Detroit, despite all its cultural pretensions, has been artistically “dead” for longer than most people here want to admit. Young artists of all disciplines — music, poetry, painting, photography, filmmaking — have made it a necessary point in the past generation or two to get out of Detroit as soon as possible for the vital centers of U.S. kulchur — New York, San Francisco, even Chicago — because the Detroit milieu is if anything anti-artistic. Detroit has been really nowhere, as the saying goes: one halfway decent theater, one museum, a decaying jazz scene, no community of poets, painters, writers, anything.
A group of young Detroit artists — at first primarily poets and musicians, most of them students at Wayne State University — got together and decided to do something to make Detroit a viable and vital place to live and work. The Artists’ Workshop Society was formed by 16 charter members, all of whom donated five dollars toward the cost of renting a suitable facility. After examining a number of buildings and storefronts in the area, the group picked a large house in the “urban renewal” area around [Wayne State] University for their headquarters.—Quoted from an article by filmmaker Robin Eichele and poet John Sinclair for New University Thought magazine in the summer of 1965.
And with that the seed for a counterculture revolution was planted in the Cass Corridor in 1964.
Back then, John Sinclair was a tall, bearded poetry grad student and jazz critic for Downbeat magazine who hooked up with jazz trumpeter Charles Moore, poet George Tysh, Eichele, musician James Semark and others to form the Detroit Artists’ Workshop at 1252 W. Forest in the Cass Corridor.
The Workshop was an important avant-garde spark in Detroit, a movement based on radical social change and an almost religious do-it-yourself dogma. It was a hipster communal hangout that produced free events every Sunday, featuring jazz, poetry and art in daylong jam sessions. The Workshop became known in underground and literary circles across the country for its prolific printing press that put out numerous magazines, books of poetry, political leaflets, pamphlets and a newspaper called the Warren-Forest Sun.
The Sunday events eventually drew hundreds from surrounding areas and featured such luminaries as poets Allen Ginsberg and Diane di Prima, and musicians such as Archie Shepp and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
But headier days were to come. Sinclair was arrested three times during the Artists’ Workshop years, from 1964 to 1967, on marijuana charges. As was the course of the national culture, by 1967 the Workshop beatniks were hippies and anti-war protesters. Sinclair turned his focus to the MC5 — to rock ’n’ roll, sex and dope as means for revolution. He attracted a whole new group of followers. He was called the “king of the hippies,” and after his third arrest he co-founded the anti-government, pro-racial-equality White Panther Party (the MC5 was the party’s band, or vice versa), and the group’s publishing efforts grew exceedingly radical.
Sinclair was famously jailed on a 10-year sentence in 1969 for giving two joints to a narc at the Workshop back in 1966. On Dec. 10, 1971, 15,000 people attended the Free John Now Rally in Ann Arbor’s Crisler Arena, a show headlined by John Lennon, Yoko Ono and Stevie Wonder. Three days later, the Michigan Supreme Court ordered Sinclair released, and later overturned his conviction, upholding his contention that Michigan’s marijuana laws were unconstitutional.
But it all started in the Cass Corridor with poems about love and jazz and a manifesto calling for a counterculture revolution in the ghetto. The Artists’ Workshop was a group of literary poets and jazzheads — cats too cool for school who walked around in the standard pair of black jeans and black boots with sunglasses and beards and mustaches and hats, talking about film and art and, of course, smoking dope.
The Detroit Artists’ Workshop is celebrating its 40th anniversary this weekend with poetry readings, music events, art exhibits and symposiums to re-create the high-energy atmosphere of the 1964 project. A group of founding members, supporters, musicians and poets, now in their seventh decade of life, are gathering to remind Detroiters about what happened here, what it was all about — that back in the day these artists were living and working and breathing their homegrown aesthetic: Do It Yourself.
you got to
live it not just
say it or
play it that’s what this is
—John Sinclair, Bridgework IV, 1965, published by the Workshop Press.
Leni SinclairEx-wife of John Sinclair, founding member of the workshop and noted photographer/documentarian of the period:
The Artists’ Workshop has been underground for all this time until this week. Now we have a proclamation coming from the mayor, from [Detroit City Council President] Maryann Mahaffey — this is as “overground” as we’ve ever been. It’s all very exciting.
