Island beautiful: art on Detroit’s Belle Isle

Arts / Article

Belle Isle is spectacular. The Detroit island park is home to dense woods, weeping willow-lined lakes, vast fields, dramatic views of the skyline and passing freighters, and some truly inspired architecture. The contemplative tranquility of its natural and man-made beauty also makes it a perfect place to encounter art, as the folks at Access Arts Detroit know. They’ve hosted outdoor art exhibitions on the island for the past four summers. The fifth just opened last Saturday and will only be on view until June 24. I urge you to print a map, head to the island for a few hours, and go looking for art. You’ll find some remarkable work, and, along the way, you’ll have the singular pleasure of spending time on Belle Isle, a place metro-Detroiters are lucky to call our own.

It’s an ambitious show, featuring work by more than 15 artists and stretching from one end of the 1.5 square mile island to the other. A few pieces are well off the beaten path. (Map in hand, I felt like an explorer hunting for treasure as I worked my way around the island.) I recommend seeing it by bike if you can (Belle Isle’s streets are some of the few in the city with bike lanes), but a car will work and walking will, too, if you have plenty of time to spare. (Information about tours, including bike tours through Wheelhouse Detroit, is available here.)

There’s great variety to the work. Some of it, like Courtney Spivak’s “The Fracture” and Stephanie and Julie Howells’ monumental “Plasticity,” use the natural environment as a platform for work that seeks to raise the viewer’s consciousness about environmental degradation.

Other pieces address problems of concern to Detroit more generally, like Sicily Amuris McRaven’s beautiful, devastating fabric sculpture “Presence Misplacement,” which seeks to bring awareness to the human life that exists in “empty” parts of the city.

Some of the work is more conceptual: Ginger Chase’s “Vitrine: Calibrating and Showcasing Belle Isle’s Waterway,” for example, simply draws your attention to the environment around you. Sean Hages claims that his elegant, simple earth art is all about his process and not the finished product at all. Thankfully, we’re free to disregard his instructions (to “ignore the forms you see before you, ignore the sounds they make”) and spend time with his piece, which you’ll find near the northeastern tip of the island, water crashing rhythmically against it.

Like summer, this show will be over before you know it. In just four days, the rich and varied work on display will come down and there will be little sign that it was ever there at all. But it is there, now, and it’s waiting for you to discover it.

The Access Arts Belle Isle Show is on view until June 24. To arrange a tour, e-mail [email protected]