Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book: launch'd!

So I launched my first book last week! Well, we launched our first book, "we" being Essay'd, the four-person writing collective I'm part of that regularly publishes short, illustrated essays about contemporary Detroit artists online. (That would include me, Dennis Nawrocki, Steve Panton, and Sarah Rose Sharp, four local art aficionados united by our interest in promoting an informed and ongoing conversation about the notable art that's being produced right in our midst.)

Letterpress poster by Lynne Avadenka

The in-print edition of our first 30 essays, beautifully designed and published by the folks at Wayne State University Press, has been about a year in the making. (Think it'd be easy to just turn existing content into a book? NO! NO, THAT IS NOT EASY! In fact, it was way more work than any of us anticipated. But it was, in the end, so very worth it.) 

We celebrated the launch last Thursday night at Cafe 78, inside MOCAD, Detroit's contemporary art museum, with a couple hundred friends, family, supporters, and collaborators. It was a great opportunity to elevate and celebrate Detroit art, and we ended up selling more than 100 books! 
Photo by Andy Malone

Photo by Peggy Brennan

Me 'n' Rosie, all aglow.  Photo by Emily Nowak.

In the lead-up to the launch, I had the chance to speak with Travis Wright about the Essay'd project for about five minutes on Culture Shift, a new program on WDET, Detroit's public radio station. If you'd like to give it a listen, you can find our conversation here.

I was also invited to talk about Essay'd for a bit longer on Detours, the Free Press's arts & culture podcast, hosted by Rob St. Mary. You can find that one here. (The ~15 minute Essay'd portion starts about 16 minutes in.)

And I was delighted to see afterward that the South End, Wayne State U's student newspaper, rather thoroughly covered the launch event. Something we haven't talked much about in terms of this project is its pretty remarkable connection to Wayne State (not only did WSU Press publish the book, but of the four co-authors, I'm a WSU alum and Dennis is a professor there), so I'm glad to see the student paper pick it up.

It would have been nice to have gotten some coverage from some of the bigger news outlets in the area, but that points to a wider problem, one I've been having a number of conversations about lately -- the seeming inaccessibility of Detroit art to metro Detroiters. (Something we're trying to work against with Essay'd.) Nonetheless, I would say that our little labor of love has been well and thoroughly launched. Thanks to everyone who had a hand in getting us here.

(If you're looking to pick up a copy, you can buy it in person at the DIA bookstore, the MOCAD bookstore, and Pages Bookshop; and on the web at WSU Press's site or Amazon.)

While the publication of our first book is a huge milestone, it's far from the end of Essay'd. Our regular web publication schedule continues, with three new essays slated to come out in the coming month. We're talking to WSU Press about publishing a follow-up volume of our second round of 30 essays. We're also gearing up for our first ever art writing workshop, which will also take place at MOCAD. We have several other book-related events & activities in the pipeline (follow us on Facebook for the deets as they come out). And from there, we're working on getting the project sustainably funded so that we can continue to grow our operations, pay ourselves for our work, and bring more voices into the conversation. Onward!

But for now, excuse me while I pick up this awfully handsome book sitting in front of me and flip through it just one more time....

Thursday, July 28, 2016

B-side: Coach Robbie on LGBT life in Detroit

Earlier this week, I published a piece in Model D about LGBT spaces in Detroit that featured some powerful thoughts by queer Detroiter, activist, and fitness instructor Robbie Dwight.

I met Robbie a little over a year ago, when he was the guest instructor at a gay fitness class I was regularly attending. The class was organized by Kimo Frederiksen at his Corktown gym True Body Fitness. Billed as "Gay Boy BootyCamp," it was a once-a-week, summer-long fundraiser for Affirmations and the Ruth Ellis Center, two important local LGBT community organizations, and it turned out to be super meaningful to me.

Photo by Kimo Frederiksen

It wasn't until I started going every week that I realized how much I was lacking social activity with other queer dudes that wasn't oriented around drinking. And not only was it not about drinking, it was about getting fit...basically the opposite of drinking. It addition to the fact that we were getting together for a good cause, it felt really special to be in a productive gay social space, not a consumptive one. (Why is that such a rare thing?)