The workshop started because the music we were listening to was too avant-garde for the time. The clubs wouldn’t let Charles Moore [a friend and Artists’ Workshop founding member] play. They thought the music was out of tune or something. We just thought it was good music. We wanted a place for us, for people who didn’t fit into the straight arts scene.
John made friends rapidly; he drew people together. People came and joined and paid $5 each to get the thing off the ground. Every month we totaled the expenses and divided the amount between the members; sometimes it was $2.20, sometimes $5. That’s how it started.
We were studying intensely what was going on in other places. We’d go to New York two or three times a year and be a part of the scene there. We were making coalitions with other groups like ours. We exchanged publications, little poetry magazines from other colleges, then we started printing like crazy.
It couldn’t have happened without Monteith College at Wayne State, and Professor Dr. Otto Feinstein. He edited New University Thought magazine. Monteith gave its students a building on Second to do anything they wanted to do with it. They gave them a mimeograph machine and all the paper and ink they wanted to use. It was free. The Workshop’s first magazines and fliers were printed at the Monteith student center. They let us use it.
The Workshop was my type of crowd, people who shop at the Salvation Army and eat brown rice. We started a housing cooperative. We had four townhouses — each had five rooms — and we rented rooms for $15 a month, making them affordable for people who didn’t care to hold a nine-to-five job. We had to fix the places up first. We got pretty handy at fixing things up. Filmmakers, poets and college students moved in. Then we started the Free University of Detroit. We actually tried to have alternative higher education. Everyone in the workshop taught a class. We had a whole schedule of classes and symposiums on art and politics.
In 1966, John went to jail for the first time for six months, at the Detroit House of Correction. When he got out, we held the Festival of People to celebrate John getting released. That night I met the MC5. To this day I don’t know who authorized the MC5 to come play. And you know what I did? I pulled the plug out on them. It was late at night and John had just gotten out of jail. So I pulled the plug. How else do you shut up a rock ’n’roll band? I didn’t want the neighbors to call the cops. The other significant thing that happened that night is that I got pregnant.
To me it was almost symbolic. That night was the end of an era and the beginning of another. The Workshop was cliquish and elitist. We were really snobby and disdainful of popular culture. When we did the love-in on Belle Isle [in 1967], it was all peace, love and harmony.
We were very, very busy all the time. Our magazine was called Work. It was always work, work, work. But it was wonderful. The memories of the Artists’ Workshop and the subsequent organizations — those things I remember much better than anything that happened in the ’80s or the ’90s. My mind is stuck in the ’60s. The atmosphere back then: That’s what we’d like to bring back with the reunion. There was an enthusiasm and creativity that has stayed with me for the rest of my life.
If I hadn’t turned my frustration and anger toward art, I don’t know what I would have done. The workshop gave me food for life, an ideology to live by, so I never became frustrated or depressed. It’s still with me. I have so much work to do before I die.
Creating human beings, that’s a work in progress that never ends. I still take care of my children. Things aren’t easy, but, then again, they never were. I sell pictures, I do what I can.
I’m 64 years old. When I look through my pictures, half the people are dead. And here I am. I haven’t finished my work yet. In fact I’ve barely begun.
Leni lives with her daughters Marion (Sunny), 37, and Celia, 34, and her granddaughter, Beyoncé, 3, near Mound and Seven Mile roads.
Ron EnglishPoet and jazz guitarist Ron English wrote the manifesto that launched the Artists’ Workshop (excerpted here):
That a separatist economy of co-op food stores, banks and local industries can be established. That natives and outsiders can raise literacy through independent schools in the houses. That they can introduce birth control and sanitation and that the bourgeois governments can be persuaded to aid community redevelopment instead of community destruction — i.e. REFURBISH solid old houses before erecting new rat-traps, which can only happen
IF — the landlords’ hold can be broken by law, RENTS REDUCED
IF — everybody can somehow get enough to EAT, and wear:
THEN — the revolutionary society may come about. It depends on educated and humane people moving in (to the slum areas) and helping out.
Should the revolution succeed, it will usher in a golden age of arts and letters. It will
probably be short-lived, and will perish for one or more of several reasons:
(1) It will disrupt bourgeois economy and thereby will (a) be crushed or (b) falter
with a faltering nation.
(2) Slide slowly, of its own weight or prosperity, back into bourgeois economy and
(3) Perish along with the rest of society in some calamity — war, famine.
Ron English is a jazz guitarist and guitar teacher at Marygrove College who lives in
the city of Detroit.
