Sunday, November 15, 2020

To María

Last month I learned of the passing of Dr. María Gonzalez, an extraordinary woman I had the good fortune to know during my graduate studies in Library and Information Science at Wayne State nearly a decade ago.

María at the Getty Center in Los Angeles

María taught a seminar on the role of information professionals in urban environments that, looking back, I can easily say was the most impactful course I took while earning my Master's. I wish I had hung on to the syllabus so that I could recall it in finer detail, but the themeadvancing the common good by facilitating knowledge exchange in urban communitiesis unforgettable.

To María, librarians and other information professionals carried a responsibility to stand up and be counted, to infiltrate the halls of power armed with values, strategies, and resources that would advance the connectedness and wellbeing of common people. An avowed urbanist, I think she saw cities, with their overlapping layers of commerce, history, power, and poverty, as places where civically minded people of all stripes could have the greatest impact. She was an activist, demanding engagement in her quiet yet fiery way, at the same time she was a pragmatist, making sure our eyes stayed open to the ways that business and government actually worked. She introduced me to the concept of social capital, or the resources and benefits gained from social ties, when she had us read and discuss Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone," which examines some of the ways that civil society and social cohesion in the US have eroded, making us a "nation of loners" (as many commentators have summarized Putnam's central concern).

María was rooted in place. More than anyone else I knew at the School of Library and Info Science, her class was of Detroit, not merely in Detroit. Her borders were porous, and the city flowed in and out. It was this spirit of presence in place that made her stand out there, and that I have to thank for my employment at the business I've helped lead for more than seven years.

María was a flâneur, a stroller of city streets. Not confined to Wayne State's superblock campus, she walked the neighborhood around the university. That's how, in 2008, she got to know Tom and Peggy Brennan, Mitzi and Don Carter, and Helen and Tom Bradley, together the cofounders of the nascent Green Garage, which was to become a community-minded shared workspace and sustainability demonstration center in the Cass Corridor.

And that's how, in 2010, I first connected with the Green Garage, undertaking a semester-long project that turned into a volunteer opportunity, then part-time writing work, then a nourishing full-time leadership role that has become my professional centerone of the main wellsprings of my own social capitalsince 2013.

My first visit to the Green Garage, 2010, with Ian, a fellow student, and the late Tom Bradley

I often tell the story of my chance connection with the Green Garage as facilitated by María. Each student in our class was tasked with helping a Detroit business or organization meet an information need over the course of the semester. In the seminar's first days, María handed out the predetermined list we had to choose from, and I remember feeling particularly drawn to two organizations: the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), which I knew fairly well, and the Green Garage, which I only knew from a short article I had read online (something about green business; something about the transformation of a neglected thoroughfare into the city's first green alley). 

I remember the sense of taking a leap. I remember thinking that MOCAD was the obvious choice. (I loved art, I wrote about art, I visited the museum regularly.) And I remember thinking to myself, "It's grad school; go out on a limb. Pursue the less likely path. Meet these green business people." It goes without saying that I'm glad I did. I've had the good fortune of enjoying formative relationships with several beloved teachers over the years, but María is the one whose influence materially changed the course of my life.

Not long after our time together, María left Wayne State, and the sense among people I talked to about it was that she was too progressive for the stodgy library school. They had irreconcilable differences, I guess, and María moved away, first to Delaware and then Los Angeles. She continued to teach, working in the Public History departments of Rutgers and LaSalle University. We kept up with each other on Facebook, where she would make loving, out-of-the-blue posts on my wall ("My best to you always!") and where she played the part of a Green Garage superfan, forever encouraging the business' growth and cheerleading any good news we shared. I didn't know until after her death that, in recent years, she had been diagnosed with cancer, and then ALS. Our last communication was a breezy, friendly greeting in March.

The time that María and I had spent together was rich, but it was largely defined by the classroom, where she was purposeful and focused, and Facebook, where she was fleet. In the days after I learned of her death, I began to wonder about her life story. I knew only the barest details of her biography: that she was Cuban-American (she spoke beautifully accented English) and that she was queer (I don't remember how I came to know that, but I couldn't help admiring her more for it).

I decided to reach out to Chela Metzger, Maria's partner of 20 years and a librarian at UCLA, to learn more. Chela generously filled in the gaps of María's extraordinary story, some details of which I'll recount here: 

María was born in Havana in 1950. Chela says that it was in Havana where she began to develop her lifelong love of buildings and construction. At the age of 11, she and her grandmother fled to Tampa, Florida to escape the Cuban revolution, in which several family members had been killed. (Her parents escaped and joined them one year later.) After high school in Tampa, she went to UCLA, then Kent State to study architecture. 

