Detroit is fertile ground for art

Patricia Burnett works on portrait of Philippines President Corazon Aquino in 1987.

When you think of Detroit you think of cars and the Motown Sound, but rarely of fine art. The truth is that the city’s grit and dirt have long been fertile ground for artists.

Here is a selection of Detroit artists — some born here, others transplanted — gathered from The Detroit News files:

Patricia Hill Burnett (Siler), 1920-

Born in Brooklyn Patricia Hill Burnett grew up in Toledo, where she started drawing and selling portraits for $25 at the age of 14. She studied fine arts at the exclusive Goucher College in Baltimore, moving to Detroit when her mother married Dr. Jean Paul Pratt, then chief of staff at Henry Ford Hospital.

Patricia Hill as Miss Michigan 1942. She was first runner-up in the Miss America pageant that year.

In 1942 entered and won the Miss Michigan beauty contest, finishing as first runner-up in that year’s Miss America pageant. She pursued a career as a portrait artist, and after four children and several failed marriages became involved with the women’s movement in 1969, joining Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem in the National Organization of Women (NOW).

Frustrated with an art world she felt was stacked in favor of white males, she recalled in a 1995 interview with The Detroit News’ Joy Hakanson Colby: “I had just finished a portrait of a businessman and was getting ready to sign it. He told me to forget the Patricia and just sign Burnett because he didn’t want anyone to know he had been painted by a woman.”

Her feminism did not make her any less feminine. She maintained her beauty with makeup, face-lifts and her mother’s advice: “‘Dear’ she would say, ‘When you go to a luncheon, there are women who sit with their backs to the window. Don’t do it! Light full in the face wipes out all your lines.'”

She painted more than 1,000 portraits, many of well known woman leaders. She painted Philippines President Corazon Aquino at the presidential palace in Manila. “I had just started to paint when shots rang out. Two men had broken into the palace to kill her. After they were captured, we went right on with the portrait.”

Other subjects included Margaret Thatcher, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Max Fisher, Joyce Carol Oates, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Betty Ford and Indira Gandhi. Her works hang in boardrooms, living rooms, civic buildings and palaces all over the world.

Shelden Iden, 1933-1993

Shelden Iden studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now Center for Creative Studies), got his BA at Wayne State University, an MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Arts, and taught at Wayne, and Eastern Michigan University. He got a Fulbright grant for study and travel during the early 1970s, visiting India where he was profoundly influenced by paintings in the Ajanta cave temples with their spare use of light.

A self-portrait by artist Shelden Iden.

      Colby proclaims in a 1969 News article, “One feels a sense of suspense and discovery as waves of vibrant red advance and recede in ‘Dream’ or as blue squares shimmer and are swallowed again by darkness in ‘Camelot.’ Light becomes a presence, something alive, something that finds its counterpoint in shadow.”

In a 1980 review, she wrote: “Iden first saw this oblique form of light in the caves of India. His big canvasses, with their glossy surfaces are related to those of the ‘black monk,’ Ad Reinhardt, whose private revolt against action painting was his own equivalent of the Buddha image in Eastern art.

“The Iden drawings are mysterious, lofty in intention, spiritual, pure as all get out, the highest of high art. Yet I confess that after all these years of looking at them they give me an attack of the guilts. Glazed surfaces make the black-on-black subtleties so difficult to see that I end up half annoyed at the artist for putting his viewers through all that and half angry at myself for reacting like a philistine.”

Bradley Jones in his studio. “Abstraction doesn’t feel right to me; I like things.”

Bradley Jones, 1944-1989

Bradley Jones earned his BFA and MFA at Wayne State University in 1970 and became part of the group known as the Cass Corridor Detroit artists.

“Abstraction doesn’t feel right to me; I like things,” he said during a 1971 exhibit.

His work is filled with exuberance and comic themes. He painted dogs and other animals, emblematic black jackets, spiked heels, breasts, nudes, imaginary landscapes, and Vietnamese War comments. In 1981 a critic called him a “strong natural painter who will continue to develop his idiosyncratic talent.”

