassed him earlier didn’t get drunk and come back for “the weirdo in a box.”

Beyond that, he missed his girl. During the 48-day trip, Timlin’s fiancee and assistant director of detroit contemporary, Phaedra Robinson, was hustling to bring him survival essentials — new shoes, more Power Bars and some encouragement. And every time she found Aaron — a white box trodding somewhere in Ohio, a week later in Pennsylvania, a week after that in New Jersey — she’d have to leave again. Timlin remembers holding on to the sight of the car driving off into the distance. He would say to himself: “I can still see the car … I can still see ... oh, it’s gone.”

Finally, on July 14, he was at the George Washington Bridge heading into New York. He stopped to put on the worn shoes that he had begun the trip wearing. After all, they were his closest friends and they had been with him from the beginning.

Timlin considers his excursion a complete success. He raised $400 for his mentorship program to help the local kids, but it’s not all about the money. (See Reasons 1 and 3 above.) And now he’s so happy to be back in Detroit, only 10 pounds thinner and three toenails the worse for wear. And he’s definitely caught the public’s eye — for at least 15 seconds of something less than fame.

What’s next? He says he’ll continue his Detroit-boosting efforts through the gallery and Got Art? He might even try politics. If the race for City Council is anything like the walk to New York, perseverance will make him a shoe-in.

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