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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Michigan Art

Earl L. Robinette, Michigan Thumb Wolverine
Harbor Springs, Michigan,
Diane Tasselmyer
As I travel clockwise on the map around my home state of Ohio, we come upon Ohio's great football rival, the state of Michigan and the Michigan State University Wolverines. If I were a rabid college football fan, which I'm definitely not, I'd have thrown in some nasty adjectives amid that line. However, I'm not here to talk football, but to talk about Michigan art. I'll leave that to Michigan painter Earl L. Robinette and his Thumb Wolverine (above), who likely can do both. In many ways Michigan art is much like Ohio art only with more water. The state, with it's exposure to four out of five of the Great Lakes, has more shoreline than any state except Alaska. Moreover, it's all fresh water. That means water permeates most of the landscape art of this state (right, and I don't mean just watercolor). Whether it's woodland wildlife, or the urban "wild life," this major natural resource is never far removed.
The Detroit Institute of Art proudly displays a recently valued collection of art worth $8.1-billion.

The DIA also owns The Jewish Cemetery,
1654-55, Jacob van Ruisdael
My own first contact with Michigan came at an early age. I can just barely remember it. My dad had a distant cousin living in Dearborn (a suburb of Detroit) which was within a long day's (pre-interstate) drive from where we lived. This would have been in the very early 1950s. Other than family kinship, my parents, being history buffs (I come by my love of history honestly), were drawn to Henry Ford's Ford-Edison Museum (now minus the Edison part)and its outdoor annex, Greenfield Village. I think it was the first museum I was ever in--not much art but lots of other stuff. At the age of five or six, I probably wouldn't have been interested in any artwork anyway. I think, over the years, we made three or four trips north, ostensibly to see the relatives, but more likely to hit the museum again and again. It's been forty years since the last time, and from Internet photos, I'd say it's grown and changed a lot. I highly recommend it. Or, if you just want to just see art, there's the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) downtown (above, recently jeopardized by the city's bankruptcy).

Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum, Michigan State University, Ann Arbor
Pure Michigan (detail), Lisabelle
Michigan has two major centers of art, Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids. Ann Arbor has the rather radically designed Eli and Edith Board Museum (above) at Michigan State while Grand Rapids sports it annual Artprize festival. Artprize bills itself as "radically open." That means anyone over eighteen can enter. How? Simply show up, choose a spot (anywhere in the four square miles of downtown), display your work, then wait for the judges and the public to reward your efforts...or not. They kinda don't like you to block traffic, though. Besides possible sales and maybe some free publicity, there's also a good deal of money involved--two grand prizes each worth $400,000 plus eight category prizes valued at $160,000. The whole shindig goes on for nineteen days through late September and early October.

Artprize 2014
Artprize 2011
Michigan Barn in Snow.
Probably the greatest dichotomy in art today is the differences between rural (conservative) and radical urban, (progressive) art. It would seem art and politics share a lot in common. Rural art is larded with wildlife, colorful old barns (left), pleasant-flowing streams, woodlands, folklore, and native Americana. Most of it you'd be pleased to hang over the couch in your living room. Urban art, quite often may be bigger than your living room, and not suited for "over the couch" in any case. It's to be found on the sides of Detroit's plentiful, century-old factories and tenements (some still occupied, others not). It's bright, colorful, very culturally ethnic, historic, hopeful, protesting, and sometimes verges on the graffiti from which it derived some fifty years ago. As in politics, there's also a moderate middle-ground, work too big for domestic consumption but too large and personally expressive for the sides of buildings. This type of work shows up in what I'd call "park art." Vacant lots are ringed with fences, walls, or mini-billboard type display surfaces such as those of The Jefferson-Chalmers Community Art Garden (below). These displays represent a uniquely new way to transform a neighborhood liability into an outdoor celebration of the community's artistic heritage.

The Community Art Garden, a joint project of the Jefferson-Chalmers Community
and the Jefferson East Business Association (JEBA).
1917 Model T, Joy Fatooh.
Of course, no discussion of Michigan's artistic heritage would be complete without mentioning the one item for which Michigan is most noted. If the art of Michigan has changed radically over the past hundred years, such changes might be considered barely noticeable as compared to the changes in its automotive industry. From Ford's "any color so long as it's black" Model T (left), to GM's much-maligned Chevy Volt, about the only consistency from then to now is the five wheels and four tires that come standard on all models. Geographically and figuratively, Detroit's famed Woodward Avenue exemplifies these changes. Dividing the city between east and west, it runs from Edsel Ford Freeway north to Pontiac, and still serves as the parade route (below) for classic auto restorations from virtually every era in transportation history. Okay, time to go polish the Prius.

Woodward Dream Cruise


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