What would it take to fill this child with pain and frustration? How much distraction would it take before she started looking outside herself for the happiness that the act of painting brings up from within? And then, what would help her quit the darkness, keep her on the track of art, even move her to help others come through slaughter?
Artist Maureen Maki has been that lost little girl. But she also founded downtown Detroit’s trend-defining 2 South gallery in the ’90s, a first-of-its-kind edgy art site that helped begin the boom of popular alternative galleries. She once stumbled in the darkness of substance abuse, but reinvented herself as the singer-guitarist half of rock duo Paper Tiger and as a painter of raw-powered personal revelations. She’s had enough of that manic roller coaster. And now, with a show of new paintings at the Cass Cafe and a new CD from her band, she’s movin’ on.
A story of work
At the age of 4, Maki lived in Flint with her mom, dad and 2-year-old brother Mike. Her dad worked at the Buick plant which was on the verge of being shut down. “Just like in that Michael Moore movie, Roger & Me,” Maki says in her Detroit studio, where she’s been selling off her paintings, her furniture and most of her possessions. A striking blonde (self-described “dirty blonde,” also the title of her new show), she has eyes that take up all of her presence, eyes that see into people and things.
The crisp gray light of afternoon seems to have a hard time getting through the tall windows of the space that Maki calls both workshop and home. But the canvases hanging or piled against the walls need very little light to make them jump, to make the invisible switch flick on that sends their forms and colors into perpetual reverb. Maki’s work, like her music, rocks.
“When I was a kid … I had to be like 4 or 5 years old … my mother took me to some local college for a testing thing, and they were like, ‘Her art ability is way higher than everything else.’”
Looking for a new start, Maki’s dad, a Northern Michigan Finn, packed up his family, left a fading Flint behind and settled temporarily in Escanaba. That began the succession of displacements that have defined Maki’s life — from Flint to Escanaba to a small town in Wisconsin to another one outside of Lansing, where she finally got a stretch of six years in one place under her belt. What continuity there was couldn’t come from schoolmates or surroundings, but from family and drawing and music.
“I started getting more serious about art in junior high and high school … and almost all of it was spurred on by album covers … rock ’n’ roll … which figures. That’s my whole thing, of music and art together like they’re inseparable.”
As a young rock fan, Maki took her earliest inspiration from what was most accessible and closest to her talent.
“I used to copy all the album covers by David Bowie. I would draw them and spend a lot of time on them. I could draw David Bowie’s face … and Yes album covers — you know, psychedelic Yes — were very exciting to me. I wanted to do that, you know, like ‘When I grow up, I want to make album covers.’”
Maki eventually found herself the oldest of six siblings, most of them two years apart.
“It felt like I was always taking care of them. I think I baby-sat my whole life. … I really remember a horrible baby sitter who was mean to me and my brothers and sisters, made us stand in the corner and was just like physically abusive, and I felt that I needed to protect them and somehow talked my mom into letting me baby-sit next time. … So it would just be me, 8 years old, with four kids, who were babies. … I don’t like to complain about it, but it definitely made me who I am.”
Then in high school, Maki started getting focused: “When I was a senior, I made a painting that was 3 by 4 feet — that was like a big deal. No one else was making really big paintings. I won first prize at the Lansing Metro art competition and they gave me a small scholarship toward college. See, I was into this trippy, whatever-was-in-my-mind type of stuff, kid stuff really.”
But kid stuff turned into a full-time commitment at the University of Michigan’s art school, where she studied painting and printmaking from 1986 to 1990, and where art history classes exposed her to some pretty wild visions:
“The whole COBRA scene (color-mad northern European painters from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) … I loved Dubuffet and I can see that in my work … Picasso, especially at the end of his career … the second wave of German Expressionists in the ’80s in Berlin.
“When I was in the painting department at U of M, they were like, ‘You have to use the figure … but I just wasn’t interested in it. I was doing industrial landscapes. I was just into making abstract work. Though they liked it, I was getting a lot of people trying to push me, saying things like, ‘Your work would be more humanistic if you would just put a figure in it.’ And I was like, ‘Well, not necessarily.’ I was really into texture, color, layer, layer, layer.”
Though Maki criticizes her academic experience, there’s no doubt about the energy that it pulled out of her and the footing that it laid for visions to come. While at U of M, she made art endlessly, like someone famished for it.
“The printmaking department was a lot more open and I loved printmaking so much. Takeishi Takahara, a teacher from Japan, was really into experimentation and pushed me to push myself. Intaglio (etching) was my thing. I was off and running in that super-heavy technique and process-oriented work. I don’t know what happened, but as soon as I started doing that, my mind just went ‘ka-ching,’ I was connected to printmaking and I just printed all the time.”
