Against all odds

If only Detroit Public Schools’ board of education simply required proof that art students are worth the money. They could easily look to Cass Tech high school senior Mario Moore. On Thursday, June 2, the teenager will be on stage at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, accepting his rightful place as second among 250,000 student artists from across the country and overseas. Moore submitted his artwork to an 80-year-old competition, the Scholastic Arts and Writing contest. By winning second place this year, he walks away with an academic scholarship. After the ceremony, the art will be exhibited in Washington, D.C., through August.

Meanwhile in Detroit, Robert Smith, head of the Cass Tech art department that taught Moore what he knows, is scrounging for materials. It’s been three years since Detroit Public Schools’ board slashed all funding for the school’s arts and music program. “I play old Mother Hubbard, going to the cupboards,” Smith says. “Actually, I just found some old matte boards, vintage 1920-something, that we’re going to use. That’s what we’re working with right now.”

Dozens of administrators and teachers across the city are experiencing Smith’s problem. The arts budget is almost always the first to get cut and teachers end up paying for programs out of their own pockets. This is why the 68th Annual Detroit Public Schools Student Exhibition, hosted by the Detroit Institute of Arts and located inside Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch, provokes mixed feelings. This exhibit is a delightfully surprising show of talent. It’s as colorful as Oz up there on the third floor. But it’s also upsetting. All of the art, posted on makeshift walls and partitioned by glass, is created against the odds with fading ink, fraying brushes, crumbling clay and dwindling balls of yarn. Walking around the large room, it’s not difficult to wonder what little work, if any, will be on display in another half-century.

So here are some highlights of the 500 ceramics, paintings, drawings, sculptures, videos and textiles. It’s art we maybe wouldn’t see today, if it were tomorrow:

A construction-paper mosaic of sun setting over land and water,

A red-pencil portrait drawn so gently it looks like powder,

A painting of an iridescent hummingbird with wings of metallic sheen,

A still life of flowers that resemble pencils, blooming with pink erasers,

A comic-strip painting veiled by a gauzy haze of blue,

A collage of bedroom reflections, made from cut photos,

An illustration of a frog on a tree, as if seen underwater,

A delicate pointillist portrait of grandmother’s foyer,

A sketch of a contemporary Tudor home, obviously practiced with care,

A magnificent tulip colored in deep tropical pink.

But there’s no question that Mario Moore’s rust-colored drawing of worn Converse sneakers is the emblem for this exhibition. “Old School Classic” has the sepia-tone nostalgia of an old photo, and it calls to mind what German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought of Van Gogh’s portraits of shoes: They’re imbued with the hard-luck story of a peasant who wore them, and consequently, all of those like her, who must walk in them.


Runs through May 14, on the third floor at Detroit Public Library’s Main Branch, 5201 Woodward Ave.; 313-833-1000.

Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected]
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