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Board Member Edition: Top 7 Artists Changing the Way We See Detroit

During the 2000’s, Detroit’s artistic contributions were often defined by ruin-porn, post-apocalyptic imagery and vacancy.  Although symbolic of the city’s drastic decline, this context became the canvas for a new generation of young artists who are redefining our aesthetic. 

For six years running, Green Living Science, a Detroit based sustainability education non-profit, has harnessed its annual fundraiser to help showcase the talents of this new era of Detroit artists.  Artists with a passion for the environment have donated their works to the organization’s annual “Art & Amble” fundraiser.  This event offers a grassroots platform to elevate the artist’s work in an accessible and approachable manner.  This accessibility, in turn, has allowed even the most modest patron the opportunity to get to know – and even collect – the artists. 

Here are seven artists who are inspiring us to see Detroit differently – many of whom have donated to Art & Amble in the past.

1. John Sauve – Let’s start-off by looking up.  John Sauve’s most visible work, the Man in the City installation features sculptures of a Stetson wearing silhouette of a gentleman that has been sprinkled across the rooftops of Detroit.  This installation, in all of its unmistakable construction cone orange glory, challenges us to abandon our conventional notion of a world where our sightlines are always pointed at the horizon.  His sculptures can also be found on the Detroit riverfront and downtown Birmingham. 

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2. Nicole Macdonald – Macdonald’s often monumental pieces’ include an emotional depth and warmth that invites the viewer to experience the heroisms of her subject matter.  Her project, Detroit Portrait Series featured well known luminaries such as Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Hazen Pingree, as well as lesser sung civil rights heroes and Detroiters like Father Clement Kern, Grace Lee Boggs, Michael Aston, aka "Dreadlock Mike".  Macdonald’s portraits expertly capture gestalt of the subject, while deftly encouraging activism.  Her socially engaging stencils, murals and other installations can be found throughout the city.

3. Shades – Antonio “Shades” Agee was arguably the first Detroit graffiti artist to help bring the previously subversive medium into the mainstream.  Shades was one of the first recognizable local graffiti artists, one of the first to be hired to paint a corporate space and one of the first to bring his work to Eastern Market’s “Murals in the Market”.  Not just limiting his pioneering work to our built environment, Shades used his interview in a 2015 National Geographic article to coin the powerful quote “You can’t save Detroit. You gotta be Detroit.” 

4. Carl Oxley – Oxley has been splashing his happy, playful monkeys and bunnies across the city for a while now.  No stranger to controversy, Oxley (AKA the Popartmonkey) was involved in the high-profile “disinstallation” of a Banksy work from the Packard Plant, as well as his recent arrest for painting a mural without permission in Royal Oak.  His reputation as a troublemaker belies an aesthetic that brings charm, vibrancy and “cuteness” to areas or our city that are otherwise drab or industrial. 

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5. Ryan Doyle – Game of Thrones meets Mad Max is probably the best mashup to describe Ryan’s work.  His creations usually revolve around turning a car or other vehicle into a fire breathing creature hell bent on entertaining the masses.  Doyle’s well known for his collaboration Gon Kirin, a 64 foot, 70,000 pound fire breathing dragon with a DJ booth.  Need we say more?  If you’ve chased the Nain Rouge in March, joined the burners at Burning Man or simply spent an evening next to the bon fire at the Lincoln Street Art park, odds are that you’ve experienced the excitement and scale that is Ryan’s work. 

6. George Vidas – If you’ve seen (or heard) a neon light in Detroit, you can bet George made it.  Vidas’ ability to bend and shape glass and bring it to life with neon gas has brought light and color to stores, restaurants, bars and performance art across the city.  Originally from the west coast, George’s luminous and experimental art forged out of his Signifier Signs studio in Detroit. 

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7.       Sydney James – Last, but certainly not least on this list is Sydney James.  Detroit born and bred, James began her career as an art agent in Los Angeles before returning home to Detroit.  Her involvement in high-profile community art projects like the Red Bull House of Art Residency and Murals in the Market elevated her profile.  James best known work involves large-scale murals that depict strong images of African American women.  Come see the work of James and other world class muralists at Eastern Market’s Murals in the Market.

This new class of Detroit artists are innovating, collaborating and providing us with a new lexicon to help us examine our environment and our community.  While the people and landscape of Detroit provides them with the inspiration they require to tell our story, all artists ultimately need patronage.  Building a collection can often feel intimidating for the novice.  Events like Art & Amble offer those who desire an affordable, accessible platform for learning about art, meeting local artists and beginning to build a collection.  And it is only through the act of patronage that we can provide these amazingly talented individuals with the resources they need to take Detroit’s art scene to even greater heights.

During the day, Matthew Roling is the Chair of Wayne State’s Accounting Department.In his spare time, he is an art history nerd, traveler, and modest collector of local art.Join him and other aspiring art collectors, sustainability leaders and generally cool people for Green Living Sciences “Art & Amble” Event this Thursday May 16th at the Tangent Gallery from 6-9 pm.

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