Of a later show, a critic wrote: “What it all adds up to is a wall filled with very good paintings by an artist, who obviously enjoys what he is doing and does it better all the time. The fact that Jones can rattle a few clichZÿs along the way doesn’t hurt his growing reputation as a painter.”

Jones took a studio on Gratiot in the Atlas Furniture building, along with several other artists. His suicide there in 1989 devastated his wife, Cathy DeMay, and the entire Detroit art community.

A posthumous exhibit organized by Michael Mikolowski and Bradley’s widow displayed his later works when the colorless darkness began to overcome him.

“His virtuosity was breathtaking,” said longtime friend and fellow artist Roy Castleberry. “He drew all the time. He was very productive. The guy was a master. Something was ripped from me when Bradley shot himself. I was angry three years ago and I’m angry now.”

Mikolowski said, “Bradley had a lot to do with my wanting to paint. I came back to Detroit in 1986 to study with him. If anything, his death solidified my desire to be a painter. His have always been tremendously powerful; they just explode on the canvas.”

“Bradley was a true wonder,” agreed poet Jim Gustafson. “He saw everything, was interested in everything. He visited the world like a teen-ager in a rich lady’s closet.”

Edward Levine, who returned to painting after spending 15 years building a successful truck parts business.

Edward Levine, 1928-

Edward Levine’s twin brother Philip Levine, who left Detroit in 1953 to become one of America’s most important poets, once chastised his brother Edward for giving up painting for 15 years in order to build a successful truck parts business.

After Edward finally returned to painting, and exhibiting. Joy Colby wrote in The Detroit News: “Although his work is representational, Levine could never be mistaken for a realist because he paints from art rather than from life. He h ad developed a metaphorical language that is marvelously sensitive and flexible.”

In 1986 Levine offered a series he called Dogs of Detroit. “Nobody calls them doggies,” he laughed. “They’re suspicious, bony, sometimes sickly, always unkempt. Their coats go in 11 different directions,” he said shaking his head. “Why do I paint them? Because I see the dog as an icon for the urban survivor…The dogs are like bag people. You don’t see them until you ‘see’ them, and then you’re always aware of them.”

He refused to paint pet portraits but he did paint his own dog Gorkey, who had been astray. “He took to stopping at my business (at Grand River and 12th Streets) every morning for breakfast. He was so funny-looking and had such a good personality that my wife and I adopted him.”

In 1990 Levine did a series on American Indians in full regalia. He merged the genre of Native Americans into urban settings.

Of this series, Colby wrote: “In lesser hands, these paintings could have been irretrievably hokey. But Levine is seasoned enough to carry off his idea with great style and wit. And as usual, the paint quality is gorgeous–fat and rich and charged with energy over every inch of the picture surface.”

Levine said, “Once I get into something, the obsession takes over.” He got the idea for the series when he traveled through Santa Fe and happened upon a competition for ceremonial Indian regalia.

He felt comfortable with the subject “because Americans need an uplifting mythology about now to replace trash like Rambo.”

Murray Jones at Artists Market in 1959.

Murray Jones, 1915-1964

Murray Jones received his MFA at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1939, then traveled to Tahiti and Latin America. He joined the faculty at Michigan State University in 1946, was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Japan, and later joined the faculty at Ohio State University.

In 1959 the News’ Colby wrote: “Now you can see how a brilliant American abstractionist drew from the traditions of Oriental art. Two important things happened to Jones in Japan. His approach to painting became understated. And he discovered his own way of working with Japan’s exquisite hand-made mulberry papers.”

Said Jones, “American painting impresses the Japanese as bombastic and dramatic. They find these qualities in bad taste. They are more concerned with the recessive, subdued aspect of things.

“As for the mulberry papers, I went to Japan with the idea of working with them. They are flexible, soft papers that soak up color.”

About his Japanese experience: “One difficulty is to avoid being overwhelmed by 1,000 years of Japanese artistic accomplishment. About once a week I selected a monument to visit and the impact generally served to keep me stimulated for several days. ”

Colby called him “one of Michigan’s pioneer abstract expressionists and one of the most sensitive interpretative painters ever to work here. His great gift was in being able to reconcile the landscape of the mind with that of the eye and to communicate his lyrical poetry in a language of evocative forms, colors and essences.”

