East Village cultural center continues to take shape with two arts-based nonprofits

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Southgate — In a nondescript strip mall about 14 miles south of Detroit, a small group of budding artists gathers in a large, brightly lit studio on a rainy weekday morning to paint and draw.

Spread out at several tables with their heads bent to their work, some work on watercolor paintings. Others use watercolor markers. One draws a black and white flag by hand with a pen. Brightly colored, vibrant paintings and mixed media pieces cover the white walls.

"I like that you get to make your own art and express yourself and how you're feeling," said Jaylin Thomas, 21, of Southgate, holding up a pencil drawing of a medieval-looking building he drew.

Anthony Marcellini (left), Progressive Art Studio Collective, helps Stanley Brown carry his finished artwork at the Progressive Art Studio Collective, a nonprofit that works with those with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges to represent and develop their art in Southgate on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

Two years ago, this studio didn't exist. Specifically for adults with developmental disabilities and mental health challenges to create art and find a larger marketplace for their work, artists such as Thomas had to work at home or wherever they could.

But today, Progressive Art Studio Collective runs three studios in Wayne County, all part of an agency that works with those with disabilities on job training and other skills called Services to Enhance Potential. And late next year, they'll open their most visible space yet as part of a burgeoning cultural district for the arts on Detroit's east side.

The studio, plans for which were officially announced this week, will be located on the first floor of a 22,300-square-foot mixed use building that's part of an ambitious project spearheaded by Detroit's Library Street Collective. It aims to transform a city block in Detroit's East Village neighborhood and make it a destination for the arts.

Marquise Rucker works on his painting project  at the Southgate Progressive Art Studio Collective on Tuesday, May 3, 2022.

At the center of it all is a former church now in the midst of extensive renovations to become a gallery space and library. Its attached rectory is being converted into a bed and breakfast.

For Progressive Art Studio Collective, which just launched in 2021, their new 4,500-square-foot Detroit studio on Kercheval at McClellan will be bigger than what they have in the city now in a warehouse, giving artists more space to not just work but display and sell their art. They've worked with roughly 130 people across Wayne County.

The new space "will totally change that Detroit studio program," said Anthony Marcellini, art studio manager and Progressive Art Studio Collective Program Lead. "Right now, that program is pretty isolated... It'll be bigger than our current studio for sure. And we hope it'll also allow us to bring in some more materials" such as looms for fiber art.

Last October, husband-and-wife duo Anthony and JJ Curis, co-founders of Library Street Collective, unveiled their plans to convert a 16,000-square-foot vacant church into The Shepherd. It will anchor an entire block that's being converted into gallery space, a sculpture park, skate park and bed and breakfast.

The 21,000 square feet building that will house Progressive Art Studio Collective's new studio is the latest development for the project. Signal-Return, a unique Detroit nonprofit dedicated to preserving traditional letterpress printing, will also anchor the building.

The Curises, meanwhile, have partnered with New York-based architectural firm OMA to convert the building on Kercheval, a former commercial bakery built in the early 1900s. Along with space for Progressive Art Studio Collective and Signal-Return, the building will also include roughly 6,000 square feet of affordable artist studio spaces, an art gallery, and nearly 4,500 square feet of creative retail. There will also be a 2,000 square foot outdoor courtyard that will serve as an accessible community space and open-air lobby.

“The core of our mission in East Village is focused on creating an inclusive community centered around the arts," said Anthony Curis. "Progressive Art Studio Collective (PASC) and Signal-Return are two highly impactful nonprofits providing vital support and inspiration to the local arts community. We’re thrilled to welcome them to the neighborhood."

For Signal-Return, which was founded in 2011 and is currently located in Eastern Market, their new 4,000-square-foot space will give them more room for workshops and open studio space for local artists to use but also put them right in the mix of a burgeoning "creative hub," said Lynne Avadenka, Signal-Return's director. Signal-Return is working with architect Christian Unverzagt from M1DTW on the interior of their new space.

"It's really exciting," Avadenka said. "We're not going to reinvent the wheel but we hope to do more of what we do now. We have workshops and we hope to offer more of them. We do a fair amount of job printing and we’d like to ramp that up... The whole idea is to be able to serve artists. That’s a really important part."

DeRon Hudson works on his painting project at the Progressive Art Studio Collective.

The new building also could help people such as Chauncey Bullock of Detroit. Three days a week, Bullock, 29, travels to Progressive Art Studio Collective's Southgate studio to create art, though he lives in Detroit.

Standing near one of his paintings that depicts clouds, trees and pants on a clothesline, he points out all the different elements. He often draws his inspiration from art books.

"It's cool," he said, about creating art.

Progressive Art Studio Collective is a program of Services to Enhance Potential, which dates back to the 1970s. Marcellini, who previously worked for Soul Studio at the Friendship Circle in Oakland County, said he reached out to STEP, which does job training programs, because there wasn't an art program like ones that exist in wealthier suburbs, even though Detroit has a large disability population and arts community.

"I thought there must be such incredible, untapped talent here," said Marcellini, who reached out to STEP about creating a program and they immediately said yes. The program launched with its first studio in one of Detroit's warehouses in 2021. They also have studio in Westland and the one in Southgate.

Now, with their soon-to-be new studio in Detroit, they'll have an even more visible presence.

"What's great is we have a lot of artists we work with who have really been working at home for a long time, doing their own thing, and didn't really have an outlet for it," said Marcellini. "We opened up our studios and suddenly, it seems like, out of the woodwork, came these incredible talents."