The place was a dump. It had been the office of a used car lot that was left to the weeds years ago, fodder for a bulldozer if anything were ever to replace it.
So a fellow named Bird came by one day with a few brushes and some cans of paint and put two paintings here; one on this ugly shack and another on the empty building next to it, both of which he had to look at every day as he walked past.
One is a portrait of Barack Obama, looking skyward. The other is an image of Michael Jackson, dancing under a spotlight. Both are figures revered out here for different reasons, captured in fine art portrayals on unexpected canvases.
The artist carefully chose this spot. "If the building has potential and I think maybe in the future they might open it up or someone might rent it, I don't bother," says Lee Walker, the 52-year-old known around town simply as Bird the painter. "It has to be dilapidated — roof gone, no doors, basically abandoned."
Walker lives and works near that weathered shack, at Gratiot near Burns, in one of the city's most battered areas — far outside of downtown, deep inside the inner city, a maze of beaten-up old homes on crisscrossing side streets in what has become Detroit's hinterlands.
Like other artists who used the city's empty buildings to create art, Walker has done paintings like this before, but the buildings were either torn down or fell in on themselves, and with them went his art. It hasn't stopped him from doing others.
"If I don't see no future for the structure I'll try to put some artwork up there that beautifies it. It's like when you see an old abandoned building, you think about the decay of the city, how many people left; you know, the sad part of it. But if there's some art on it that catches your eye and it's a nice piece it kind of lifts your spirits."
Walker's art studio sits in an unlit, discount mattress shop on Van Dyke called the Mattress Station, which he runs with a dozen friends and cousins who let him use it as his gallery. In good weather his paintings lean against the front of the building, sharing space with used mattresses. When it starts raining the whole crew scrambles to get them and the mattresses inside before they get too wet.
"The ones I try to sell up here I try to make them as cheap as possible," he notes, 'cause cheap people come up here, so I'm not going to invest $250 doing a portrait that I can't get but $75 for it."
By cheap he means broke. Their store sells used box springs and mattresses to people so poor they have little choice but to sleep on someone else's discarded bed. "It's basically 'cause people in the neighborhood can't afford Gardner-White," Walker says.
When business is slow, he sits out front, painting in the sunshine. When things pick up, "like the first part of the month, when everybody gets government checks or whatever," he pitches in, putting mattresses in the back of someone's truck or else delivering them if the buyer has no vehicle.
His makeshift studio provides not only space, but art supplies too. Most of his paintings are done on bed sheets or on the cloth of a mattress, with part of the wood frame left in place to keep the material taut after the springs have been removed. "I've cornered the market on canvases," he jokes. "I've learned to make my own canvases cheap." Out here, you have to use what you can get.
Sometimes people driving by see his work and stop to purchase something. Framed paintings of cartoon characters are the most popular out here, though he strives to balance those with more serious pieces, like the one near the front door showing a little kid staring at a pile of guns.
"He's trying to pick the right one for a drive-by," Walker says. It's similar to another one he's working on that shows a toddler on a Big Wheel, riding with a pistol.
Guns have found their way into his work a lot lately. "A few people in my family got killed by guns," he explains. "I'd like to start some kind of nonprofit organization to do artwork on these abandoned buildings and promote nonviolence. I want to try to save some of the black kids — well, white kids too — but in my neighborhood they're killing each other with these guns every day."
Walker learned the art from his grandfather, a house and sign painter who taught him as a young child. "He used to make us paint," he says. "We'd get our ass whooped if we didn't paint, 'cause he knew that along further in life that we would need what he knew. And he was right."
Walker passed the skill onto his own kids, who showed an inclination to paint early on, like the time they painted everything in their new house — carpets, cabinets, fish tank — with flat white latex as their parents slept after a housewarming party. "I couldn't even get mad at them," he says, smiling, "'cause I seen what they were trying to do. It's in their blood."
He hopes his work will appear in a real gallery someday, as it did a few times many years back, though most of his old pieces were lost when his Detroit house burned to the ground long ago. Until then, his paintings are on display at the makeshift studio on Van Dyke, sharing space with the mattresses leaning against the plaster walls.
"My gallery is basically out here on the streets," he says, sitting on a bucket as he brushes paint onto a stretched bedsheet. "Everybody can see you working, compared to sitting in a building, waiting for people to come in. There's a lot of opportunity here on the streets."Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]