Zubel Kachadoorian in his Lafayette Park studion in 1965.

Zubel Kachadoorian, 1924-

Zubel Kachadoorian said knew he would be a painter since he was two or three. He started teaching painting at age 13. A graduate of Dearborn’s Saline and Fordson schools, he never earned a college degree. “I received two honorary degrees after I was 40,” he said.

He taught at several American schools, including the Art Institute School of Chicago, and at Wayne State University. He lived and studied in Europe and belonged to the American Academy in Rome and the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters.

He studied under Carlos Lopez, Francois de Erdely and George Rich in Detroit.

Kachadoorian said, “Too often people think being a painter is very easy. I want them to know that we have a school of hard knocks and that our work is back breaking, but we love it.”

“It’s frustrating to see how slowly we move sometimes in establishing scholarships for the really talented young people in Detroit. It’s discouraging to see ballplayers get $150,000 salaries and students lack $3,000 scholarships.”

In 1966 he returned to Detroit after living abroad for 10 years, saying, “I live where I am productive.”

The News’ Colby wrote in 1966, “no matter where he travels, Zubel always comes back to Detroit. The mood, the color, the tempo of this city have left their mark upon his work.”

In 1974 he opened his studio at 1214 Beaubian to students to display the ‘realities’ of being a painter.

“When a group of students first arrives, we have a snack and break bread, then we enter the studio proper. At that point, students are free to make any and all comments. I don’t lecture, but we do have discussions. In our discussions we have a fermentation of ideas, as complete and simplified as possible–reaching the nitty-gritty…I tell people not to throw anything away, but save, save.. An artist must work with anything at hand.”

He used discarded pieces of crates, metal fences, corners of boxes made into a picture frame, a sculpture of an animal, a modern table piece with an insert of gold leaf.

He often used gold and silver leaf in many of his mystical and often religious work, which included a Madonna and Child for the then new St. John’s Armenian Church of Detroit in Southfield.

The Ambassador Bridge, by artist Carlos Lopez.

Carlos Lopez, 1908-1953

Born in Cuba, Carlos Lopez came to the U.S. in 1919, where he spent a year studying in Chicago before coming to Detroit for three years of study at the Detroit Art Academy. During the Depression he painted murals for post offices in Paw Paw, Plymouth, and Birmingham and scenes of industry and war for other government agencies. He joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1945, and taught during the summers at Oxbow Summer School of Art.

His early work typified the “American scene” style but later he turned toward expressionism. The Detroit News paid tribute to Lopez in an editorial after his death in 1953: “This gentle U-M professor was ever alert to beauty’s appeal. He found it in the Midwesern landscape, in Detroit factories, in the rich literary background of his Spanish ancestors. His paint brush captured the power and poetry in everything he saw. And because Carlos Lopez put so much of himself into his pictures he gave those who looked beauty and truth to carry away.

“Carlos Lopez lived in South America, Cuba and Spain. But he learned how to paint in Detroit. His imagination and vision earned him honors here and in other cities. The Federal Government commissioned him to translate America’s strength in murals. Life Magazine hired him to report World War II visually.

“Carlos Lopez was devoted to his family. His children, Carol and Jon, painted before they walked. His wife, Rhoda, learned to make pottery and he decorated it with his exquisite drawings. Together they won prizes in many exhibitions.

“Carlos Lopez was 44 when he laid aside his palette. But the hopes, dreams and accomplishment of this artist live on in his works.”

Charles McGee with his neon wall sculpture.

Charles McGee, 1924-

Born in Clemson South Carolina, Charles McGee came to Detroit in 1934 to study at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts under Guy Palazzola and later taught at Eastern Michigan University.

During his long career he moved from very realistic figure drawings, beautifully rendered, which local collectors snapped up, to the abstract.

“I became frustrated with the figure and felt there had to be something else. So I pushed the image and distorted it until it disappeared altogether. That’s what drove me to abstraction.”

His abstract period continued through the 1980s until he began his ‘Noah’s Ark’ series.

