February 14, 2014 at 1:00 am

Black History Month

Southfield homeowner builds collection of African-American artwork

Growing up on Detroit’s east side, Linda Ferrell never felt a connection to her family’s home decor.

Many of her family’s belongings were hand-me-downs — her grandmother had worked in Detroit’s Jewish community on the city’s northeast side — and “it didn’t feel like it reflected me,” says Ferrell.

So as an adult, Ferrell, now 64, made a conscious decision to create a different look in her Southfield home — a home that was a reflection of her and of African-American culture and history. And it is.

Her extensive collection of African-American art, which spans from Kenya to South America to Detroit to St. Louis, includes original paintings, limited edition prints, sculptures, photographs, textiles, masks, even antique salt and pepper sets. Throw pillows and area rugs made from African mudcloths and textiles give her three-bedroom ranch on a one-acre lot a rustic, tribal feel while tying each room together.

“I want it to make you think,” says Ferrell of her collection, which she started about four decades ago.

Ferrell scours art galleries, antiques shops, even yard sales looking for African themed art, accessories and accents.

And her collection does make you think. It also makes you smile — two bright paintings pop against a bright red wall in her kitchen, one titled “Real Men Cook,” the other “Sizzlin’ Hot Soul Food,” painted by Southfield artist Andrew Link — and occasionally squirm.

Ferrell’s pieces don’t shy away from of our nation’s dark past. An oil painting hanging above her couch in her living room depicts a slave auction. And on the coffee table, a set of chains once used for child slaves serves as a reminder to her 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren about where they come from and what African-Americans have endured.

February may be Black History Month, but Ferrell really believes black history should just be called American history because “this history is also white history,” she says.

Still, there’s a sense of light and hopefulness to Ferrell’s decor. African masks, some from Kenya, stand out against the buttery yellow walls in her living room, which is filled with natural light because of two sky lights. A large, striking oil painting of a woman by LaShun Beal, a graduate of Detroit’s Mumford High School, makes a statement in the family room near the kitchen.

“I just love it,” Ferrell says.

Ferrell was born in Mississippi but moved to Detroit with her family when she was 5. Like her grandfather and father before her, she eventually got a job with Chrysler, where she’s worked for more than 40 years. She works as a productions manager at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant.

Her art collection started in an unlikely place: JCPenney. There, she saw a print called “Black Is Beautiful” that depicted a mother and her child.

“The piece just spoke to me,” says Ferrell, who was going through a divorce at the time.

Today, it still hangs in Ferrell’s living room. It’s surrounded by other pieces of her collection, including a 3-D piece on her fireplace mantel that depicts Harriet Tubman; a photograph collage that shows the plight of slaves in the United States with President Barack Obama in the middle; and a hand-painted African mudcloth that she uses as an area rug.

Many of Ferrell’s pieces come from Jo’s Gallery, a Detroit gallery known for promoting African-American artists. Years ago, Ferrell befriended founder JoAnn Griffin and worked there for a couple years. Griffin died two years ago.

“Jo and I were friends for 30 years,” says Ferrell, who is still in touch with Griffin’s daughter, Garnette Archer, who runs the gallery today. “She was a schoolteacher. I just happened on her (Griffin) and we hit it off.”

Through Jo, Ferrell met artist Annie Lee, and she has a vast collection of Lee’s work. A built-in display area just off the living room showcases more than a dozen of Lee’s ceramic figurines depicting common scenes from the African-American experience — a group of women playing cards, a church service, a woman working over the stove.

“Annie makes you think back to things that happened to you,” says Ferrell.

Ferrell’s entire art collection was nearly destroyed 12 years ago by an electrical fire.

She was driving home from work in 2002 when her grandson called to tell her her house was on fire. Thankfully, no one was inside, but Ferrell was distraught about all her art and collectibles.

A firefighter asked one of the others working inside to move most of the pieces to a safe area in the house. Even with all the smoke and water damage, only one piece was destroyed.

“I am so grateful to her because I was having anxiety attacks,” says Ferrell. “A lot of it you cannot replace.”

When Ferrell rebuilt the house, she changed the house’s original footprint and bumped the ceilings up to make them taller. The completely redone kitchen has an old world rustic feel. A wrought iron light fixture ties into the kitchen cabinet hardware.

“I saw a French kitchen design, and I was trying to tie into that and put an African spin on it,” she says. “I didn’t want chrome. I wanted it a little rustic.”

In the master bedroom, Ferrell worked with designer Jacquelyn Cutright from Elegance by Design in Ferndale to find the right color palette and create the window coverings and a skirt around a dressing table in the spacious master bath.

One of the most unusual features of the master bedroom, which Ferrell says inspired by popular HGTV designer Candice Olson, whose column runs in Homestyle, is the round bed, which she found at a resale shop. Cutright had the bedding custom made for it, and Ferrell had a special mattress made by Foam N’ More in Clawson.

Candice Olson Dimensional Surfaces Cork Wallpaper by York Wallcoverings, meanwhile, adds contrast and dimension to the bedroom. The same wallpaper also adds texture around the fireplace hearth in the living room.

In the dining room, a colorful glass plate from Jo’s Gallery was the design inspiration. The walls are painted the same buttery yellow as the living room, which contrast nicely with a black accent wall hand painted with a simple white African motif taken from one of Ferrell’s mudcloths. A chair reupholstered with the same textile ties the room and art together. The rustic-looking table, sideboard and cabinet are from Four Hands at Scott Shuptrine Interiors.

Ferrell says a friend once asked her why she wanted all that “black stuff” in her house.

For her, it’s about evoking emotion and showing pride in her past, she says.

“Artwork needs to make you think or feel,” she says. “It has to have an emotional tug. With my artwork, I want you to feel something.”

mfeighan@detroitnews.com
(313) 223-4686

African-American art, masks and memorabilia fill Linda Ferrell's Southfield living room. 'I want it to make you think,' Ferrell says of her collection. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News