PARIS OF THE MIDWEST: DETROIT’S ART SCENE
Ah, Detroit. You may know her as that scary place in Michigan where cars are born. Though the “Paris of the Midwest” is not as nurturing as she once was, and maybe not exactly what the French had in mind, she is becoming a destination. She is more negative space than competing skyscrapers but that’s not to say she doesn’t have her own beauty. More and more artists are coming to explore Detroit to find cheap rent and a sprawling empty canvas. I thought I’d explore the dynamic of art here with three women artists keeping the dream alive:, Mary Fortuna, Megan Heeres, and Ash Nowak.
These Detroiters just ask others not to be naïve. The city has a lot simmering under its lid already, “I want people to approach this place with humility,” Heeres says, “and to not assume that they know what will ‘save’ Detroit. It doesn’t need saving – it needs understanding.”
Who understands better than a starving artist? Between the pop up galleries in various corners of the massive city and a dedicated art school drop out residency, Detroit has no shortage of creative ambition.
Even still, the city continually finds itself the centerfold in the decay pornography section, a judgement which people are clearly done with. “People sometimes try to state that there is some kind of ‘Detroit aesthetic’ that somehow involves… crap that you’ve picked up while scrambling around abandoned buildings or something” says Fortuna. “As far as I’m concerned, this is nonsense. There are hundreds of artists working here whose work has nothing to do with using the detritus of urban decay or dealing with the auto industry or photographing the gritty urban environment; they just don’t get discussed when some writer comes in and tries to apply some formula to what they see here.”
So what else is here besides collapsing ceilings? While the coffee shops are slowly sprouting, there are plenty of artistic and cultural endeavors. Local deejay and visual artist Ash Nowak explains, “When you don’t have big city (or even basic) amenities at the ready, it forces you to get inventive. When you work to create your own community, you value it so much more than moving into one that is already well established.”
Which came first, the art or the city? Most artists here insist the city inspires but does not define the work. Fortuna re-iterates that the artists here have range, saying, “You’d be amazed at how many of us have never once used a rusty car part or a chunk broken off of a ruined building or a photo of a noble homeless person in our work.” It seems the idea is Detroit, though not instantly romantic, has many layers waiting for the chance to expose itself to the rest of the country, and world. She can be hard but nurturing.
“Everyday I see or experience one thing in Detroit that makes me want to laugh and one thing that makes me want to cry.” Heeres continues, “You have to respond (my response happens to be artistic in nature) in order to process it all.” The response continues to grow.
Photograph by Gregory Aune