After time in New York City and Provincetown, María went to Seattle, where she worked in the construction industry, both owning her own commercial construction business and later developing clients for a large national firm.

In that capacity, she was invited to join the planning commission for the new Seattle Central Library, where she developed an admiration for Deborah Jacobs, the transformative City Librarian who spearheaded Seattle's historic, citywide library building project. It was this experience, Chela told me, that led María to librarianship, and to the University of Texas at Austin, where she completed her Master's and PhD and from where she decamped to Detroit to begin teaching at Wayne State in 2008.

Chela notes that María's time in Seattle was interrupted by a two-year stay at Arcosanti, an intentional architectural community and ongoing construction project in the Arizona desert, 70 miles north of Phoenix.

Arcosanti. Photograph by Rosa Menkman, 2018.

Founded in the early 1970s by the Italian architect and social theorist Paolo Soleri (1919-2013), Arcosanti is a living laboratory for Soleri's theories of urban design, which emphasize density, collectivity, and environmental sustainability. ("The city is a human problem that has to find its answer within ecological awareness," he wrote in his book The City in the Image of Man. "Short of that there is no answer.")

Looking back with this singular path in mind, it makes even more sense now that María found and admired the Green Garage, another intentional community rooted in building and ecology, and that she strove to impart to her students an awareness of business practices. Perhaps her mid-career shift to librarianship accounts for the zeal with which she approached the profession; certainly her experience in other fields must have guided her catholic appreciation for the wide world of information work, which, as ever, is not bounded by the walls of library buildings.

I'm thinking of María a lot these days, and feeling more grateful than ever that our paths crossed when they did. These are such wearying times, when we seem so much to be a "nation of loners"both in the sense of being asked, these many long months, to stay home and stay apart, but even more in the sense of the growing awareness of how much of our country's terrifying swing toward authoritarianism has sprung from the fear and resentment that comes from isolation, from a sense of being disconnected from others.

To counter that, to give myself a guiding light to hold up as we move forward from here, I offer a tribute to the memory of María Gonzalez: connector, builder, encourager. Immigrant, trailblazer. Patron saint of city streets, who grew up under the shadow of a dictatorship and spent her life seeking opportunities to strengthen democracy and empower the people. You graced us with your presence, María, and left the world a better, more hopeful, more interconnected place.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Essay'd: Bakpak Durden

My latest piece for Essay'd is a brief consideration of a Detroit dynamo, the self-taught artist Bakpak Durden (b. 1991).

The Eyo (detail), 2019

I first encountered Durden's work in February of this year when I happened upon their minimalist, multi-panel mural The Eyo, painted on the side of Yum Village restaurant in New Center. Michel and I were driving up Woodward when Durden's enigmatic, shrouded figures caught my eye. We pulled over and spent some time admiring and photographing the mural, after which I started following the artist on Instagram, where I developed an appreciation for their haunting, masterful paintings and unassuming disposition.     

Durden is having a big year. In April, they co-curated We Exist: the Future is Fluid, an exhibition of billboard art by trans/nonbinary artists. In June, they helped Sydney James realize her acclaimed mural memorializing Malice Green and other Black people who have been murdered by the police. That same month, Model D published an article about Paper Street Press, the zine that Durden and their partner co-founded to give marginalized artists a platform. And in August, their painting Not This Again (2018) appeared in (and served as the promotional image for) Multifaceted Narratives, an exhibition at the Detroit Artists Market of figurative work by Black artists.

I'm happy to contribute to the conversation about this important young artist, who, as I explore in the essay, is notable not only for the remarkable skill and care with which they execute their work, but for the fact that they use their considerable talents in service of a larger objective: the visibility and wellbeing of the intersectional/queer communities they are part of.

Read it here.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Essay'd: Lester Johnson

I'm pleased to share my latest short piece for Essay'd: a consideration of the work of Detroit visual artist Lester Johnson (b. 1937). 

Johnson has lived and worked in Detroit his entire life, and has had a significant impact on the artist community here, both as a maker and an educator (he taught at the College for Creative Studies for 35 years!). I first learned of his work through my ongoing research into the proliferation of visionary abstract public art in Detroit in the early 1970s. His now-lost mural Continuum (1974), painted on a Detroit Edison substation at Grand River and Scotten in the neighborhood where he grew up, was one of eight murals commissioned by New Detroit, Inc. between 1972 and 1974 in an attempt to uplift the city after the devastation of the 1967 uprising.