Of course, working through issues of technique and craft is where young artists often start — mastery over form then paving the way for more innovative stuff. But Maki seemed to immerse herself in printmaking as a way of combining agendas: enjoying the pure physicality of surface detail and (as she would realize years later) basking in a sort of anonymity that non-narrative abstraction allowed.
Even before Maki graduated from the fine arts program magna cum laude (as well as receiving its annual “outstanding BFA student” award), a whole other side of her personality came out in Ann Arbor’s music scene. She soon began running Club Heidelberg with Roland Diaz-Perez, her boyfriend at the time, and booking such emerging grunge rock bands as Mudhoney, L7, Babes in Toyland, Urge Overkill and the Melvins. It was the first of her efforts to connect with a world “outside” of routine, an early sign that she was ready to risk the whole shebang for a new meaningfulness.
One of the groups appearing at Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig at the time was Nirvana. Maki recalls: “They opened for the Flaming Lips. They were actually the first of three bands that night, which is kind of funny when you think of it. But then their album Nevermind came out and I remember sitting in my house with all my friends from the rock ’n’ roll days. We all just sat there blown away on the couch going ‘this is amazing.’ Because we all listened to a lot of music all the time and the fact that every single song on that album was good was unheard of. We knew that it was a big deal and then it started hitting the press like crazy. And right around that time I went down to see them at St. Andrew’s and ended up hanging around with them backstage, blah, blah and all that stuff.”
Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, his life and its sudden end, stood like a dark oracle for this whole rock moment. And eventually the work of keeping Club Heidelberg afloat got to be more than Maki wanted, not to mention the excess partying, so she decided to move to the Motor City: “I was tired of Ann Arbor, because it’s so politically correct and college-y, and I was from a working-class family. I felt more comfortable in a lot of ways in Detroit.”
Open and shut
Detroit, one of those infamous corners of the continent brutalized by class and exploitation, has a lot more abandoned and open spaces than most cities.
“I moved here for the space. I stayed here for the space,” Maki says. When she happened upon the loft for rent on the second floor of 1217 Griswold overlooking Capitol Park, a nearly abandoned downtown square, she was dumbfounded. “I looked in, it was 100 feet long but it felt like a thousand to me after living in Ann Arbor. And when I heard the price, my jaw dropped: $450 a month for 2,400 square feet! I was like, ‘What an art studio!’”
After painting and living in that apartment for a while, and getting to know her new city (as well as hooking up with Billy Hunter, a new boyfriend), Maki started thinking about showing her work.
“I was making paintings and started visiting the few galleries that I knew in Detroit looking for a show, but I wasn’t getting anywhere. So my friend said, ‘Why don’t you just have a show there in your space, you have a beautiful space.’ And so I did. I made up flyers and just called it 2 South, which was the apartment number in the building. I mean it was just going to be a one-act show.”
The opening was Friday, January 14, 1994, from 5-8 p.m. And people came. Her paintings, she says, tried to apply the lessons about texture and detail she had learned from printmaking.
“I think I left them up for a month, but it was mainly about the opening party. I invited all our friends and a lot of people showed up. It was really fun and I sold some work. Everyone had a great time and a few people asked, ‘Well, can I show here next?’ And Billy and I decided to keep it going as a gallery.”
Which turned out to be a fateful choice, expressing a concept that hadn’t quite ripened before 2 South tried it. There was, of course, the earlier example of Cass Corridor’s legendary, artist-run Willis Gallery. But 2 South set off a bang that reverberated in a new way. Kids with no previous connection to the art scene started showing up in droves for 2 South openings.
“You didn’t get the I-can-afford-anything crowd, but rather the I-can-afford-under-a-hundred-dollars crowd,” says Billy Hunter, who’s now working on an international business degree. “There were a lot of people who showed up regularly who never went to any other galleries — eventually they would even buy something they liked. And when C-Pop opened up, they’d go there or now to detroit contemporary.”
Which is precisely what made 2 South such a groundbreaking affair. The pop groundswell for visual art that seems like an everyday fact in 2000 — the jumping interface between electronic music, performance art and gallery scenes — was just a twinkle in the eyes of Hunter and Maki in ’94. And they did it with nothing but good will and the art itself, plus wide-open arms when it came to finding an audience.
“At 2 South,” Hunter continues, “we were backed by our day jobs and we were doing it out of our living space. You can search out big names from around the country, but that doesn’t necessarily touch on the spirit of your own town.”
Sure, New York punk diva Lydia Lunch had her first photography and sculpture show there, but this was mainly a Detroit thing. Homegrown artists such as Maurice Greenia Jr., Chris Turner, Rico Africa, Jim Puntigam and Karl Schneider, many of the folks who comprise today’s scene, had shows at 2 South.
