Articles by

Rosie Sharp

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    Above: “Mumbo Jumbo” at Public Pool. Photos by Rosie Sharp. “Remember to serve your own loas.” That’s the advice given to a couple of the central characters in Ishmael Reed’s intensely discursive work of literary collage, “Mumbo Jumbo.” Not incidentally, “Mumbo Jumbo” is also the title of the most recent show at Public Pool in Hamtramck, Mich., a collectively-run gallery whose head curator, Steve Hughes, is a Knight Arts grantee. The show is the creation of four artists who work so closely together as to be at times indistinguishable. Ben Hall and Andrew Mehall are the organizational core of the alternative gallery Young World, which sits just on the Detroit side of the Eastern Hamtramck border, and uses its 6,000-square-foot ex-industrial space as a proving ground for artists ready to tackle the challenges of scalability. Hall is also partners with the show’s third participant, Jason Murphy–together they run the popular Eastern Market eatery Russell St. Deli, which is known for its progressive business model as much as its culinary styling. Murphy is a primary interlocutor with Mehall and Hall, as is their fourth, the East Coast-based Elliott Stevens, who contributes written content and collaborative efforts to the group from afar. “Mumbo Jumbo” at Public Pool.
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    Above: Desiree Cooper’s grandson Jax joins her onstage during her reading. Photos by Rosie Sharp. Detroit’s literary scene is booming. Last week, two local authors held book launches for work that touches deeply on some of the most difficult and most real parts of being human, being black and being female: Desiree Cooper debuted a collection of flash fiction, “Know the Mother,” while Casey Rocheteau–the inaugural awardee of the Write-A-House program, which is funded in part by Knight Arts–unveiled her new poetry collection, “The Dozen.” A 2015 Kresge Literary Fellow, Cooper hosted the launch event and reading for “Know The Mother” in the Scarab Club’s main gallery on March 15. Organizers should have cautioned audience members to come armed with tissues, as Cooper’s work is powerful and extremely real. “These stories aren’t autobiographical,” Cooper said between reading pieces. “But they are all true.”
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    Above: “Untitled (Pillow Princess),” detail view. Photos by Rosie Sharp. 2013 Detroit Knight Arts Challenge winner Hatch is a collective in Hamtramck, Mich. that brings together the work of many artists, each with different perspectives and approaches. The latest is the work of Kasper Ray O’Brien, whose solo installation, “Show Me Love,” might be termed a “body of work” in the truest sense–nearly all the pieces are plaster casts created from silicon molds taken from his own body. O’Brien is exploring themes of objectification and the male-on-male gaze, and the work literally embodies the strain and pressure placed on the psyche in the process of offering oneself for appraisal and consumption within the world of m4m culture. Each piece centers around a differently segmented version of O’Brien’s body–limbless torso, waist-down, only hands, only head–and the tableaux created by these incomplete figures suggest sexual encounters or invitations. The line between sexual invitation and “CSI” crime scene is thin, and there is a real tension in O’Brien’s work around the allure and danger of dealing with bodies in this way. When asked on March 12 during his artist talk at Hatch how it would make him feel to have one of his body pieces purchased and taken home with a collector, O’Brien said, “Oh, that has definitely happened. I try not to think about it. I can’t think about it.”
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    Above: A set of paintings by Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe, on display at Trinosophes. Photos by Rosie Sharp. At Trinosophes, a Knight Arts Challenge winner in Detroit, Feb. 23 marked the opening of “Self-Titled 2: (954)785-8492.5.” A collaborative project by artists Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe, the exhibit will remain on display through the end of March. This is the second collaboration between Crissman and Poe. The first, “Self-Titled 1,” also premiered at Trinosophes in 2013, and also dealt with issues of chance, artistic collaboration and fraternal camaraderie in its most playful and least toxic sense. The current collaboration was sparked by a phone call that happened by chance to be placed between the two artists simultaneously–the phone didn’t ring on either side, because they had called each other at the exact same time. Building on this synchronicity, Crissman and Poe added their phone numbers together and divided them by two, yielding the show’s subtitle: a phone number in Pompano Beach, Fla. Determined to follow the course (and seizing an opportunity to beat the Michigan winter blues), Crissman and Poe packed up and headed to Florida to pursue the origin of their combined phone number and look up their “phone number neighbors” (people with numbers just adjacent to their combination number, with the final .5 dropped for dialing purposes).
