Welcome back, sorta

For any cognizant creative whose finger is on the pulse of this ailing city, the news of one relocating to New York is a cliché. And other places too. Want to move to Los Angeles? Best of luck, see you in the valley, babe. You'll be back broke with smog-filled lungs, a runny nose and an uneven tan. Oh, off to Brooklyn is it? Don't forget to rehearse your hipster-apparent apathy. We've always wondered if the water there makes ramen taste better — they say it's the secret behind the pizza and Sheepshead Bay bagels. 

Upon news of another creative (and worse, motivated) mind relocating to the city, the knee jerks and the eye winces, but now our tongues lash without pause. And why the fuck not? The move is such an obvious one, and being so bloody expensive, it's mostly painfully unrealistic. 

Sinatra said if you can "make it" in New York, you can "make it" anywhere. Sinatra also said "do-be-do-be-do." (He made thugism elitist too, and if you're bankrolled by the mob you'll "make it" anywhere.) If you do make it in Manhattan, it'll be for the same reason you made it in Detroit, Omaha or Atlanta: because you're good and because it's not who you are, it's what you are. Still (and Detroit obviously is not alone), some of our city's best writers, painters, photographers, chefs and musicians take off to New York. It's been this way for decades. People will always want greatness to rub off, it seems.

This weekend there's a homecoming of 29 ex-Detroiters living in New York. Their work will be exhibited by a Cass Corridor artist who has been significant for more than 40 years, Bob Sestok. They're all for the exhibit Exit Detroit at the Ladybug Gallery in southwest Detroit.  

The Southwest Artists
Network (SWAN) is an offshoot of the defunct Zeitgeist Gallery (formerly the Michigan Galley), which has stood for years as a home to contemporary Detroit art of various mediums on Michigan Avenue. To launch SWAN to the public, they called upon auteur-sculptor-painter Sestok to organize the inaugural opening. 

"SWAN is an interesting organization," Sestok says. "They started going to Ladybug Gallery in search of a place to show after Zeitgeist closed. See, there was a history and a momentum that had died out [after its closing] but now we're watching that start to build back up, which is really quite exciting. It's certainly exciting to be asked to be a part of that." 

Sestok is inspired by the group behind SWAN, but as an ambassador of Detroit, and an embodiment of the Cass Corridor, the show's focus brings as much spark to this artist's eye. 

"I saw a need for a show like this one in a gallery like this one," he says. "Take a look at Detroit and how many people have fled from the city. Look at the number of vacant homes being torn down. The city is just disappearing. A study I read last year said that New York City has over 800,000 artists living in Manhattan alone; it grows every day. That's where everybody is going. Detroit's just not a destination. But what's happened is that the people who have moved away are choking in their environments. There's no freedom to put up a sculpture in a vacant lot in Brooklyn — you'd have go through all sorts of stuff to get permission. Not to say you don't have to do that here as well, but in Detroit you have such amazing space to work with. There's no shortage of that."

It's been 20 years since Sestok curated a show here, he's busy making his own art, so Exit is of special consideration. And part to consider is Sestok's own Detroit legacy as a piece of the influential 1970s Cass Corridor art scene, which has been the subject of books, documentaries, numerous articles and college courses.   

As much as Sestok is engrained in Detroit, he's not anti-New York. We spoke in depth about making annual visits to a city we both, actually, love. Sestok moved there once, in 1976 — for about nine months. 

"When we were younger and didn't have kids and didn't own property, we were a lot leaner and meaner," Sestok says. "You get a little bit older and more established, you want to concentrate on your work in a more serious way without being interrupted by traffic in the street or the politics you have to deal with to have a show. You just want to make your work." 

The genial Sestok has been aware of, and friends with, artists younger and older who, over the years, moved to New York City. Peers or not, he still sees dedication and quality. "I keep in touch with them," he says. "Some of my friends are more established and some aren't. No matter what, though, they're all intent on continuing to make art."  

What does he ask of an artist he knows who's moving away?

"Are you betting that you're going to be a great success and rise above your fate? Are you betting that you're going to be able to create a huge amount of money to live on? Or are you going to focus on changing the spectrum of what people think about what art is and can be? Focus on your work, not what your work will be." 

With Exit, Sestok hopes people will come and look at the art of these Detroiters-in-exile and figure out for themselves whether or not moving away is making a difference, visually, on the work that's produced. Each of the 29 artists Sestok invited agreed to submit work, and many are excited to show again in Detroit, yet none, sadly, alluded to any permanent homecoming any time soon. Still, one can't help but appreciate Sestok's sentiment: "It's always been my contention that if all the artists never left Detroit, well then what would this city really look like?"

Sponsored by the Southwest Artists Network and the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, Exit Detroit opens March 20 at the Ladybug Gallery, inside the Whitdell Building at 1259 Hubbard St., Detroit; swandetroit.com & thecaid.org.

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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