“I don’t feel old,” he told the News’ Colby in 1994. “My body may have slowed somewhat, but my mind has accelerated. Life is a path you take, gathering information as you go and learning through experimentation. I don’t believe it’s possible for a young artist to accumulate the layers of information necessary to shape mature art.”

A wiry man with keen brown eyes and a clipped black-and-white beard, McGee says his life is relaxed now, and so is his art. “Life and art are inseparable. When I was a young artist I felt bottled up. I had a forceful drive to excel, to prove to myself that I was what I wanted to be. Later I realized that the competition was with myself, not with others.”

On fame: “As I see it, fame had to do with one’s perception of oneself. Today I feel as if I’m famous.”

Gari Melchers with a portrait of Mrs. Melcher. Melcher was a son of one of the founders of Stroh Brewery Company.

Gari Melchers, 1860-1932

Gari Melchers’ father, German-born Julius Melchers, once made his living by carving cigar store Indians. That was before he became one of the original incorporaters of the Stroh Brewery Company.

Gari Melchers made his living as a painter, painting subjects like President Theodore Roosevelt, William Vanderbilt, Andrew Mellon and others among the rich and famous, including a few Strohs. He ranks with portrait painters like John Singer Sargent, George Luks, George Bellow and Paul Manship.

“We’re very proud of our famous uncle,” Gari Melchers Stroh Jr, told Colby in a 1990 interview. He displayed a drawing of a race horse by Gari in his office.

“Gari Melchers is an important part of Detroit’s heritage,” agreed cousin John W. Stroh III. “After all, he painted murals for the Detroit Public Library during the 1920s and the Detroit Institute of Arts collected some of his finest work.”

“I believe that Melchers, along with Sargent, is a major artist of his time,” said Nancy Rivard Shaw, curator of American Art at the DIA. “We rediscovered Sargent a few years ago. Perhaps it’s Melchers’ turn now,” Shaw said at an exhibit of Melchers work in 1990.

Among the DIA permanent collection is Melchers’ 1895 ‘Fencing Master.” The museum also owns an elegant 1884 portrait of young Detroit socialite Helen Lothrop Prall, and a 1887 portrait of dapper Detroit lumber baron Thomas Pitts.

The DIA had previously exhibited Melchers’ work in 1960, the centenary of his birth.

Julius Rolshoven, a self-portrait.

Julius Rolshoven, 1858-1930

Born in Detroit, Julius Rolshoven spent much of his life in New York, Munich and Florence. During World War I he lived and worked in Santa Fe, N.M. and became part of the Taos Society of Artists. He became famous for Indian paintings but often came to Michigan accepting portrait commissions from Detroiters, including local art patron Dexter M. Ferry.

In 1954 at an exhibit that included many Rolshoven portraits, Frederick Bolton, a Detroit attorney and nephew of Rolshoven, talked about his uncle.

“Julius painted many of Detroit’s most beautiful women — Mrs. E.T. Barbour, Mrs. Herbert V. Book, Mrs. Christian H. Buhl, Mrs. Louis Kamper.

“Kamper, who was a leading architect, was so proud of his wife’s protrait that he had the room mirrored so he could see the picture from every angle.

“My mother, Therese Rolshoven, was the baby in the family of five children. Julius was living in Europe when she grew up.

“When he came home the first thing he would do was pick up his little sister and carry her all over the house. He painted her with pastels when she was 18 and caught a beautiful profile with her long auburn hair piled upon her small head.”

Bolton said Rolshoven lived in the Florentine palace once occupied by Leonardo da Vinci’s model, Mona Lisa.

In 1930 at age 72, Rolshoven planned a Christmas trip home to visit his 92 year-old mother. He fell ill and died while crossing the ocean, two hours before his mother died without learning of his death.

Julius Rolshoven had been an early companion of painter Gari Melchers.

Sarkis Sarkisian in his studion in 1965.

Sarkis Sarkisian, 1909-1977

Sarkis Sarkisian emigrated to Detroit after his Armenian family was driven from Smyrna, Turkey, by the Turks. He was 13 and had never wanted to be anything but an artist. His name became synonymous with art in Detroit.

He studied at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts School and later became the long-time director of the school. “You want to be a painter? Then paint,” he told his students.