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    Above: The evening’s curator, Matthew Piper. Photo courtesy Michel Francois Soucisse. On Feb. 29, arts writer and lover-of-dance Matthew Piper marked the occasion with “Leap Night!”–a lovely collection of short dance films that were screened at Play House in Detroit. A former Knight Arts blogger, Piper makes it a point to note that he is not a dancer. “In school plays, I was the one going left when everyone else stepped right,” he said in his opening remarks. He does, however, have a deep love and appreciation for dance, which he communicates through his writing and in this new dance film series, which he hopes to reprise in the summer. Spanning several decades, the program included: “A Study in Choreography for Camera” (1948) by Maya Deren; “Time I Change” (2012) by Oren Goldenberg, a local production featuring dance by Knight Arts grantee Haleem “Stringz” Rasul; “Calico Mingling” (1973) by Babette Mangolte; “Piano Phase (from Fase)” (2002) by Thierry de May; “Hand Movie” (1966) by Yvonne Rainer and William Davis; “Beach Birds for Camera” (1993) by Elliot Caplan; and “Accumulation with Talking Plus Watermotor” (1986) by Jonathan Demme. “The inspiration for the night actually came from Liza Bielby of The Hinterlands [the performance ensemble that helps run Play House],” Piper said in an email interview. “I attended a terrific traveling program of contemporary dance-for-camera films from around the country last summer at Play House. Afterward, I was rambling on to Liza about some historic films in the genre I’m especially fond of, and she invited me to show them one day. I’m so pleased to have the opportunity, not only because I’m a big dance and film nerd, but also because I don’t think there are enough opportunities to engage with dance in Detroit.” While Piper’s statement may be true, local dance fans will have another chance to explore the genre at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a Knight Arts grantee. The museum’s next special exhibit, which opens this month and runs through June, is a multimedia exhibition titled “Dance: American Art, 1830-1960.” Along with presenting paintings, sculptures, photographs and costumes to highlight the role of dance in American culture, the DIA will also be screening some dance films, mostly historical in nature. Of note is “Dance on Camera,” to be presented at the Detroit Film Theatre on Saturday, March 19 at 4 p.m. Anyone in attendance last night will still want to make time for the Detroit Film Theatre series–only one of the films overlaps with Piper’s program, which seamlessly mixed international and experimental films with more contemporary and local fare. In doing so, Piper demonstrated a graceful way to make the current Detroit art scene part of a wider conversation, by simply placing it in that context.
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    Above: Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Trombley commands the stage during “Habanera,” one of the most popular songs from “Carmen.” Founded in New Jersey in 2011 by Danielle Wright, Opera Modo is Detroit’s newest operatic institution. This weekend was the opening of “Carmen,” Opera Modo’s fifth production since moving to Detroit in 2013. Made possible by a Knight Arts Challenge grant, the first two of four performances took place this weekend at the Carr Center (another Knight Arts Challenge winner), with the final pair of performances scheduled for this weekend at the Jam Handy Building on Grand Boulevard. Wright’s ambitions in founding Opera Modo range from simple to radical. Simply put, she wants to ensure that the operatic form retains relevance and cultural support, even as its primary fan base–and source of financial backing–ages. More radically, Wright seems to be investigating the applicability of opera’s classic tales to more contemporary struggles. In pursuit of both these aims, Opera Modo’s take on “Carmen” reframes Georges Bizet’s tale of a solicitous Gypsy woman, Carmen, and a volatile soldier, José, as taking place in a women’s correctional facility–an open reference to the popular Netflix series, “Orange is the New Black.” This prison setting is an interesting opportunity to investigate the power imbalance between Carmen—who, at her core, is a champion of liberated sexuality—and José, who is both a victim of Carmen’s inconstant attentions, and ultimately (spoiler alert!) her murderer. Taking this exploration of gender identity and violence to the next level, half the performances feature Carmen (in this iteration, an inmate) and José (a prison guard) in gender-reversed casting.
