Sculptor creates art park in Detroit

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Detroit artist Robert Sestok likens himself to a husbandman tilling the good earth.

"I'm the farmer," the 68-year-old says of City Sculpture, the Midtown art park he's carved out of four abandoned city lots along the John Lodge Service Drive at Alexandrine. "This is my field, and my crops are growing."

Granted, this is no ordinary field, and these are no ordinary crops. Some of Sestok's abstract steel sculptures planted in the neatly mowed grassy compound weigh up to 4,000 pounds and stand 12 feet high.

Twenty-seven of these towering structures, mostly crafted from recycled materials, are already bolted onto concrete bases, with two more yet to come. While anyone can drive by and take a peek — walk right in if the gate's open — the official inauguration for City Sculpture is set for July 10.

City Sculpture grew out of a desire to leave a permanent mark, as well as a thoroughly practical concern — what in the world to do with the a couple dozen metal constructions of varying size Sestok had behind his house.

"I've wanted for a long time to do something that would be lasting," he says. "Then my neighbor who used to cut the grass here died, so I started. I got the idea that this would be a good location for an art park, and who needed one more than me — with 30 years of sculpture in the alley behind my house?"

Armed with a grant from Midtown Detroit Inc. and money raised from donations to, the artist bought the four city lots and started planning his own gritty Versailles.

The sculpture park can't help but startle the driver heading north on the Lodge service drive, accustomed to a mostly bleak view of abandoned lots and sagging houses.

"City Sculpture is phenomenal," says Michelle Perron, director of the Center Galleries at the College for Creative Studies. "It's fantastic and long overdue — both to have all of Bob's art in one place, as well as creating this new gathering space."

Detroit artist Robert Sestok's welded steel sculpture garden sits along the Lodge service drive in Detroit, Michigan on June 3, 2015. At this point in time, 29 pieces dot the gated landscape, a reflection of some 30 years of work. (Brandy Baker / The Detroit News)

Perron has long admired Sestok's work, which she characterizes as "hard, raw and scrappy, but at the same time lyrical and musical. You look at lot of the works out there and they dance."

They also, it's worth noting, cast mesmerizing shadows across the lawn in sunset light.

Sestok, who came of age as an artist during the heady ferment of the 1970s Cass Corridor movement, may not yet be a household name, but most Detroiters are familiar with his work, even if they're unaware.

In Detroit, his welded-steel constructions stand outside the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters downtown, alongside Wayne State's Hilberry Theatre, and at the intersection of West Grand Boulevard and Third.

You'll also find a glittering Sestok original in Birmingham at Pierce and Brown streets — a rare departure from his usual rusted steel to the stainless variety.

Sestok also was the curator and engine behind last summer's hugely successful show in an industrial part of Highland Park, "Big Paintings @ The Factory."

Detroit artist Robert Sestok’s welded steel sculpture garden consists of 27 structures, some weighing as much as 4,000 pounds and as high as 12 feet.

City Sculpture is the latest grass-roots art park to pop up in a city that seems to sprout them like spring crocuses. Easily the most famous, of course, is Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project, but other significant examples are the Lincoln Street Art Park, Grand River Creative Corridor, The Alley Project and the Southwest Urban Arts Mural Project.

Even beyond the park's artistic merits, the sculpture garden helps smooth Midtown's raw edge along the freeway trench, planting order and harmony where least expected.

"I especially like the way Bob's sited the park," says Dennis Nawrocki, the art historian who wrote "Art in Detroit Public Places" and contributed an essay to "Robert Sestok: Selected Works 2004-14," which will be out in July.

"He took out all the trees in the front along the expressway," Nawrocki says, "but left the ones at the back that provide a backdrop. You feel sheltered by the trees and sculptures, which are themselves vertical with tree-like overtones."

Some might call creating your own sculpture park an exercise in ego, but there's something to admire in that as well.

"I like that about Bob," Nawrocki says. "He's no shrinking violet. Bob just goes out and does these big things — like the sculpture garden, the book or the 'Factory' show. That's part of his sensibility and vision.

"He just forges ahead."