There’s a party going down Saturday afternoon at Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, where an enormous new sculpture by Charles McGee, “United We Stand,” will be unveiled.
“Reunite at the Wright: A Detroit City Reunion” invites Detroiters and suburbanites to gather at 3:30 for an afternoon and evening of entertainment, food and dance outside the museum to celebrate the installation of McGee’s 20-foot-tall, black-and-white composition.
Ask McGee, a Kresge Eminent Artist, when he started on the polychrome steel design and the 91-year-old pauses, and then smiles. “About 92 years ago,” he says.
Saturday’s unveiling spotlights the sculpture, of course, and launches the Wright’s yearlong series of events focused on the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Detroit riots, which started at 3 a.m. July 23. But it also celebrates the long and fruitful career of McGee, one of the most respected and beloved figures in Detroit’s art community.
Museum President and CEO Juanita Moore calls the sculpture “an amazing piece.”
“It’s only fitting,” she adds, “that it’s unveiled at this time. Hopefully, it will lead to the conversations we need to have, and people will learn from its intent — that we only move forward together.”
Fellow sculptor and golf partner Sergio De Giusti calls McGee, “a tough son-of-a-gun. He’s one of the great figures in Detroit. Charles has always been an influence,” he adds. “Detroit artists owe him a great deal.”
McGee, who grew up in poverty in South Carolina, moved to Detroit as a youngster.
After service with the Marines, McGee studied art for one year in Barcelona, which he’s always called one of the highlights of his life.
On his return to Detroit, jobs in auto plants enabled him to continue his studies at the venerable Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies). In 1969, McGee opened Gallery 7, one of the very first galleries nationwide to focus on African-American and African art.
McGee eventually spent 18 years teaching at Eastern Michigan University, but even after retirement he continued working with students at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center.
In 2008, the Kresge Foundation named him their first Eminent Artist, an award that comes with a $50,000 stipend.
Pressed again on just how long “United We Stand” actually took to complete, McGee finally concedes it was something like 15 years, but adds that he’s been turning it over in his mind far longer.
He had a “tremendous inclination” to do a significant piece for the Charles H. Wright museum, he says, chatting one recent morning at his Rosedale Park home in Detroit.
“Shortly after the museum went up” in 1997, McGee says, “I went down there and talked to them about the possibility of having a piece of sculpture installed.”
If you don’t know McGee’s name, you’ve probably seen some of his other art around town.
His colorful mosaic, “Noah’s Ark,” hangs inside the Detroit Institute of Arts. Right across the street from the museum, the sculpture, “Spirit Renewal” — which bears some resemblance to “United We Stand” — dominates the corner at Farnsworth and John R streets.
McGee also has a large installation, “Progression,” at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.
In “Art in Detroit Public Places,” critic and art historian Dennis Alan Nawrocki praises the “zany, rhythmic shapes” to McGee’s abstract, black-and-white sculptures. “McGee has identified the syncopated rhythms of jazz,” Nawrocki adds, “as an influence on his sprightly, seemingly extemporaneous compositions.”
Of “United We Stand,” which consists of seven abstract figures in a circle, all reaching upward, McGee says “It’s very positive.”
He wanted the piece, he says, to communicate “how good Detroit has been to me — and still is. The richness of living here has been miraculous for me.”
McGee shakes his head and laughs.
“I’m not hopeful about the world,” he says, “but the city of Detroit is really on the move — and I think in a very good way.”
‘Reunite at the Wright: A Detroit City Reunion’
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, 315 E. Warren, Detroit
Free, but the museum suggests bringing your own lawn chair