Mural of Ruth Ellis by Ijania Cortez graces new housing project in Detroit’s New Center

The Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center will provide housing and skills training for at-risk LGBTQ youth

click to enlarge Ijania Cortez's mural outside the new Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center for at-risk LGBTQ youth. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Ijania Cortez's mural outside the new Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center for at-risk LGBTQ youth.

A giant mural of LGBTQ activist Ruth Ellis proudly smiles over Woodward Avenue in Detroit. The recently unveiled piece by Detroit artist Ijania Cortez graces the facade of the new Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center for at-risk LGBTQ youth at the corner of Woodward and Clairmount.

The center will serve as a 43-unit supportive housing development for young people in the LGBT community experiencing chronic homelessness, especially transgender women of color. It’s the Ruth Ellis Center’s (REC) latest project in honor of Ellis, whose westside Detroit home was a refuge for Black gays and lesbians in the 1930s.

“We intentionally designed this facility as a benchmark for how organizations should
create supportive housing programs to meet the needs and experiences of the
individuals they serve,” Mark Erwin, REC co-interim executive director said in a news release. “Residents here will have safe space and access to resources to build the life they want and deserve.”

While the housing center won’t open until October, Cortez’s mural of Ellis is now on display for the whole city to appreciate. It’s hard to miss the four-story-tall mural with several portraits of Ellis. Cortez’s work has so much depth that it looks like actual photos of Ellis were blown up and pasted right on the building.

“It was great to be a part of something that reaches and touches the community,” Cortez said in a media release. “Everything I do comes from my heart, and to be able to make this contribution to honor and celebrate Ruth Ellis’ life in this piece is a blessing to me.”

She added the entire mural is grounded in a rainbow to represent the queer community.

Cortez was assisted by London-born artist Richard Wilson, whose 2019 original portrait of Ellis was auctioned off to raise money for the center. He’s the artist behind the mural of Stevie Wonder inside the Music Hall Center.

The painting is the first of several projects commissioned for the new housing development that includes a future mural envisioned by Detroit’s favorite non-binary artist Bakpak Durden, and an unannounced collaboration by other Detroit-based artists.

“This work of art honors a queer woman’s life that spanned three centuries of extraordinary change. Ellis’ life embodies joy, courage, and self-possession transforming into a rich, community-connected, thriving life despite and in the face of a world of adversities,” said Tony Whitfield, a multi-media artist who is curating the new center’s art programming. “Ijania’s mural is beautiful, inspirational, and uplifting, and redefines the civic role that monuments play, who they can be about, and what they can look like.”

In addition to permanent housing, the Clairmount Center will provide skills training, onsite behavioral health, primary care, and case management services. It will also become the headquarters for the Ruth Ellis Institute.

Ellis is often considered the first “out” African American lesbian activist in addition to being the first LGBTQ woman of color to operate her own printing company in Detroit. She passed away at 101 years old in 2000.

REC will host a community block party starting at noon on Oct. 7 to celebrate the Clairmount Center’s grand opening.

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