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Canvas the Neighborhood

February 5, 2012

A Glimpse of Street Art from Detroit to Dayton

Artists have integrated site-specific artwork into architecture for centuries, commissioned by churches, cities, and patrons, to add a visual complement to their buildings.  In recent history, Diego Rivera’s fresco murals adorned municipal and educational sites, Gordon Matta-Clark cut into whole abandoned buildings and Jenny Holzer’s LED texts wrap around cultural centers.  Parallel to this history, street art has blossomed and thrived, with notable names such as Banksy, JR and Swoon making their mark on decaying and crumbling walls. Fueled by current social and economic conditions, this new breed of artists has reappropriated abandoned buildings as starting points for their work. The building is the blank canvas: it represents not just the work’s base but also its integrity.  These artworks often mirror community issues of foreclosure, urban blight and economic hardship — powerful reasons to reconsider an abandoned structure and its transformation.

Attracted to areas of undeveloped possibility, artists have pioneered the rejuvenation of communities.  Within the last decades, Philadelphia saw the efforts of artists like Jane Golden of the Mural Arts Program and Isaiah Zagar of South Street successfully catapult the city into a tourist destination for public art.  Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel-town outside Pittsburgh that currently retains about 10% of its peak population, is now recognized for its tough-guy mayor John Fetterman who uses his city’s abundant vacant and cheap housing as a magnet for artists.   Perhaps most well-known in recent memory is Detroit, where artists have been migrating to take advantage of what one could describe as a lawless frontier: grand old houses that were once extravagant are now derelict, space is plentiful and the drastic transformation of a once wealthy city into one in dire straits has aroused a romantic optimism for many creative thinkers.  On a recent visit, several “unpolished” initiatives struck me and helped me to find the unexpected in my own town, Dayton.   In particular, I was impressed by the well-established Heidelberg Project, and the rapidly changing Moran Street.

The Heidelberg Project, Detroit

The Heidelberg Project, an evolving environment started 25 years ago by artist Tyree Guyton, was inspired by a deep connection to a place troubled by urban blight.  Guyton saw his lower eastside Detroit neighborhood crumble in the decades following the 1967 Detroit riots and began to transform Heidelberg Street by painting abandoned houses in signature bright polka dots and building large-scale found object collages.  It’s a short distance from downtown Detroit, but with acres of vacant lots and deteriorating houses, the sense of a forgotten city fills the distance.  Once you arrive, you are transported.  Guyton has created a whole new world: beyond the playfully decorated abandoned houses and freestanding sculptures, there is the feeling of a playground with a serious humanitarian message.  The street and sidewalks are painted with words, shapes and bright colors, and trees are decorated densely with stuffed animals, shoes and signs. Even shopping carts are perched some 30 feet in the air on the tip-tops of tree limbs.  The Heidelberg Project started as a personal attempt to save a disappearing street.  It has since developed into a tourist destination with over 275,000 visitors annually, a point of controversy with city officials for upkeep and safety, and a nonprofit educational program that strives to enrich community through art appreciation and expression.   More information can be found at www.heidelberg.org.

Moran Street, Detroit

Several miles north of Heidelberg Street, Moran Street, bordering Detroit in the small city of Hamtramck, has seen a very recent economic change.  In 2010, the city asked for permission from the state to file for bankruptcy, and shortly after foreclosure signs and abandoned homes multiplied.  Two residents, Gina Reichert, an artist, and Mitch Cope, an architect, decided to save their neighborhood one house at a time. The pillar effort is The Power House, at the corner of Moran Street and Lawley Avenues, a house they bought for $1,900 in 2008.  They have since transformed the house with pastel colored stripes, solar panels and other tools to sustain it and keep it off the grid.  The Power House now hosts an international artists-in-residence program.  Thanks to this and other initiatives of Cope and Reichert, Moran Street became the focus of a recent intervention by Juxtapoz magazine, in which they helped fundraise to support Cope and Reichert’s nonprofit and to transform houses along Moran into public art projects.  At 13184 Moran, artist Swoon’s wheat-pasted prints cover the front and side facades in her graphic renderings of people and their lives. Around the back of the house is a three-dimensional collage made entirely out of bits of dormers and elegant window structures salvaged and arranged by sculptor Ben Wolf.  The effect is subtle, elegant, and devastatingly beautiful. Learn more at www.powerhouseproductions.org.

East Fifth Street, Dayton

Inspired by the initiatives in Detroit, I was delighted to find echoes of similar creative endeavors here in Dayton.  Driving along East Fifth Street in the historic Huffman District, I noticed one abandoned house covered in graphic patterns of ants crawling over the front façade, their spray-painted black bodies accentuated by a golden abdomen.  Investigating the neighborhood a little further, Terry Street revealed a beautifully painted panel boarding up the front door of a vacant house in yellow, turquoise, magenta and white patterns on a brilliant blue background of negative and positive abstract shapes. These discoveries resonated with a sincere effort to create something beautiful out of something forgotten.  Unfortunately, no internet research or asking around has revealed the artist and nature of their endeavors.  I hope to see more.

Whether recognizing a value in a building left behind, working on a large-scale or experimenting beyond a commission’s criteria, each of these examples has an ephemeral life determined by the realities of their locations.  Parallel to the artist’s freedom to experiment on a devalued structure, the awe and discovery of experience as a visitor, is extraordinary.  The attention drawn to Detroit’s art scene by glossy magazines and journals is well beyond the notice paid to Dayton, yet the earnest spirit is a part of why these works are successful.  From a strategic plan to save a neighborhood, to an artist making his/her mark on a devalued place, these efforts send a stimulating breath of life into what others have left behind.

Published in the February 2, 2012 Dayton City Paper.  http://www.daytoncitypaper.com/canvas-the-neighborhood/

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