... as he’s drinking coffee at Avalon International Breads in the Cass Corridor:
I get overwhelmed in this neighborhood. Forty years is a long time. Forest Arms, Apartment B-4, that’s where this all started. Smoking a lot of marijuana and listening to Coltrane records over and over. And we wanted to hang out with some other people who liked to do the same stuff we did.
The first couple of months after I came here, I was constantly looking for the right people. There was nowhere to hang out.
I was meeting all kinds of people. That’s my specialty. I’m always looking for people that are interesting.
It was exhilarating. A lot of people being high all the time was new to us. You were high and you’d have all these ideas and you’d talk to other people and they’d have similar experiences. We were on our own. We weren’t trust-fund kids. We were the kids of autoworkers. We had no money and no leaders.
In the ’50s and ’60s, with the free jazz movement, there was all this terrific music coming out, and all this incredible poetry. Every day there was something that came out. You had to find it. It was all extremely underground.
I was a pioneer in the marijuana reform law and a martyr for it. The drug war was raging all around us and we were all terrible potheads. I knew people in the jazz scene where I could get it. And I’d get it and help out my friends. That’s when a pound was $160. The funny thing about my criminal history in drugs is that I stopped dealing after the first time I was busted. I was terrified. I had no idea there were these penalties. I gave the guy a matchbox of weed and they told me the penalty was 20 to life. I said, “What? I did the guy a favor.”
We were ideologically challenging their hegemony. We were challenging their right to arrest people for doing this. The bohemian aspect of what we were doing was threatening enough. We were the beacon of difference, and we were racially integrated. That wasn’t popular then. Long hair, Levis, boots, sandals — every particular of our existence was oppositional, or viewed as oppositional by the opposition.
What I remember the most was how different we were. There was courage involved in being an artist and not going to work. Because there was no benefit to it whatsoever, except for the satisfaction of studying hard and reading poetry and literature and playing music and writing and creating and talking about it, every night sitting around with your friends and getting high and talking about art and poetry. It was a great life. And then the police found us.
We were driven. We had a mission, centered on production. When I started hanging with the MC5 their whole thing was based on musical production.
The revolution failed in the U.S. in the ’70s. It just ended. Nixon got out of office and the war ended, prices went up and most people got a job. Then the music got totally lame, controlled by record companies and radio stations. And it’s been like that for 30 years.
Just before I came here someone took me in their car and got me high. That’s what I love about Detroit. It’s so vicious we need to help each other to get through this. You have to climb above or get dragged to despair.
I came back [from Amsterdam] in February, and I’ve seen more signs of life in Detroit than I have in years. This is the same kind of phenomenon that we were part of. You have to be surrounded by the culture and the arts or those things just die. We were trying to put the culture in our neighborhood to affect the city. And we did.
I’m known all over the world, I have a lifetime of achievement and I’m very proud.
We want to say to kids today, “You can do something different if you want to. Once you take the vow of poverty you can make any kind of art you want to. But you won’t get paid.”
I still dream of getting paid. But it doesn’t hinder anything I do. I don’t have a blueprint or I’d be rich. But I go around the country and the world meeting good people. That’s what life is about. I like to make things. It’s fun.
We did it and we’re still here. We didn’t get struck by lightning.
Sinclair divides his time between Amsterdam and Detroit, performs his poetry with his backup band, the Blues Scholars, all over, and writes about music for a living, sometimes making enough money to pay the rent and buy some food and other stuff too.
Gary GrimshawGrande Ballroom artist, former Creem magazine associate art director and Workshop member:
I first hooked up with the Artists’ Workshop in 1966. I’m a Vietnam veteran and I’d just come back from Vietnam. Rob Tyner [of the MC5] was my best friend. I’d go to these Sunday concerts, all day, all night.
My thing is art and printing, and John did a lot of it. They had an art department and I just jumped in and started doing stuff with them. It was really community-centered. I came from Lincoln Park, and there is no community in Lincoln Park.
With the Artists’ Workshop, I polished my skills in writing and publishing. I learned a lot. It was really an education for me. There was a lot of activity.
That stereotype of hippies, I hate that word; it’s a media invention. Detroit is a lot different from San Francisco, where the hippie mystique first started. There’s a work ethic here, people from working-class roots. It was more like, let’s smoke weed and do something. Let’s drop acid and do something. Not just sit around and contemplate our navels.