So it was really great, and I looked forward to it every week. I was bummed when it wrapped up for the season, until I remembered that the week Robbie guest-taught the class, he'd mentioned that he also taught a weekly class over at Detroit Tough, another small gym nearby. So I started going to his kettlebell class there every Sunday morning. Several months in, Detroit Tough's ownership changed, resulting in a shakeup that prompted Robbie to move over to Proving Grounds, where I followed him, and where I continue to catch the Sunday morning kettlebell sweatfest whenever I can.

I really like working out with Robbie. His energy is huge, and he's bright, motivating, and knows what he's doing. He's also hilarious. But more than that, he's incredibly welcoming. While his classes aren't billed as fitness for gay or queer people (and in fact, they don't seem to be attended by a majority queer group), by sheer force of his personality and his everyday activism, he takes what is traditionally a pretty oppressively hetero, "masc" environment -- the gym -- and queers it, making it welcoming to all. As a high-energy, unapologetically loud and proud queer dude, he makes it clear that his classes -- and by extension, fitness in general -- are for everyone, without actually having to say a word to that effect. It's just...apparent. That's a pretty special thing in gym culture and in Detroit, where homophobia is still alive and well.

In fact, I was recently struck by how far we still have to go when I attended another fitness class a couple of weeks ago elsewhere in town, led by another very energetic and motivating trainer, who totally lost me at the end of class by saying, as people were getting together for a group photo, that he "doesn't touch dudes" and that he wanted us to line up "guy-girl, guy-girl." It was disheartening how casually he threw his homophobia and retrograde heteronormativity on the table -- assuming we were all in the same club, so to speak -- and how immediately his words made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.

Anyway, when I first started thinking about my article on queer spaces in Detroit, I figured Robbie would have a perspective (and boy, did he!). We had a hard time finding a good time to chat in person, so we ended up talking over Google hangouts one night, while he was driving home from his day job (and then while he was sitting in his driveway).

I recorded the conversation so I could transcribe it later, which is when I realized that in it, Robbie just drops one piece of really powerful knowledge after the other, all in a really entertaining and accessible way. It's both a great performance (I really love that he's driving) and a pointed critique. Of what? Well, of the city/suburb divide, heteronormative patriarchy, racism and xenophobia within the queer community, of division, complacency, and fear. It's also a rousing call to collective action, on the part of queer folks and straight allies alike. I thought that Robbie's words deserved to be heard in an unedited form by anyone with interest, so without further ado, here they are:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The past, present, and future of Detroit's LGBT spaces

(originally published 7/25/16 in Model D)

This article is dedicated to the memory of Jeff Montgomery, longtime Detroit LGBT activist and founder of the Triangle Foundation, which worked to combat anti-LGBT crime and discrimination nationwide. He died last week.

In the aftermath of last month's attack on Pulse in Orlando, many LGBT people took time, amid our grief, to reflect on our experiences in gay bars, the spaces we'd always thought of as "safe." We wrote or posted on social media about our first gay bar, about the thrill of being suddenly surrounded by people like us, about dancing until 4:00 a.m. We discussed how our communities were built and sustained in these spaces. We talked about the clubs that have come and gone, and the ones that have persisted. Our conversations were something good that emerged from something horrific. They presented opportunities to celebrate and honor a part of our culture that we might otherwise take for granted.

The notion of the "safe space" dates back to the women's and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. And while the murderous rampage at Pulse reminds us of the literal physical danger that so many in the LGBT community still face, "safe" in this context also means something other than safe from the threat of violence. It means safe to be yourself, to express yourself—or, perhaps, to express parts of yourself that you might hide in other places. Safe to touch someone you care about without worrying who might see, and what they might say or do if they did. It means being released from the otherwise unblinking gaze of what we have learned to call heteronormativity: the destructive, socially reinforced illusion that "straight" is good and right and true, while "queer" is wrong. A secret. A shame.

While LGBT Americans have made great political strides in recent years, the need for our own spaces has not diminished. Not only have those advances been unevenly distributed among our people, many of us still face discrimination (some of which remains enshrined in law in Michigan), as well as isolation. And let's face it, even if all of us get all of the rights to which we're entitled and feel 100 percent socially accepted all the time, we're still going to want to spend time among our own people, our queer family, with whom we've shared so much.

In Detroit, many LGBT people will tell you that we don't have as many spaces in which to be our full and authentic selves as we ought to. But the folks who've been around for a while will remind you that this was not always the case.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Mel Rosas @ Wayne State

I'm currently at work on my next Essay'd essay, about the painter Mel Rosas, who was born in Des Moines, IA but who has been a part of the Detroit art scene since he moved here to teach at Wayne State in the '70s.