Lester Johnson with Continuum, 1974, Detroit News photo courtesy of
Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

When I interviewed him for the essay, I asked Johnson if he could summarize the most crucial concerns of his long and varied practice. He surprised me by focusing on the increasingly collaborative nature of his work, saying that the great lesson of his life in art is: "You never accomplish anything by yourself." That's the theme I chose to emphasize in my piece. Consider it, this fraught July 4th, as a paean to interdependence, offered as an American alternative to our mania for personal liberty at any cost.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Daylighting 'Glacial'

On a sunny Saturday in mid-March, shortly before the world as I knew it came to an end, I was browsing Dennis A. Nawrocki's invaluable guidebook Art in Detroit Public Places when I happened upon a pair of interesting-sounding public artworks: Crystal Transformation (1976) by David Barr (1939-2015) and Glacial (1977) by Ivy Sky Rutzky (b. 1948), both installed on the campus of Macomb Community College in Warren.

Nawrocki describes Crystal Transformation as a "highly geometric," nature-inspired sculpture whose "nine units...grow larger and change they move in a broad arc from the bottom to the top of a small hill."

Glacial, meanwhile, is an "audaciously simple sculpture" that "consists of two [polished] quarter-inch stainless steel planes" installed flush in a lawn, "one essentially rectangular (five by ten feet) and the other triangular (three feet per side)," that "[suggest] airborne views of glacial lakes, or pools of standing or frozen water."

Drawn as I am to most things minimal, environmental, and geometric (ah, the '70s: a country I never got to visit in person but where my sensibility has apparently taken up permanent residence), I asked Michel if he wanted to go look at them and he said, without missing a beat, "Yes!" (What can I say? I married the right person.)

We drove 20 or so miles to the sleepy, near-deserted campus, parked, and began to walk to the central square, where we immediately spied Crystal Transformation: a commanding and elegant intervention in the landscape.

Considered as an abstract thing, Barr's sure sculpture is lively and entertaining, with a shifting play of sun and shadow on its faceted surfaces. Considered as a site specific work, the "transformations" depicted take on added meaning, even a certain poignancy, reminding the viewer-in-motion that to learn is to take part in a gradual change process.

Regrettably, as with so much aging, aspirational public art in metro-Detroit, Barr's sculpture has been neglected, and shows signs of deterioration. Artist Ryan Standfest, Barr's onetime student at Macomb Community College and later his studio assistant, expressed his frustration when he told me, "I wish MCC would take better care of that piece. I know [Barr] provided the school with all the correct colors, paint formulas, sources. I think they covered it with exterior household paint at some point...."

As deserving as Crystal Transformation is of better care, it at least resists obsolescence, for now, by virtue of its monumental presence, its powerful vertical and horizontal thrust.

The same cannot be said for "audaciously simple," earthbound Glacial. We figured it would be harder to spot, since Nawrocki had noted in the third edition of Art in Detroit Public Places (published in 2008) that, "over the years the grass has overgrown the edges of the steel plates, noticeably reducing their visibility."

We ventured over to the lawn where we thought it ought to be and caught a glimpse of its two sections, by now so neglected as to be nearly invisible.

Filled now with a real curiosity to see what this work actually looked like, we began to clean off the larger panel with our feet, scraping off the layer of dirt and mud. We could tell that there was much more of the panel beneath the surrounding sod (and there was still the whole second section to contend with) but without tools, cleaning products, or a way to transport the sod from the site, we thought to leave well enough alone for now. Content that the sun was touching more of Glacial than it had the day before, we departed to explore the rest of the campus, planning to return at a later date to finish the job.

On our way, we encountered another figure in the otherwise unpeopled landscape, a friendly man walking his dog who had seen us working over the steel plate with our feet and wondered what we were up to. We showed him the page in the book with the historic photo of Glacial in all its simple splendor; he seemed interested, saying he walked his dog on the campus often and had no idea there was art there.

We parted ways, and Michel and I took some time to explore the rest of the central campus, built in 1965, which surprised us with its sensitive, orderly, mid-century beauty: an unexpectedly neoclassical center of learning. (I grew up in Macomb County and took a class at MCC in high school, but had only been familiar with the school's boxier, blander, more northerly campus in Clinton Township.)

After our exploration, as we prepared to leave the campus, we encountered the man with the dog again, now with a few companions. "We cleaned off a LOT more of that art!" he exclaimed with a big smile. Naturally, we went back to check out their work and, uh, it turns out they were a little less worried about lifting up the sod than we were....

Whoops. Well, we started it. Not wanting to leave such a raggedy-looking scene for too long, Michel and I agreed that we ought to clean it up as soon as possible, and returned the next day with the necessary supplies. We managed to get 45 minutes or so of work done before our progress was halted by persistent rain. We left feeling satisfied that we'd done a decent thing for the art, the artist, and the campus community, but once again, we felt eager to get back soon to complete our act of homage/guerrilla restoration.