As Africa remembers it, “2 South was a seminal space in Detroit. It was the first gallery that was more of a scene than a straight gallery per se. My show had a black-light installation combined with painting that startled people.”
Says Maki, “Billy and I ran 2 South like this: ‘This is an art gallery; we’re not getting any money from anyone; we do what we want’ — and we totally did that. …One thing we did at 2 South was almost exclusively solo shows. ... It’s like if you’re serious enough to have a body of work, then you might have some interesting art. And everybody gets to see what the artist really is about.”
Regular reviews, particularly in the Metro Times, brought more and more interested folks with each show. But the monthly grind took its toll after three and a half years.
“What we did at 2 South was super-cool, but I couldn’t stand it anymore and neither could Billy,” sighs Maki. “It was having my house always open to the public. It was like having a huge party every opening, with hundreds and hundreds of people. And then we were open every Saturday from noon to 4. It became intrusive. It wasn’t like we weren’t paying our bills. We were actually selling amazingly well. But it just became too much.”
After all the bottles were popped and poured, how important had “party” become to the downtown art scene? Were people really coming to look at the shows?
“A lot of people just come to party, especially at these alternative-type galleries,” says Maki. “But they’ll be interested in the art work too. It’s an interesting question. On the one hand, it’s kind of too bad that it’s only a party scene surrounding art. But on the other hand, it’s like otherwise art is for people who’re really rich. The party scene says, ‘This is for everyone. We hang out and we all enjoy this art work … and really get drunk.’ It has its good and bad points, but it definitely is a part of it.”
It’s a quandary faced by all kinds of artists, especially musicians. Although there are parties going on around them, they’re also working. It’s easy to forget that in the swirl of socializing. But is there some way to have an art scene for everybody without people getting wasted?
“I don’t know. I would hope so,” Maki offers. “The question is, will these people, who aren’t going to buy the art, come to the opening if they can’t get drunk? I mean we always had a keg at 2 South. It’s a problem.”
There’s always been a romantic notion of the artist as inherently self-destructive, crazy, addicted to the world rather than living in it. But is booze an inherent part of the art scene?
“It’s really ridiculous, because after a certain point it’s just too hard to be drunk all the time and making art. At least it is for me … I think that your art production’s got to go down. You spend all your time drinking, going to bars, hanging out, hanging out and talking shit. I think that the most serious artists are the ones who don’t drink, who stay home and work.”
Then there are those who stay home and use alcohol as fuel.
“That’s all part of the myth. A lot of people think that they have to be drunk to make work. I know that a lot of musicians do. But I never did, luckily. I always tried to be sober whenever I worked, which is a good thing, because now that I’m sober all the time I would have been like freaking out. Because I know artists who quit drinking and then they quit making art, because they didn’t know how to do them both.”
For the last three years, Maki has redefined her sense of “party” to exclude drugs and drinking. Each Sept. 27, she counts another year free and clear of substances. But rather than threatening to make her inspiration dry up, quitting the “high” road has visibly charged her work.
Maki, who was born in October 1968, found herself rethinking life just a year before she turned 30. It was heavy business for a young woman, but so much had gone down around her in just over a decade — from hard-core days at Club Heidelberg to the idealism and excess of 2 South. Friends had come and gone, walking in and out of her life, and some had even died as victims of the scene.
But a lot of new things happened when she made up her mind to straighten out, not least of which was moving into her own studio in the 2000 Brooklyn building. There, her fellow tenants were all artists, some with problems of their own, but the lobby and hallways were filled with art and a number of the residents became close friends, even mentors.
One of the latter, revered teacher and expressionist painter Gilda Snowden, admires Maki’s courage through it all: “Maureen has been a mainstay around here. She’s done so much for others in the art community and never had a negative word to say about anyone. But now it’s time for her to care for her own art.”
Which was another thing that changed for Maki in ’97, her art itself. From surface and abstraction, her attention shifted to, surprisingly, things of the world. One of the first of her new thematic obsessions was fruits and vegetables: “The vegetables, I swear, that was right when I quit drinking,” laughs Maki. “And I had a garden here and I was loving … you know how beautiful it is to grow your own food and to watch it all happen from a seed.”
There’s this healthy glow that just pours from her canvases devoted to peppers, celery, pears and squash in rich, lush reds, greens and yellows. These works tend to be smaller, intimate, just as if you were going to pick up the real thing and take it over to the cutting board.
“Other artists, some of my friends, are freaked out by my work because it’s so personal, it’s so revealing.” When Maki says this now, it seems worlds away from her abstract immersion back in art school. Yet it’s perhaps the most tangible result of her new lifestyle, the part that can be shared with others most easily.
