Pretty vacant

May 24, 2006 at 12:00 am

Motorists careening down this stretch of West Grand Boulevard between Milford Street and Moore Place would scarcely notice it. Even bicyclists would be too busy dodging busted wine bottles and sharp gravel to realize what's there. But maybe if you were on foot, slowly cutting through empty lots to get to Vinewood, you'd look past the chip bags, fast food wrappers and empty bottles of Mad Dog 20/20 to notice an urban sanctuary, where wildflowers and trees blossom in an otherwise barren landscape. The field, marked by signs, tiles and crosses, invites speculation. Garlands of plastic flowers wind their way up dead branches, and, on a fence in the back, masking the alley, a triptych of weathered plywood signs tell the story of Detroit and quietly commemorate Grand Boulevard.

The environment is the work of 57-year-old Detroiter Sylvia Burke, a lifetime parishioner of nearby St. Stephens AME. Burke says people have approached her while she tends to her art, asking if her environment is a cemetery.

"It's not a cemetery," Burke says, clearly bemused by the suggestion.

She only began painting a few years ago. She had acquired three lots from the city after her son was stabbed to death in 1997. "I didn't want to be angry," she says with surprising composure. "I wanted to do something positive for the community instead."

She hoped to attract neighborhood folks for a worthy project, such as building a foster care or day care center, or an AIDS hospice. No community support emerged, so she decided to go it alone, turning the land into a flower and vegetable garden. When the weeds made that impossible, she sprayed the lot with poison. When they grew anyway, she finally resorted to adorning the lot with art and plastic flowers, in hopes of bringing a bit of beauty to the boulevard.

Her love of painting was sparked a few years ago. "I felt I needed to be painting," she explains. "I'm not a professional. I just let God guide my hand." After being encouraged to enter an art contest celebrating the history of Detroit, Burke spent hours at the library, sketching from a photo history of the city. "I asked myself, 'How can I get all this stuff in here?'" She had to daub in the beams and cables of the Ambassador Bridge behind a cornucopia of other images in order to fit it all in. The resulting acrylic-on-canvas work shoehorned in so many images — from the first French fort to Comerica Park — as to appear almost abstract. The painting won first prize in the contest, and the recognition encouraged her to continue working on art.

Flush with success from her award, the artist decided to paint a mural for the lot showing the city's history, with a spotlight on the boulevard. In 2005, she brought her work to the site and nailed her pieces to the back fence of the northernmost lot. For the past year she's been fighting off the weeds, trying to bring in new soil, and, earlier this year, 8 yards of fence were stolen. Exposed to the elements, her history of Detroit is falling apart.

Read from left to right, two panels are an expanded vision of her original canvas. The first shows old Detroit, from its origins as a French outpost in the days of Pontiac through the 19th century, a Detroit of low, wooden frame houses where the country met the river. The second panel is the 20th century Detroit of soaring buildings, massive sports stadiums and automobiles.

Perhaps the most interesting panel is the third and final one, which focuses on the history of Grand Boulevard. In the foreground are the boulevard's black institutions, Hitsville USA, the Stinson Funeral Home, the Tabernacle Baptist Church and the James H. Cole Home for Funerals. They line the street, which is dotted with colorful trees, the only hint of life there. Looming behind the small buildings and storefronts are the towering institutions of Detroit's white industrialists, masses of windows depicted in loose brushstrokes: the Fisher Building, the old General Motors Headquarters, the Fisher YMCA, the Henry Ford Hospital, buildings so large they lack the even scale and gracefully defined lines of the smaller buildings. In the center of the mural appear the only people, a group of Detroit's 19th-century elites planning the boulevard itself.

The artist laughs at the suggestion that this is some commentary on Detroit's deep divisions. "I wasn't thinking of any of that," she says. Rather, it was the accessibility of the buildings that allowed her to sketch from life, helping her to paint the black institutions with such care. She recalls sitting in her parked car at night, making careful sketches of the fronts of the buildings, sketches she would use to create the final painting.

As she wanders through the space, Burke points out her compromise with Mother Nature: Her flowering trees are actually large branches she sank into the earth and wrapped with flower vines. Coming upon a bare branch, she takes a plastic flower and attaches it to the end of a hardened twig. Burke makes do, and something dead has been brought back to life. This is a perfect summary of her work, and a fitting ornament for the beleaguered boulevard.

Sylvia Burke's site is located at 1776 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit.

Grand illusion: Artist Sylvia Burke's Detroit is remembered and reborn. (MT photos: Cybelle Codish)

Michael Jackman is a writer and copy editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]