Blinded by the arts

Jun 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

It's hard to miss the bleeding rainbow cascading down the western wall of a nine-story building at East Grand Boulevard and Beaubien in Detroit. A few blocks east of the New Center area, and just west of the Russell Industrial Center, artist Katie Craig's "Illuminated Mural" conducts a vivid orchestration of color that contrasts with the surrounding overgrowth and rubble. Passing commuters tap their brakes, pausing to gawk at the psychedelic 100-foot-by-125-foot splatter-and-drip job. They stop for the art, not for the failed and forgotten industrial sites that exist to the south, or the weird mix of manicured lawns and ramshackle homes on crime-ridden streets to the north. 

For artist Craig, 26, the former storage facility was ideal. "I'm inspired by a lot of stuff going on politically, socially and economically in the North End," she says. "I was looking for ... a place that would make the biggest impact." 

Hence, the building's western side shows Craig's self-described "monumental" take on abstract painting. "[The mural] doesn't say 'North End,'" she says. "It's not a figure. There's no distinctive imagery to it. It's more about seamlessly mixing in with the urban environment and speaking to people."  

The artist's first challenge in making her project possible was funding. Enter the highly competitive Community + Public Arts: DETROIT (CPAD) grant, which is facilitated by the College for Creative Studies, Craig's alma mater. It was Craig against 50 other potential candidates — including Aaron Timlin's proposed textile project and Steven Martinez's Motown mural. Born as a "comprehensive community and public arts component" within the Skillman Foundation's Good Neighborhoods Initiative, which aims to strengthen the cultural fabric of various Detroit neighborhoods through public art installations, the grant seemed like a natural fit for Craig. 

Local artists are invited to apply for CPAD grants ranging from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the type of project and number of people involved. Each artist must submit samples of previous work and a mission statement representing their idea, and, after review and discussion, an artist is plucked and invited to pitch their idea to a group of residents. 

"Each community is completely different; no one size fits all," says CPAD co-director and 2009 Kresge Fellow Sioux Trujillo. "Likewise, what they expect from each artist is completely different." 

This efficient, grassroots approach has helped initiate and complete 18 public-art projects in a multitude of mediums, such as the "talking fence" and "spirit garden" project in Brightmoor, Mary Laredo Herbeck and Christine Bossler's series of mosaic benches in Southwest Detroit, and, most recently, Larry Halbert's "Growing Together" sculpture in Rogue Park.

In the summer
of 2009, the residents of the North End approved the idea of Craig installing public art in their neighborhood. For her part, she presented her project ideas to various demographics within the community. The younger folks loved it but some of the older residents didn't. "The kids are really interested in graffiti," concedes Trujillo. "At the end of the day, [Craig] is a graffiti artist." 

By August last year, Craig received $25,000 of the $33,000 grant she was awarded. The last $8,000 was paid upon completion, which would go into Craig's pocket, to some in her team, and toward costs for a protective coat to ensure the vividness of the paint. The artists quickly arranged to lock down her dream location on East Grand Boulevard. The Boydell Group, owners of the vacant building, gave her the thumbs-up. "We didn't want to just put anything up there," says Chris Mihailovich, operating manager of the nearby Boydell-owned Russell Industrial Center. "We wanted something that would represent our building. And, along the way, we were getting a free paint job," he laughs.  

The building's first floor became Craig's personal studio and operations base — the aptly titled North End Studios — which grew to house seven additional artists and rehearsal space for local rock band Macrame Tiger. 

Before the mural's initial sky blue "backdrop" was painted in place, Craig and her cohorts had to deal with the local graffiti artists who'd claimed the building as theirs, long before she was even a fledging CCS art brat. To ensure the mural wouldn't be tagged over, members of the FBS crew — one of Detroit's name brand graf-and-tag collectives — got paid off in the street-art currency of spray paint, on CPAD's dime.  

The last step was to drown the wall in vibrant hues. More than 100 gallons of paint spilled from the roof, creating the sense of motion Craig was eager to capture. With help from friends, and from more than 30 local kids — a handful of whom even received their own $1,000 grants through the federally funded Summer Youth Employment Program — the mural coalesced well, and the artist's CCS past and renegade graffiti techniques (such as fire extinguishers filled with paint) went lengths to ensure this.   

An estimated
$15,000 of Craig's grant disappeared into the tills of area businesses. Craig rented a crane lift, purchased Sherwin-Williams paint locally, and a small arsenal of painting equipment. She also spent grant money on minor building maintenance and new locks for her studio. By offering a reduced monthly rate for the space, which sat vacant before Craig got there, the Boydell Group also reduced their responsibility in maintaining the building, leaving much of the work in Craig's hands.

About $8,000 of the money went toward laser-cut Plexiglas, solar-powered panel installations framed in LED lights that Craig had commissioned. But those were never installed — it was decided they'd likely be stolen — and currently reside in the backroom of North End Studios.  

With what little grant money's left, Craig hopes to move forward with those installations, minus the solar-powered component.  

So, in less
than one year, Craig conquered her largest artistic undertaking to date, and took her first shot at running a studio. That's a lot of work, and the stress shows; Craig's passion and excitement has worn a bit thin. There's some criticism too. While younger area residents still stand behind Craig, the trippy monolith befuddles community elders. 

At a recent Sunday service at a local Metropolitan United Methodist Church, several churchgoers and North End residents said the mural's meaning, and its community purpose, perplexed them. Irvin Johnson, a barber at the nearby Metropole Barber Shop, echoes this sentiment. With the historical Motown Museum just down the street, he says the mural could have depicted something more relevant to his neighborhood.

"It doesn't have any formation," Johnson says. "It's just paint slid down the side of a building." 

And the Reverend Dr. Marvin Youmans, pastor of Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church and president of the North End Ministerial Alliance, is ambivalent; he doesn't know if the mural "makes a difference one way or another" improving the quality of life in the neighborhood.   

Craig's stance on community interpretations is that implementing art in urban areas is "often about examining the needs of the people," she says. "Not just what they think their needs are."

Some see Craig's mural as a stunning fluid wash, a colorful movement of life, while others dismiss it as Technicolor vomit, a pointless landmark. Either way, the "Illuminated Mural" is one of largest pieces of public art in Detroit.

In a city where the so-called "creative class" claims its city is rising via the arts, thanks to recent streams of private funding for projects, such as the mural, who's the watchdog? 

So $33,000 was put in the hands of an impassioned yet inexperienced young artist. The Boydell Group signed a "good faith" agreement to uphold the integrity of the mural for no less than 10 years, but if the building were to be purchased tomorrow, the lasting impact of the artwork becomes immediately uncertain. As uncertain as the fate of the $8,000 experimental, solar-powered "light boxes" that might never see the light of day. 

In the North End — a neighborhood that faces as great a generational gap as it does a financial one — the impact of the "Illuminated Mural" is as tentative as anything else in the area.

This is Ryan Patrick Hooper's first piece for MT. He is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]