Student Ed Morais said, “He laid it right on the line. I felt intimidated until Sarkis spelled out for me this very simple truth: That either the painter controls the paint of the paint controls the painter.”

Sarkisian spelled out his own philosophy of painting: “The only way to be an artist is to know you have to train yourself. Otherwise all you can do is imitate. Experience should come first. Then influence can be absorbed intelligently. Sure, Picasso based his Blue Period on El Greco. But Picasso translated what he picked up into his own way of thinking. That’s why he’s an innovator, not an imitator.”

Sarkisian said one of his first teachers, John Wicker, required his students to study the Matisse painting “Window,” which had caused controversy during the 1920s when acquired by the DIA.

“I couldn’t see anything in Matisse at first. Then gradually what he was doing with space, with line, with pattern began to gel for me. I had been doing some of the same things in my own work without knowing why.”

“Detroit has given me everything. I was an immigrant kid, who came here at 13.”

He also credited his wife Alice with helping him find the good life. “We met when she was in her high school play and I was called in to make suggestions for the setting. I proposed the second time I saw her.”

Sarkisian’s most famous work, “Anna Werbe,” won the DIA purchase prize in a 1957 exhibit of Michigan artists’ works.

Carol Wald in her Lafayette Towers studio in 1965.

Carol Wald, 1936-

Carol Wald studied at Detroit’s Cass Tech, Society of Arts and Crafts, and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. She left for New York in 1971 where she emerged as one of the nation’s top illustrators, with her work appearing in the New York Times, Fortune, Ms, Time and New York magazine, as well as on many book covers.

She moved back to Detroit 15 years later. “Detroit is a good place to concentrate on painting,” she said. “I don’t have to look out of windows to see what’s here; I bring my art vision with me.”

On her work as an illustrator, she said: “Illustration has given me the freedom to paint again. There’s nothing glamorous about living close to the bone…Yet people have the romantic notion that artists enjoy being poor.”

She told the News’ Colby in 1986, “I stopped painting altogether for eight years to concentrate on collage. It’s immediate, and the technique gave me a mastery that serves me today in my painting. In fact, I work out ideas for paintings with collage rather than drawings.”

She complained that Detroit failed to recognize its own artists. “So why would an artist who has conquered New York return to Detroit, particularly someone who speaks sadly of how the city has deteriorated since I was going to school?” she asked.

“The catalyst was Detroit film maker Hermann Tauchert, a friend from Cass Tech…He showed me some of his films, and I was astounded that such a brilliant talent should be buried in Detroit.

“Detroiters ignore their hometown artists. I learned to feel appreciated in New York, but here? Nobody seems to notice that I’m back. As for Hermann’s films, he’s received all sorts of national and international awards, but he gets very little recognition at home.”

She exhibited some of her paintings in 1998 at the Studio Gallery of Robert Maniscalco.

Robert Wilbert in his studio.

Robert Wilbert, 1929-

Born in Chicago, Robert Wilbert studied at the University of Illinois before joining the Wayne State University faculty in 1956.

His work, according to the News’ Colby, “goes beyond the realist’s concern for objectivity. He layers his painting with meanings, emotional nuances and perceptions that transcend factual content. He influences how you see the subject. No true realist does that.”

Wilbert summed up the distinction: “The realist is looking for the thread on your lapel or the blemish on your nose. I’m looking for the order of things.”

He started in his early work with an easy bravura, allowing gestures to flow from his brush, reveling in the sheer action of painting.

About a 1984 exhibit of Wilbert’s work, Colby wrote, “Expanses of wall resonate in a manner recalling Vermeer…This is an extraordinary exhibit, one that expresses what painting can be in the hands of an artist who invests it with a lifetime of wonder and love.”

Wilbert’s wife, Gretchen, and daughter, Laura, appear in much of his work. “They have the kind of simply formed, warm, womanly faces that appear in art history,” Wilbert said.

The state of Michigan chose Wilbert’s simple depiction of a pine tree in front of a moonlit lake, to mark the 150th anniversary of statehood in 1987 on a U.S. postage stamp.

Wilbert with one of his paintings.

By Vivian M. Baulch / The Detroit News