We went to Ann Arbor in ’68 because the police ran us out of Detroit. Every time you left the building to buy cigarettes you’d get pulled out and searched. Four squad cars would pull up and they’d look around and sniff around and leave. And this was routine. It got too dangerous for us. When the place came up in Ann Arbor, a big fraternity house, the MC5 wanted to live together so we got this big place.
In the late ’60s in Detroit, the government and the police had this attitude that they were under siege from the Black Panthers and the hippies. They wanted to whap them over the head and get rid of them. When Coleman Young got elected and appointed a black police chief, I thought, “Phew, it’s safe to move back.” And I did move back right after that. I was thrilled when Coleman Young was elected. I thought, “No more harassment.”
Grimshaw and his wife, Laura, recently moved back to Detroit after living in the Bay Area for 14 years; they bought a condo in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit.
Ed SandersEd Sanders is a poet and former anti-Vietnam War performance activist and member of the satirical band the Fugs. He founded the 1960s avant-garde journal, F**k You: A Magazine of the Arts, in New York City and opened the Peace Eye Bookstore in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a hangout for international bohemians and radicals:
The workshop was part of the mimeograph revolution. Kinkos was just a blur on the horizon and people were printing everything — poetry, manifestos — on the mimeograph machine.
Sinclair and his group were very interested in jazz and musicians working with poets. They were cross-pollinating between the visual arts and the performing arts and music and poetry and literature.
I visited Detroit in 1966, right around the time that John was getting in trouble. The workshop was very — it was like craftspeople. You did your own art, your own craft, your own silkscreen. Everything was hand-drawn and hand-adorned. Everyone had mimeograph ink under their fingernails. Sinclair was very prolific. He could just put out so many different publications every day. Get up, eat breakfast, print a pamphlet, smoke a joint, write a poem, work on a newspaper.
The workshop was very hip and very sophisticated. It was high-IQ — well-thought-out manifestos and they paid attention to the very best jazz and poetry. Sinclair had a big influence on the quality of the counterculture.
It was an interesting era. Everyone had two legs. One leg was running down the road of revolution and the other leg was running down the road of balling and listening to good music and writing poetry and smoking dope and hanging out a lot, fucking and drugs and staring at the cosmos and trying to figure it out. You had to be there. It was definitely a lot of fun.
I thought there’d be a revolution and there’d be cradle-to-grave health care, guaranteed housing and income, and enough to eat for everyone, and six to eight weeks of paid vacation. Then America would be a groovy place.
And that’s what John Sinclair was talking about in 1964. It was a dream and it still is. And that’s what I’m coming to Detroit to celebrate.
Sanders lives in Woodstock, N.Y., with his wife of 43 years, Miriam. He publishes The Woodstock Journal and receives royalties from his 1971 book, The Family, a study of Charles Manson and his followers that has sold more than a million copies and is in print in several languages. He continues to publish poetry, novels, short stories and lyrics; volumes of his nine-book series, America: A History in Verse are being released this year, as is his book, Tales of Beatnik Glory.
From the original White Panther Party statement written by John Sinclair in 1968:
We are the mother country madmen in charge of our own lives and we are taking this freedom to the people of America, in streets, in the ballrooms and teenclubs, in their front rooms watching TV, in their bedrooms reading underground newspapers, or masturbating, or smoking secret dope, in their schools where we come and talk to them or make our music… For the first time in America there is a generation of visionary maniac white motherfucker country dope fiend rock and roll freaks who are ready to get down and kick out the jams — ALL THE JAMS — break everything loose and free everybody from their very real and imaginary prisons — even the chumps and punks and honkies who are always fucking with us. We demand total freedom for everybody! And we will not be stopped until we get it.
We are bad.
There’s only two kinds of people on the planet: those who make up the problem and those who make up the solution. WE ARE THE SOLUTION. We have no problems. Everything is free for everybody. Money sucks. Leaders suck. School sucks. The white honkie culture that has been handed to us on a silver platter is meaningless to us! We don’t want it!
Our program of rock and roll, dope and fucking in the streets is a program of total freedom for everyone. We are totally committed to carrying out our program…We will do anything we can to drive people crazy out of their heads and into their bodies…We have developed organic high-energy guerrilla bands who are infiltrating the popular culture and destroying millions of minds in the process.
