June 5, 2011 at 1:00 am

Donna Terek: Donna's Detroit

'Fly-by-night' artists decide to stay in Detroit

Visiting artists become residents
Visiting artists become residents: California, Canadian artists visit Detroit to make art and decide to stay and buy a house.

Last fall, the California-based magazine "Juxtapoz" gave a grant to Detroit's Power House Productions to buy four abandoned houses on Moran Street south of the Davison in Detroit. The magazine of contemporary and underground art chose six artists and set them loose to turn those houses into works of art.

This seemed interesting, but when I visited and met some of the artists chosen by "Juxtapoz" to participate I was sorely disappointed to find most of them were from out of town — way out of town. Not just Royal Oak or Grand Rapids, but Oakland, Calif., and Brooklyn, N.Y.

Now, I've been called a "Detroit snob," but it smacked of cultural imperialism. I mean, Detroit didn't have enough artists to fill the bill? Really?

My Detroit pride was hurt by the idea of these interlopers, despite their obvious talent. And this was a two- to three-week visit by these artists. How much impact was this going to have? It was an art drive-by.

This was in the community north of Hamtramck where Power House founders architect Gina Reichert and her husband, artist Mitch Cope, live and have been conducting an experiment in integrating artists and their work into the fabric of a neighborhood.

The community is a mixture of Eastern Europeans, African Americans and a whole lot of immigrants from Bangladesh, making this slice of Detroit seem like an extension of Hamtramck

So, I thought, what were these fly-over artists doing to benefit this community in the long run?

What indeed

Then, this summer, I met Ryan Doyle, who came to Detroit for the "Juxtapoz" project and decided to stay.

At the advanced age of 31, Doyle describes himself as "an aging punk, anarchist, interactive-kinetic sculptor." His current project is a 69-foot-long, 22-foot-high metal dragon called Gon KiRin.

Doyle came to Detroit in October to help his friend and fellow Oakland artist Monica Canilao and her assistant/boyfriend Harrison Bartlett work on the house "Juxtapoz" invited Canilao to transfigure with her art.

Doyle says once he got here he fell in love with the city and its people.

Canilao and Bartlett felt the same and they wanted to keep working on the three-story art project they call the "Treasure Nest." When they asked Cope and Reichert if they had plans for the house, the couple said they'd sell it to them for $2,000.

They consulted Doyle, who was seduced by Detroit's artistic opportunities and its proximity to Hanover, Ontario, and his wife Zarah Ackerman's base of operations for her performance art.

The two couples agreed to buy the house.

Doyle and Ackerman, 27, moved here in January with daughter Dynamite, now 9 months old. Canilao and Bartlett, both 27, will keep their base in Oakland but plan to spend as much time in Detroit working on their house as possible.

Changed mind

Part of the interior is an art installation, but the duplex has lots of space and the four plan to make it an informal artists' hostel and invite their friends from around the country to visit, experience Detroit and perhaps stay to create their own projects.

"I don't know why everyone doesn't want to move to Detroit," says Doyle. In fact, his assistant and his girlfriend have already moved in and will be in charge of the urban garden being created next door.

So, of the six artists officially invited to Power House neighborhood, two decided to put down roots and brought four more — five, including Dynamite — to make Detroit at least a sometime home. Those are not such bad numbers.

And the Bangladeshi neighbors I spoke to seem thrilled that they are taking a home that had been vacant a year and bringing it back to life.

In a way, what they're doing seems a hipster cliche by now: move to Detroit, buy a cheap house, plant an urban garden. But so what? Cliches develop because they are methods that work. Detroit could use more like these.

In fact, it can use a lot more. In a city bleeding population, can we afford to look askance at a transfusion of creative plasma like these enthusiastic Detroit-ophiles?

We need as many of them as are willing to come. And, while I was skeptical about the magazine's helicopter artist drop, this is exactly the kind of thing that creates buzz about Detroit on the coasts where the majority of cultural opinion makers resides and publishes.

If Detroit becomes the neo-Brooklyn, let's celebrate.

Both couples are fascinated by the large supply of abandoned buildings and easily obtainable "found" objects they love to repurpose in their art. Canilao filled "Treasure Nest" with them and constructed a room-filling chandelier made entirely of abandoned light fixtures and glass.

"I knew once I got here I wouldn't be able to leave," says Bartlett.

So now Doyle has set up a studio in the Russell Industrial Center to complete Gon KiRin in time to show it at Maker Faire July 30-31 at The Henry Ford. It's really a giant art car and Doyle says the Detroit connection was just too hard to resist.

While he feels perfectly comfortable here, Doyle admits it's pretty rough around the edges, but it seems, in the media at least, "it's turning from being some toxic hole that you can't fix to being the new city of opportunity. And I really hope it is. And I'm going to help that happen if I can."

I hope he can, too.


(313) 222-2030

Artists on the Juxtapoz project in front of the Treasure Nest are from left Ryan Doyle, 31, wife)Zarah Ackerman, 27, daughter Dynamite Violet Doyle, 9 months, Ryan Carmichael, 29, Sarah Simeon, 24, Monica Canilao, 27, and boyfriend Harrison Bartlett, 27. / Donna Terek / The Detroit News
Monica Canilao, 27, from Oakland, Calif., was invited by Juxtapoz magazine ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Ryan Doyle works on Gon KiRin, a 69-foot long and 22-foot tall dragon made ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Detail of art fence built from found materials by Monica Canilao and her ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
More Donna Terek