'Canvas Detroit' - Book with a clever title offers artistic look at city


By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For a city that has lost plenty over the last 45 years, Detroit is still home to a wealth of gems, some of them on permanent display in neighborhoods, parks, alleyways, and assorted venues across the 139-square-mile metropolis.

It, of course, has become popular – almost fashionable – to take potshots at Detroit, to wax poetic about what ails a city that will forever be linked to the automobile industry, where many a manufacturing dream was spawned and where many a corresponding fortune was made.

Several years ago, Time magazine even embedded a team of correspondents in the city to make sense of its current plight, exploring “The Tragedy of Detroit” in a cover story that chronicled “How a great city fell and how it can rise again.” The area’s economic decline and population exodus, not surprisingly, were the underpinnings of the story. The exhaustive piece, which at first brush seemed as bleak as the photo of the abandoned factory that graced the Time cover, also offered hope for a city – a community – that still can take pride in its own collection of jewels.

Its art – and its artists, for instance.

Julie Pincus, an award-winning graphic designer, recognized as much when she set out four years ago to “contextualize the current artistic” movement in Detroit, a task that was two parts “daunting” and three parts “exhilarating” for the University of Michigan alum who formerly lived in Birmingham.

Her first version of the book project was pooh-poohed by editors at Wayne State University Press. They were not particularly interested in “another book about Detroit,” especially any opus built around the “despair of this once great city.”

But Pincus, who earned her master of fine arts degree from Yale University, was undaunted, displaying a characteristic tenacity in her effort to “Canvas Detroit,” which serves as the title of a compelling 278-page artistic book depicting the creative side of the Motor City.

And while Pincus spearheaded the project, which showcases “hundreds of pieces of artwork in many forms,” a literary luster was applied by Detroit native Nichole Christian, a former writer for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Detroit Free Press, and Time magazine.

Christian, who holds a degree in journalism from Wayne State University, was recommended to Pincus by a friend and possessed the “necessary ‘chops’” to tackle the writing job.

“While Detroit is a friendly town, it is also becoming increasingly media savvy, camera shy, and self-protective,” Pincus wrote in the preface to the book. “Detroiters are tired of their city being depicted as a ruin. They are wary of interlopers, and for that reason I realized the writer needed serious street cred.”

It is a quality that Christian, who lives in Berkley with her husband and daughter, readily supplied during the final stages of the book project, according to Pincus.

“Nichole interviewed almost every artist, and she wrote all but one of the profiles,” Pincus said. “Like me, she had to be relentless in her pursuit of them and their stories. It was a feat akin to herding cats, but between the two of us we were able to get most artists on our list to meet with Nichole, whose intelligent and quiet demeanor helped win them over.”

Christian, a Mumford High product, helped rescue the project during a pivotal stage in the production process.

“As a result, Nichole had to go back to each artist and interview them again, knowing full well that there wasn’t much time left to meet our publishing deadline,” said Pincus, who “vetted” all the artists featured in the book.

The book, published by Wayne State University Press, was released in April and now is in its second printing. It focuses on such internationally known artists as Bansky, Matthew Barney, and Tyree Guyton, the Detroit native who has channeled his talents into the Heidelberg Project on the city’s east side. Prominent Detroit artists such as Scott Hocking, Jerome Ferretti, and Robert Sestok also are featured, as are “collectives like Power House Productions, Hygienic Dress League, the Empowerment Plan, and Theatre Bizarre,” Pincus indicated.

The Detroit “Canvas” includes “large-scale and small-scale murals, sculptures, portraits, light projections, wearable art,” and various installations, some “on and in houses, garages, factories, alleyways, doors, and walls.” Collectively, said Pincus, they offer a somewhat abstract message that Detroit is indeed alive and well – at least from an artistic sense.

Pincus, of course, deserves credit for helping convey that fact. The book, which offers a riveting and inspiring look at the creators of street art, is a testament to her own ingenuity and determination, of her desire and willingness to tell a story that begged to be told.

Her book journey began almost unknowingly seven years ago when she was working on a monograph for the Kresge Foundation about jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who was chosen as 2009 Kresge Eminent Artist for his musical mastery. It was then that Pincus was “drawn to photograph Detroit again.” But like the noted newspaper columnist Sydney Harris, who captivated readers with musings about discoveries he made while en route to other destinations, Pincus was forced to take a different tack from her original headings.

“Where buildings were boarded up, weathered surfaces here and there started sporting artwork of striking originality,” she related in the book’s preface. “I would turn a corner, only to spy a bright painting in crimson stenciled with golden pigeons, or walruses frolicking in a blue-green sea. The art was transformative: a fortress became a graphic beauty; an abandoned apartment building, an aquarium.”

But there was more.

“Soon more artworks were springing up all over the city,” Pincus said. “Articles about buildings completely festooned with mirrors, or guerrilla branding experiments cropping up on walls of old hotels or office buildings appeared in national publications. Many artists who had come from afar or who were here all along were using Detroit as their canvas, and their work was astonishing.

“The attraction to Detroit was simple,” Pincus explained. “It was vast, affordable, and there was virtually nobody to stop artists from creating moments of sheer brilliance out of distress.”

As the book’s primary writer, Christian was assigned the task of telling their stories, weaving together a series of captivating profiles that help show a city bent on moving from “beleaguered to triumphant.”

Said Christian in the preface: “See their stories for what they are – mini snapshots of a small group of men and women who, at a specific moment in time, are making new marks in a city with a history of making major marks on the world.”

As a writer, Christian systematically discovered that, “Like the city, these artists do not live perfect lives.” Far from it, in fact.

“Still they endure,” Christian wrote. “They feed their dreams with sweat and small, steady steps. They greet failure and the promise of a hard day’s work equally, welcoming both but fearing neither.

“And despite the messiness that is life, these artists do what Detroit has always done: they keep going, sometimes humming, sometimes sputtering, yet always pressing forward.”


Meet the authors, ‘artists’ as well

While they share Detroit roots, co-authors Julie Pincus and Nichole Christian came together from afar in terms of the book’s backdrop.

Yale educated, Pincus is the daughter of the late Max Pincus, former owner of the London Chop House and one of the principals in the men’s clothier, Hughes-Hatcher-Suffrin. Her father was a “Detroit lover” and served on boards at Wayne State, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the local chapter of the NAACP. He also worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and his archives contain a letter of thanks from Robert Oppenheimer, the so-called “father of the atomic bomb.”

Her mother, Lois Cohn, also has an impressive business and community service resume. She has owned an art gallery in downtown Birmingham for the past 30 years, and has long been active with Detroit Public Television. She and her husband, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn, were honored earlier this year with the 2014 Activist Award from the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Pincus now lives in New York with her husband, Hugh Broder, a marketing executive.

Christian was raised by her grandmother and grandfather, a Ford autoworker. By the time she was 14, both her parents were dead of drug addiction.

After graduating from Mumford High, where she was editor of the school newspaper, Christian landed a scholarship to attend Wayne State University’s Journalism Institute for Media Diversity, becoming the first in her family to attend college. She excelled there, eventually earning coveted internships with The Chicago Tribune, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and The St. Petersburg Times.

Christian then took her talents to The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and The New York Times. She returned to Detroit to work for The Detroit Free Press from 2003-09 as an editorial writer, and now is Director of Communications and Marketing for InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

She and her husband, Wayne, a computer specialist, were high school sweethearts and have a 12-year-old daughter, Asha.

 — By Tom Kirvan