Pun PlamondonPun Plamondon co-founded the White Panther Party with Sinclair in 1967. He was indicted in 1969, charged with blowing up the CIA building in Ann Arbor:
What was most significant to me is when Sinclair handed me a newspaper he’d printed, the Sun. And it amazed me that young people, hippies, beatniks, could put out their own newspaper. I just didn’t know it was possible. Publish your own poetry books, put out your own newspaper, put on your own concerts — they were so creative and energetic, and they were always doing something I didn’t know could be done.
Being raised in Traverse City, none of my classmates were ever encouraged to think outside the box or go against the grain. This was all quite new to me even though I traveled extensively, hitchhiking around the country. It was a very significant point in my life.
The riots were possibly the most fun I ever had in Detroit. I heard about the riots the morning after they started. We set up an observation post. We brought a TV up there and a radio. Nobody liked the cops and they were getting their ass kicked, and it was fun to watch. It was like any bully — everyone tries to get along with the bully until somebody kicks his ass, and then everyone is damn happy. To see all these poor people rising up and kicking the shit out of the government was just wonderful. It strengthened my opinion and analysis that the police were an occupying force.
The CIA office [in Ann Arbor] was blown up in ’68. Most people think I did it. There was never a trial. We always said we were innocent. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t, but at this stage, I won’t say either way because it benefits me to keep the mystery alive.
Plamondon now lives in rural western Michigan where he’s reconnecting with his Native American roots and working with children. His self-published book, Lost From the Ottawa: The Story of the Journey Back, came out this month and is available in Detroit area bookstores.
Ellen Phelan“I must say I get my ’60s dates quite confused,” says Ellen Phelan, a New York painter and founding member of the Workshop. Her art is owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MOMA and many other museums, but back in 1964 she was shy and enamored, like so many, of Sinclair:
John had this kind of genius in terms of making people feel welcome and included. There was lots of back and forth with Chicago, Toronto, New York; people were organizing things and using a budget, it was pretty serious business.
There was a flavor in the art and the music and writing that tried to deal with this particular gritty, industrial, tough, racially charged and mixed stew that was Detroit, this kind of funkiness and poverty. We were all pretty poor. People had a lot of energy. It was the burgeoning of the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement.
Sexism was totally a part of the scene. I really think that the beginning of the feminist movement in the early ’70s, a lot of it came out of how women were treated in hippie communes. It was very much a free ride, can we say, for the guys. I knew I was kind of vulnerable, being this foxy girl hanging around. John was always a gentleman and looked out for me. So I’ll always be grateful for that because, yeah, guys can be pigs.
Phelan lives in New York with her husband, celebrated sculptor Joel Shapiro. Phelan’s paintings can be seen at New York’s Ameringer & Yohe Gallery. As the artist who’s seen the most commercial success of the workshop group, her larger paintings sell for $75,000.
James SemarkJazz musician, composer and poet, founding member of the Workshop:
We moved back a year ago July. Driving around, seeing the miles and miles of blight, I started wondering why things are the way they are. The short answer to that is — we left. The hundreds of thousands of people who brain-drained the city for so long, including myself, we left.
The Artists’ Workshop — we have a job that we started that we haven’t finished. And to finish it, we hope to do something that’s enriching in the community, socially and culturally. Hopefully the reunion will jump-start some of that.
Semark recently moved to Ferndale after living out of state for 26 years. He develops software for a living.
Ken Mikolowski, Poet :
I lived at the Jeffries housing projects a couple of blocks away from the workshop with my wife, because we had no money and it was cheap. Ann [Mikolowski’s late wife and a noted painter] and I started the Alternative Press [a publication of art and poetry]. The actual physical letterpress we used belonged to the Artists’ Workshop; they sold it to us. I still have it. We used it to publish for 30 years. We were inspired by the Artists’ Workshop.
They’d give out poetry for free. They called it Free Poems Among Friends. Have you ever tried to give away free poems? Nobody wants them. People would run away.
The spirit of the workshop also went into the Grande Ballroom [a fabled Detroit rock venue of the time]. I used to give poetry readings there. Poets were the intermission between Iggy and the Stooges and MC5. Man, did the energy level ever drop. It was like, “OK,” but people were out in the parking lot smoking joints anyway, so they weren’t paying much attention. But these were our friends and so we influenced each other.
Mikolowski teaches creative writing at the Residential College of the University of Michigan and is the author of three books of poetry: Thank You Call Again, little mysteries, and Big Enigmas.
See the Detroit Artists' Worshop Reunion Events here. Lisa M. Collins is arts editor for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]