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    Above: A three-work series by Howard Kottler that explores the relationship between artist and muse, on display courtesy of Paul Kotula Projects. Photos by Rosie Sharp. If the title to the ceramics show guest curated by Anders Ruhwald for the main gallery at Pewabic in Detroit sounds a little on the hippie side, that’s because it’s a snippet of text lifted from the introduction to “Centering in Pottery, Poetry, and Person” by M.C. Richards—a potter, poet and essayist who taught at the Black Mountain College in the 1940s. Ruhwald’s show, “This is the Living Vessel: Person. This is What Matters. This is our Universe,” seeks to show work that embodies some of the concepts outlined by Richards in this text, ideas about the latent capacity for creativity in all humans, and our common experience as unlocked by certain art forms. The show presents an impactful collection of works by seven different ceramic artists living and working in America (with the exception of Howard Kottler, a posthumous contributor to the show). Each of these artists leverages the ceramic medium as a mechanism to express perspectives existing outside the white, male, heteronormative structures that govern a great deal of society, as well as the art world as a subset of society. This show is part of a two-way exchange between Cranbrook and Pewabic—both Knight Arts grantees, and both with ceramic studios founded by women. Ruhwald has served as artist-in-residence and head of the ceramics department at Cranbrook since 2008, and has included recent Cranbrook graduate Matthew Bennett Laurents in the “Living Vessel” lineup. Simultaneously, the Cranbrook Art Museum presents “Simple Forms, Stunning Glazes: The Gerald W. McNeely Collection of Pewabic Pottery,” which showcases a recent donation of one of the largest private collections of Pewabic pottery. There are more than 100 works on display, including items made by Mary Chase Perry Stratton, Pewabic’s founder.
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    Above: “Untitled” (2014) by Adrian Hatfield. Photos by Rosie Sharp. The most thematically powerful aspect of “Chimera,” a two-person show featuring work by Adrian Hatfield and Amy Sacksteder, is not the way each artist amalgamates media or imagery, but the rather seamless and literal blending together of these two separate bodies of work, creating a chimera in and of itself. The show opened at Detroit’s Popps Packing gallery, a two-time Knight Arts grantee, on Jan. 23. As the title would suggest, it trades heavily on the blending of organic imagery into something imaginary or mythic. The majority of Hatfield’s work aligns with the origins of the chimera, a creature from Greek mythology comprised of a fire-breathing lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail. But his spare and disturbing oil-on-linen paintings showcase subjects that are the melding of the back ends of animals–a kangaroo with the head of a lion’s hindquarters; the undercarriage of an octopus fused with the wing of a parrot; a lamb morphing into the hind legs of a rabbit. Adding to the alienating nature of these images, the creatures are pinioned or hung in abstract space–with at least one leg literally tethered or hanging from hooks, while the other set of legs sprawls or tries to run free. The backgrounds are vibrant fields of color, some with discernible imagery, like flowers or outer space, some that are abstracted ombre washes of peach, pink or red, with high-contrast black patches that give them landscape-like depth, even in abstraction. This interplay between finely rendered subject and volatile background ties Hatfield’s work together strongly with Sacksteder’s. More than once, I found myself trying to decide, without the aid of gallery materials, which artist was responsible for a given piece (and in seeking clarity, found that I was mistaken).
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    Kurt Novak, self-portrait. All photos courtesy of the artist and Wayne State University Art Collection. Perhaps the greatest challenge of every portrait photographer is the imperative to capture a subject in a single image. Humans are complex creatures, and the sense that we might be reduced to a single take seems fairly reductionist. How clever, then, that artist Kurt Novak seems to have found a loophole in this conundrum: in 2002 and 2003, he created a portrait series in which his subjects lay on a flatbed scanner, which allowed him to create images of people literally changing over time. Not a great deal of time, of course–but the time it takes for the device to make its high-resolution sweep of the picture plane is more than enough for an endless array of variations, each suited to match the strong personalities of artists, musicians, writers and collectors among the old guard Detroit art scene. Organized by Sandra Schemske, art collection coordinator for Wayne State University, this collection of works by Novak captures the picture and personality of many big names from Detroit’s lauded Cass Corridor era, largely known to him personally through his involvement in the scene, which unfolded throughout the ’60s and carried through the following decades. The exhibition, titled “Kurt Novak: Detroit Portraits,” is on display in the three-story atrium space at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, a Knight Arts grantee. It begins on the main floor with an image of celebrated jazz pianist Henry “Hank” Jones, who worked with a variety of artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong, and actually accompanied Marilyn Monroe’s famous birthday serenade to John F. Kennedy in 1962. In his portrait, Jones’s fleet fingerwork is illustrated by the inclusion of a third hand—his left hand scans in twice as he plays across the picture plane.
