Portals to the underworld

Jan 6, 1999 at 12:00 am

"It’s all about comic books and stained glass windows," says people’s wizard Jerome Ferretti of his newly installed ceramic wall sculptures in the Ford Auditorium garage.

At the threshold of Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit is a glass-walled entry to the parking facility beneath Jefferson Avenue. Ferretti is referring to the mix of public drawing styles that he has used in his design of fired-clay works that have been hung, for the pleasure of pedestrians and drivers alike, right where the garage’s escalators go down into the earth.

Ferretti’s works are sort of cartoony, but their reverence for the Motor City’s history makes the spiritual connection appropriate -- as well as aesthetically right on. His glowing scenes are divided into compartments or hunks of color -- like the fragments in a church’s stained glass windows -- and manipulated as if part of a pulp-comic saga of Detroit. Skyscraper skylines, Tiger Stadium’s infield, an electric guitar, a golden saxophone, sailboats on the waters of the Great Lakes, the amazed eyeballs of everyday people -- Ferretti’s iconography is totally accessible and dynamic.

The gut-passionate energy of these wallscape visions has literally been earned in the blast furnaces of the automobile industry. In his 20s, he toiled for years cleaning out the Ford Rouge plant’s brick-lined kilns with a jackhammer, a six-pack for breakfast and a silent wish to be laid off ASAP. But relief only came when he left to apprentice in the bricklayer’s union, eventually earning his journeyman’s card. Now, after two proud decades in the trade, he looks back on a life surrounded by brick and clay as both artist and skilled craftsperson. And it’s in this context that his commission from the City of Detroit for a public art installation makes the most sense.

"It’s the project of my whole life that’s made me proudest," Ferretti insists. An artist of this city &emdash; whose understanding of its people, their labors and joys has been lived each day &emdash; he was moved to tears at the December 14th dedication of his work.

"Jerome fulfilled the project requirements exquisitely," says Marilyn Wheaton, City of Detroit cultural affairs director. In order to obtain the commission, competing artists had to 1) be city residents 2) involve Detroit art student apprentices and 3) visit the project site as often as possible, to be sure that the work would withstand the extreme cold and dampness of the locales.

Ferretti’s ceramic pieces are supported by state of the art technology, with stainless-steel outline frames from Detroit Blowpipe and Sheet Metal, and maxi-strength bolting and hanging by Michigan Alterations.

"Every dime of my commission went into making it right," he says. But the most important part of the process took place in his studio on Michigan Avenue, with the assistance of "my head guy" Ron Gabaldon, and two students from Crosman Alternative School, Dion McLoud and Laquetta Beam.

The centerpiece of Ferretti’s project consists of two hand shapes, one splayed vertically, the other horizontally, "positioned to depict the State of Michigan," as he writes in his thank-you letter to Mayor Archer. "The upper hand or Upper Peninsula shows the untamed Detroit of our distant past. The lower hand exhibits the Detroit of the present, described by our powerful presence in the automotive and industrial world."

But these works, which also resemble signs hanging outside a fortune teller’s parlor, are open to multiple interpretations. They could be making both "stop!" and "come on … " gestures, or they could be signaling to us about the ways in which we fill up historical time and ecological space. Lending an aura of surreal generosity to their surroundings, they’re like oracles of the Motor City in a time of renewal.

Two other artists, painters Vito Valdez and Jim Puntigam, also have completed a commission — theirs for a series of sizzling, graffitti-esque murals in the Cobo Center garage, again with the help of Detroit students. It’s encouraging to see both the City and its Municipal Parking department demonstrate the vision to fund work with a decidedly challenging edge in some of the most visible yet unexpected corners of Detroit’s venerable downtown.

Visitors to the auto show who park at the Ford Auditorium garage — only a long block away from the Cobo Hall festivities &emdash; or at the Cobo Center itself, will get to see much more than this year’s industry models. They’ll get a clear shot of what has made this historical crossroads, this workingman’s town, live and breathe.

George Tysh is Metro Times' arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected]