Drawing in the city

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Christine Murdock moved to Detroit from Siegen, a small town near Cologne, Germany. She didn’t plan to stay. That was six years ago.   After studying at a university where she says she learned how to be “arty” rather than skillful, Murdock, a young and beautiful blonde, met her husband, painter and sculptor Michael Murdock, a native Detroiter. He had been traveling the Netherlands, France and Germany restoring old buildings, converting barns and abandoned buildings into studios and community centers.

The Murdocks relocated here to be near his family, and they thought it was the perfect spot to initiate Places, a project they envisioned as sort of a roaming multicultural art school. The concept was simple in theory, if not execution: Gather a small but diverse group of local artists who would tour internationally, making six to eight international stops, interacting with the locals in different cities. Each artist would be required to submit a proposal and agree to a contract detailing the extent of their project. Students would be required to participate in critiques so they’d keep tabs on each other, really pushing one another if anybody started partying too hard or slacking off. At the end of the trip, the artists would ship their work to a central location, where it would be auctioned off in an exhibition. The money raised would fund a new school of traveling artists.

While they developed the project, the Murdocks had to support the family financially. Christine put her skills to practical use, walking door to door in Grosse Pointe, soliciting commissions for portraits of private residences. She charged between $250 and $1,000, and made out well — rendering 36 portraits in one year. She also exhibited her Tallships series of pen-and-ink drawings at Novus Art Gallery during Detroit’s tricentennial celebration in 2001, and she later found work at the International Institute and taught sociology at Madonna University.

The more Murdock got to know Detroit, the more she became invested in it. That’s obvious when you look at her Ghetto Series, painted while she was living on Detroit’s West Side, near the Boston-Edison district. Her vibrant neighborhood scene has all the expressionistic energy of a Harlem Renaissance painting by Archibald Motley. Murdock affectionately characterizes her neighbors — ladies gab, pose and prance, and young boys play baseball.

But she also became frustrated with what she perceives to be a common Detroit outlook: “When I first came here and went through the downtown, I thought, ‘What is happening to this city?’ When I heard about the Shrinking Cities exhibition featuring Detroit as one of the most beautifully decaying cities in the world, I thought it was horrible. There is so much possibility here and it’s all politics why it is not being restored.”

Again, she decided to put her artistic skills to good use. Murdock thought if she could publish a book representing Detroit’s historical buildings as the beauties they once were and still could be, then maybe it would generate some energy. At the very least, it would be a nice keepsake for visitors to take home.

That was the idea behind Images in Stone, her upcoming publication featuring pen-and-ink illustrations of Detroit’s buildings. Murdock has drawn freehand more than 45 illustrations of historical sites, dividing the book into such chapters as “Automotive Heritage,” “Culture and Education” and “Leisure.” She’s covered good ground, including renderings of the Piquette Plant, one of the Detroit’s last remaining examples of a New England mill-style building; the Rackham Building, a recently restored treasure; the former Grande Ballroom, where so many hippies and rockers sweated out their evenings; and, of course, the beautifully beaux-arts Michigan Central Station, designed by well-known depot architects Warren & Smith and Reed & Stern.

Each of her illustrations will be accompanied by text, but the artist is still looking for writers. She’s also searching for first-person accounts from those who remember the city’s landmarks when they were still in good shape. Murdock enlisted the help of Richard Thibodeau, executive director at the International Institute. The cost of printing 500 copies of the book is about $5,000, half of which she’s already received from MotorCities National Heritage Area and the Detroit Area Art Deco Society.

Flipping through canvases and her portfolio, it’s immediately noticeable that Murdock’s style is changeable. She points out that her work is a reflection of her environment. Interestingly, this manifests itself more in form than content: When she lived in Europe, her paintings were freer. Murdock depicted bustling city scenes with loose strokes and loads of color, and brushed nudes with such electric energy they seem to buzz right off the canvas. When she settled down in Detroit, she began a series of tightly regimented black-and-white drawings in fine-point pen.

It’s not that Murdock thinks Detroiters are regimented in their outlook. She says that Siegen, her hometown, is far more conservative. But here, there are definitely rules on the city streets.

“When I first got here, I was running around in a miniskirt everywhere. I realized very quickly this is not cool. In my town, there is no violence. But it is not safe everywhere in Detroit — there is a reason why people are paranoid.”

There’s an upside to knowing your geographic limits in this city, and it is finding a life beyond borders. A lot of artists here are extraordinarily reflective, and their work represents an opportunity to experience liberation. Surrounded by the sight of blight — specifically, the deteriorating state of Detroit’s architectural masterpieces — it’s perhaps more obvious to an outsider than an insider that most of Detroit’s creative thinkers share a mind set focused on potential.

As an artist, Murdock appreciates that, but she also says: “I grew up in a city that was destroyed in a war, but it was rebuilt. Here, it was destroyed by a war but not rebuilt. I think it is important that we don’t romanticize that.”

For Murdock, Images in Stone is the last project she really wants to complete in Detroit — the crown of what she’s learned from her experience here. She and her husband hope to keep migrating, bringing their two gorgeous and extremely artistic children with them, and little else. They will go somewhere, but they’re not sure where, possibly Spain.

When asked about the logistics of moving her family and all her belongings out of the country yet again, Christine Murdock scans the tiny room in her home, crammed with her family’s art projects and makeshift furniture. She responds with a question possibly more poignant than an answer: “I don’t understand. What do you mean by ‘belongings’?”


For more info on Images in Stone or Murdock’s other projects, send an email to [email protected].

Michigan Boat Club

GM Building

Guardian Bilding

Pewabic Pottery

Soup Kitchen Saloon

Belle Isle Casino

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