He usually paints at his home studio in Royal Oak, but this summer, he's also working from an otherwise unused studio space at Wayne, where I visited him last week.

Rosas is a master painter, known for his rich, evocative, and surreal Latin American street scenes/dreamscapes.

Caribbean Dream, 2010, oil on panel, 30 x 42"

Look for the essay, along with several other images of his lush oil paintings, in the coming weeks. For now, here's a portrait I snapped at the end of my visit:

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

30 Modernist Detroit Churches

(originally published 6/14/16 in Infinite Mile)

One of Detroit's most celebrated architectural assets is its remarkable collection of late nineteenth and early twentieth century churches. Designed to mimic Medieval styles, such structures impress with their soaring spires, grand facades and elaborate ornament. They are understood to be local treasures, sites of distinction. Tours are given, books are written, holding them up.

Less celebrated are the city's numerous modernist churches, built in the middle of the twentieth century.

The turn toward modernism in religious architecture here, as elsewhere, was a turn against "historicism," seen as false, and toward the then-contemporary (the true). The authors of Modern Church Architecture, an international survey published in 1962, characterize this shift:
Nineteenth century revivalists chose to adopt the medieval cathedral as the apogee of the Christian architectural form. But we must realize that in contemporary building, historicism cannot be legitimate. Our building materials are different from those of the old masters. The play of vault against buttress, the daring originality of thin walls and large openings—making possible the marvelous flowering of stained glass—became in our time the dead weight of steel columns, plaster vaults painted to simulate stone, buttresses that buttressed nothing. Indeed, they were themselves buttressed by the steel columns. This miserable deception in a place where truth reigns supreme!
Modernist churches, of course, are but one species of the genus Modernism, one facet of a sprawling, decades-long socio-architectural project that touched buildings of all kinds. And so they follow fundamental precepts that also governed the design of schools, banks, offices, single- and multi-family homes, libraries, gas stations, funeral parlors, post offices, police stations and more. Namely: simplicity, functionality and the construction of pure geometric forms and volumes out of the mass-produced materials of the modern (machine) age.

There are modernist buildings of all types dating from the 1930s to the 1970s all over Detroit. Many have seen better days and are neglected, their clean lines crumbling. The churches, however, tend to be in relatively good shape. They are, after all, beloved spaces, safeguarded over the decades by the Detroiters to whom they mean so much.


My husband and I like to drive around the city sometimes, depositing ourselves in unfamiliar neighborhoods, where we drift, taking arbitrary turns and marveling at what we find. While such auto-mediated dérives, taken over the ten years we've lived in Detroit, have reinforced the city's essential incomprehensibility, they have also helped me better understand it. I've learned a thing or two about Detroit during these drives, including the extent and breadth of its modern church architecture. I find myself actively looking for these buildings now. I am drawn to them, even more than to the earlier, revivalist cathedrals.

The photographs collected here depict thirty churches, located clear across Detroit's 142 square miles. They are modest or magnificent, well known or obscure. They are situated in dense residential or commercial neighborhoods, or else they stand apart. The photos are arranged, somewhat arbitrarily, by the churches' ZIP codes.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Essay'd: Biba Bell

(originally published 6/13/16 in Essay'd)

On a sunny Sunday afternoon last July, several hundred people crowded the Dequindre Cut, a popular recreation path in Detroit, to see a dance. The performance, one of three public dance labs programmed to accompany “Here Hear,” the Cranbrook Art Museum’s celebrated exhibition of Nick Cave soundsuits, included music by Frank Pahl and choreography by Biba Bell. There is no telling what, exactly, the audience expected. What they witnessed was a distributed dance, a de-centered performance event, in which any vantage point along the Cut’s long, linear footprint offered a different view of different groups of dancers, some of whom slinked by in sinuous silence, while others posed, elegant and remote, above the crowd. Others danced a mannered duet involving the ritualistic exchange of their black or white soundsuit costumes, and the rest, by the end, were dancing in furious, ecstatic unison. When all was said and done, no one present had seen a complete dance, or the same dance. Everyone, however, had seen a dance by Biba Bell, an artist who specializes in the unexpected.