In the intervening time, of course, COVID-19 has ravaged metro Detroit, all of Michigan has been placed under a shelter-in-place order, and we have only occasionally strayed even a couple miles from home to take care of necessities. 

We're fortunate, healthy, working, grateful. As we settle into our new domestic routine, weathering the emotional turbulence that each week (and each new news item) brings, I observe my mind's eye returning, often, to the peace and stillness of Glacial, which, it turns out, is a kind of reflecting pool.

I think of the friendly connection with a stranger that our act of excavation precipitated (the best and highest use, you might say, of a work of public art). Of Ivy Sky Rutzky's long view of the land where she left her subtle mark, carved millennia ago by roving, mile-thick glaciers whose meltwater comprises the Great Lakes system we're all part of here and through which we are linked, via the St. Lawrence Seaway, to the Atlantic. (Rutkzy herself traced an Atlantic path from Detroit, decamping for New York at some point, where her work continued but, like that of so many artists of her generation, seems now to have mostly slipped out of sight through gaps in the web.) Of the abiding pleasures of landscape art and the wonder of ecosystems. Of inept stewardship and long-lost balance.

I picture Glacial, partially present yet still mostly unseen (except perhaps by the occasional dog walkerI picture one in particular pausing to admire it as he passes). Reflecting sky, tree, bird, beast.

I look forward to returning, to finishing what we started.

Thursday, February 13, 2020


Back in 2016 I organized a screening of dance films at Play House, an intimate performance space in Detroit run by The Hinterlands as part of Power House Productions' creative neighborhood stabilization work. The occasion was a commemoration of Leap Year and the fact that we got a whole extra night that yearwhy not spend it watching dance films? We called it LEAP NIGHT. (Dancing...leaping...get it?)

Talking and gesturing like someone who knows things

Somehow four year have gone by (what?) and look! It's another Leap Year. Thus it is my profound pleasure to invite you to LEAP NIGHT 2, a screening of a whole new crop of exceptional and inspiriting dance films on February 29 at, once again, Play House.

To answer a pretty common question: no, we're not going to watch Dirty Dancing. I actually haven't seen Dirty Dancing (I know, I know) and while I'm sure it's fun to watch, it's not exactly what I'm aiming for here. (Though that does remind me of a related event I'd like to host someday, a screening of dance sequences from popular films...).

By "dance films," I mean a particular species of art film called dance-for-camera: typically short, non-narrative works made by film or video artists in close collaboration with dancers and choreographers. This is a great if underappreciated genre that is all about re-imagining the experience of watching, understanding, and enjoying dance. In it, the camera does not merely record a performance, documentary-style, but becomes an integral part of the choreography.

At its core, dance-for-camera is ultimately about liberation. Not just the liberating possibilities of dance, the most immediate and vital of the arts, but the liberation of the filmmaker (from narrative conventions) and of the spectator (from the fixed, earthbound perspective of traditional live performance, and from preconceptions of what dance can be and mean). As much as these rarely-screened films are about human bodies in motion (and they are, gloriously and beguilingly, about that), they are also about experiment and creative risk-taking, about how the camera, editing, and special effects can re-order our experience of the world in ways that transcend and expand our limited powers of perception.

Image result for dancer dara friedman
Dancer (2011) by Dara Friedman. Courtesy of the artist.

This year's program will include an assortment of works made between 1899 and 2018. Since I'd like there to be some surprises the night of, I'm not going to publish the whole lineup here, but I am thrilled to share that LEAP NIGHT 2 will include the opportunity to see high quality digital versions of two especially miraculous works in this genre: Dara Friedman's 2011 Dancer, a sprawling, sensuous black and white film in which Miami's urban environment is imagined (or perhaps revealed) as a place where dance happens everywhere, and Nam June Paik's 1978 Merce by Merce by Paik, a radically inventive videodance in which Paik, along with collaborators Charles Atlas, Shigeko Kubota, and legendary dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, joyfully explode time and space in their rigorous and restless exploration of the form. (Can video dance?)

Image result for merce by merce by paik
Merce by Merce by Paik (1978) by Nam June Paik. In collaboration with Charles Atlas, Merce Cunningham, and Shigeko Kubota. Courtesy of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York. 

LEAP NIGHT 2 will take place on February 29, 2020 from 7:30-9:30 at Play House, 12657 Moran St., Detroit, MI 48212. The films will be presented in a continuous 1.5 hour program. Admission is free but donations to support the space/programming are welcome. Come by!