Its telltale signal is the figure, which tends to be autobiographical in her new paintings. These pieces have dramatic titles that reflect the unswerving honesty that made them: “Slicing & Dicing,” with its knives and discarded bottle; “Vulnerability,” in which almost abstract forms suggest the tension of danger held at bay, and “Earth & Sky,” a scary little movie about the divided self. Maki depicts herself standing and staring, skipping rope, taking a bath, making wild love, reaching out to her sister and, inevitably, on the move.
“Dirty Blonde,” her current show of paintings at the Cass Cafe (so sensitively hung by Diana May and Robin Sommers), is one great psychodrama, but one where the colors give a big, wet French kiss to life. Maki’s work has never seemed more confident or more outspoken. There are cityscapes in the show that are withering in their desolation. But then you turn around and there she is in the show’s title painting with her legs wrapped around a flower.
While Maki’s reputation has grown because of shows in downtown grassroots venues, Michelle Spivak, director of the Center Galleries at the Center for Creative Studies, sees her as “a figure for her generation in the art community. Her evergy and colors stand out from her contemporaries. This work goes against the Detroit grain.”
A big deal
“One week after I quit drinking, one of my best friends OD’d on drugs. Her mother called me and left a message, ‘Maureen, we can’t find Amy, we haven’t seen her for three days.’ (I was home but I didn’t pick up the phone.) We all knew she was in trouble for a long time and I just had this sinking feeling, everything dropped to the bottom of my stomach. And I called her back and said, ‘I haven’t seen her either, I’m gonna do some looking around.’ So I went to the usual places and basically I heard that a woman had OD’d at this dope house up by the bar. And the sinking feeling got worse and I got on the phone and was at the bar doing my investigative work until I got to the point where I had to call the homicide department in Detroit. And I said, ‘Do you have Amy S. there?’ And they said, ‘No.’ And I went, ‘Wheww.’ And then they go, ‘Wait, actually we do.’ And I just fell down on the ground. This was a very good friend of mine, Amy, and she had OD’d and she had been dead for three days, but the police never told anyone, like her parents or anyone, because that’s basically what they do with junkies. So a lot of people think that I quit drinking because she died, but I quit drinking before she died. I told her. She knew I quit. Anyhow, it helped strengthen my decision to stay away from drinking and drugs. … That was pretty rough, and in addition to painting all the time when I got clean, I wrote music. Paper Tiger wasn’t a band yet, but I had a guitar. I couldn’t sleep ’cause she died, so I stayed up and I wrote songs and I played my guitar. … She’s important to me and I wrote a song about her. I perform it at every Paper Tiger show and it’s on the CD. I just think about the last thing that she said to me. I told her I was quitting and she’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, right,’ which is basically a normal thing for a bunch of people who were always partying together to say. And I said, ‘No, I’m really serious. I am completely serious, I’m doing this thing.’ And she said, ‘Oh fine, I’ll call you Friday and we’ll hang out together and we’ll just like be sober together and be really bored.’ I said, ‘Just call me.’ Well, she never called me, instead she died that night.”
On the phone from a small town near Lansing, Jane Maki remembers her daughter Maureen’s early art works. “Growing up in her teens, she drew pictures of places we visited, like in the U.P. of the neighbor’s house.” She tells about Maureen’s grandmother on her dad’s side, who was a schoolteacher and then a welder on the ships during World War II. Jane thinks of this grandmother as the source of Maureen’s talent. And she herself, a hard-working woman of Irish descent, collects and hangs her daughter’s works proudly.
Artist Snowden sees Maki’s work as “tough painting. Some of the themes are difficult to look at … she puts things out there in an unvarnished manner. It’s not something that I could do, because I don’t think I’d have that kind of courage … but I trust her. We’ve had talks about art and career and I gave her a show at Detroit Repertory Theatre this year.”
Detroit painter, collagist and performance artist Rico Africa (whose show of new work opens at C-Pop this Saturday) tries to see it all in context. “Everyone takes it for granted, this livin’ on the edge. They believe that it gives their work a little more substance. But this whole thing with drugs in the scene really screwed things up. And Maureen’s made the change in her personal life, and now she needs a change of scene.”
Another of Maki’s close friends, neighbor and sculptor Jerome Ferretti, adds, “Her paintings are much deeper than they were before — there’s a wit and a mystery that I didn’t see earlier.” And then he seems to change the subject, but only slightly: “I’ve been following Mo’s example on not drinking, and I notice that other people are paying attention, starting to realize that they can enjoy their lives, their friends, themselves more.”
So maybe the hard work and generous connectedness of one woman’s young life will have some effect. Maybe, instead of mythologizing self-destruction, we might begin to see it for what it really is: just some poor folks in pain checking out too early.
It’s an end Maureen Maki has glimpsed and seeks to avoid. She has told us the news in her paintings and now she’s gone, to make new work and love in California.
Party on, dudes? George Tysh is the Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]