Writing on the wall

May 10, 2006 at 12:00 am

In the mid-1950s, Jesse Howard, who lived in Fulton, Mo., began posting signs on his house. He filled his home and yard with words written in a style alternating between graceful songs of religious prose and shit-can poetics, taking on everyone from the Lord to the local sheriff. The townspeople in Fulton never thought he was any bigger or better than some self-appointed preacher who staggers his way over to strangers to tell them a thing or two about a thing or two.

A little closer to home, in Grand Haven, George Zysk made his wife real mad about two decades ago, when he began covering their cute yellow-and-green house with hand-painted wooden signs. Zysk spouted off about local and national politics. Even if his wife didn't appreciate his placards, their home became a tourist attraction for anyone who knew how to road-trip the right way, seeking out sacred spots in backwoods and back alleys. It was a shame when Zysk's son removed the signs in 2001.

Now, on Detroit's west side, in a bombed-out neighborhood once alive with bars, barbershops and eateries, the Rich-Dex apartment building has a life of its own. Last summer, an unknown artist — who signs off as "Base Ball" and may be telling us he's 57 years old — scrawled his worldview on American politics, religion, pop culture and the weather.

The abandoned building, located on the corner of Richton Street and Dexter Avenue, is covered with text, equations, number patterns and religious symbols. On the north brick wall, the creator makes statements in bright red, sea-foam green, dark green and black. And on the boarded-up facade, the artist has covered almost every inch of plywood and cement in black scribbled text, over graffiti tags and even over Tyree Guyton's large violet polka dot.

The signs and symbols on the Rich-Dex building are a mash-up of contemporary cultural references spilled out for the world to see. There are dates assigned to many of the phrases cataloguing the creative process. Ideas about Osama bin Laden and "Mr. Bush + gang" share space with praise for urban idols Mary J. Blige, Kanye West and Alicia Keyes. It's hard to make heads or tails of where he stands on many issues. At one place, he writes: "I graduate from Universe-of-Universe/My proffessor is and was Jesus." And some will be troubled by his use of the Star of David.

What makes this artful? Aside from the bold color and the beauty of text when it's a visual scramble, the plainness of the message is its force. The artist writes: "U.S.A. don't kiss ass," penning the opinion near an unbalanced equation figuring the cost of war in Iraq.

As is often the case with folk artists, this writer is self-taught and religious. Folk artists are those whose skill may sometimes seem underdeveloped, but whose creativity is unbridled. They are not after perfection. They ask their own questions and contrive their own answers.

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