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    Above: The “Detroit Little Library Originals” exhibit will run at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s Mobile Homestead through April 24. If you build, they will read. That seems to be the underlying conceit of the Little Free Library movement, founded in 2009 in Hudson, Wis., by a man named Todd Bol. Since his first Little Library, the idea of distributing free books on a take-one, leave-one basis out of eye-catching, publicly mounted boxes has become a bona fide international craze, sparking localized efforts to create a network of 30,000 Little Libraries in communities all around the world. For Kim Kozlowski, the idea of Little Libraries in Detroit took hold in 2014, and since then, she has vowed to make the city the Little Library capital of the world. In a place where an estimated 47 percent of adults are functionally illiterate, the need for community-based support of reading is undeniable. Starting with a donation of 20 library boxes from Bol in November of 2014, Kozlowski has been a tireless advocate for the construction, dissemination and stewardship of Little Libraries all across the city. To date, Detroit Little Libraries has partnered with organizations including Rx for Reading Detroit, a nonprofit literacy group; Detroit SOUP, a Knight Arts grantee that supports social entrepreneurs; Detroit Parks; General Motors; Chrysler; and the End Grain Woodworking Co., which builds many of the Little Libraries from reclaimed wood salvaged from abandoned Detroit houses. The libraries stand in community gardens, parks and outside schools, as well as in front of the homes of stewards who request them and are responsible for their care and maintenance (one sits outside the Write-A-House, another Knight Arts grantee). This stewardship includes getting the word out to communities about the existence of the library, making sure the library is kept stocked with appropriate books, and repairing boxes in the case of elemental damage or vandalism. The basic libraries are typically freestanding, mounted on posts and resembling large birdhouses with a windowed front door that offers a glimpse into their contents; however, the format leaves much room for imagination. In an effort to raise the profile of the Little Libraries movement in Detroit, and to demonstrate the wide range of possibilities, Kozlowski organized a group of local artists to apply their imaginations and talents to a series of special Little Libraries, currently being displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit’s Mobile Homestead—a perfect fit for the facility’s mission of participatory and social practice art. On Saturday, Jan. 23, Kozlowski moderated an artist panel with five of the participating artists, talking about their motivations and inspiration for the boxes they created. (The MOCAD is a recipient of multiple Knight Arts grants.) Saturday's panel discussion, with Kim Kozlowski (left), Barbara Barefield, Kelly O'Hara, Ndubisi Okoye, Eno Laget (not visible) and Debora Grace. The panel included Barbara Barefield, who is a champion of the Little Library and other arts-based efforts in the Palmer Park and Palmer Woods area. Her box, “Sweet Reading,” is embellished with an angel and a mermaid, both happily reading, and affords previews of the books inside through peek-a-boo windows all around the box. She sees a strong desire for books in her neighborhood. “The box in Palmer Park is always empty, no matter how many times a day we put books in there,” she said.
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    Above: 826michigan staff member Courtney Randolph working with a student at Roberto Clemente Academy in Detroit. Photo courtesy of 826michigan. For the last decade, 826michigan has operated the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair in Ann Arbor, Mich.—just one in a network of locations across the state and country whose humorously nonsensical business facades front a series of reading and writing learning labs staffed by volunteer tutors. Last year, volunteers gave more than 23,000 hours to 826michigan: tutoring algebra, teaching poetry workshops, staffing the robot store, filing paperwork and more. The organization recently received a $150,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant to open a Detroit facility, which will be located in the city’s Eastern Market. In support of the effort, 826michigan will be hosting its annual fundraising dinner next month at the newly renovated Grand Army of the Republic Building, with author Angela Flournoy as a special guest speaker. Flournoy’s first novel, “The Turner House,” is set in Detroit and was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award. Amanda Uhle, executive director of 826michigan, took some time out during a busy week to share some insight into 826michigan’s activities and its upcoming ‘Parka Weather’ fundraiser on Feb. 11. Fourth grade students on a creative writing field trip at 826michigan’s Ann Arbor location. Photo courtesy of 826michigan. Tell us more about your Knight Arts Challenge project and how your upcoming fundraiser will support your proposal. Our Knight Arts grant is to support the opening of our center in Eastern Market, including the full range of youth arts programs we offer. We currently send 826michigan tutors to several Detroit public and charter classrooms to provide additional one-on-one help to students. We also provide drop-in creative writing opportunities at neighborhood library branches in Detroit. All of this work will increase exponentially when we are able to open our center in Eastern Market. The location will also allow us to add creative writing field trips for Detroit schools and daily homework help, tutoring that will be open to all students ages 8 to 18. Funds raised at the dinner will go toward our $150,000 [grant] match. “Fostering a love of literature” seems like a particular challenge in a city with such a high illiteracy rate. What sort of tactics, if any, will 826 bring to bear on the situation? Books are very important to us at 826michigan. We surround ourselves and our students with limitless opportunities to read and to write, which I think is essential. Specifically, 826michigan staff and volunteers are offering students a chance to read and write more and in different ways than they may otherwise be able to access. Hundreds of our students also have the chance to publish their original writing in our books. This is essential. Publishing students’ writing not only demonstrates to young people that their ideas matter to us, it also sends a message to the world: Detroit children are important and deserve our attention.