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Detroiter's art brightens the 'hood

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Neighborhood resident Sierra Levert was dumbfounded.

"I was very surprised when I saw it," said the young woman at Von's Express Liquor Store, talking about the three-story building across the street whose windows sprouted handsomely painted portraits of 16 celebrated Detroiters on Nov. 15.

"We haven't had anything like that here," Levert added. "It's one of the nicest things, and it gives a good glow to the neighborhood."

Dignitaries past and present peering down on the dusty Grand River/McGraw intersection include Chief Pontiac, jazz great Yusef Lateef, Rosa Parks, Grace Lee Boggs, and friend of the working man, Michigan Gov. Hazen S. Pingree.

Detroit artist Nicole Macdonald said she was inspired to celebrate her own personal heroes after reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." Wealth and celebrity, she said, were never factors in who made the list.

"The idea wasn't success and fame, but something more along the lines of service," Macdonald said, "and to a certain degree, sacrifice and struggle. People who didn't go the popular route."

Only four of the 16 are still alive — the Rev. James L. Meyer, who fought for civil rights; writer and activist Yusef Shakur; activist Grace Lee Boggs and U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Detroit.

The Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID) sponsored the project, and Macdonald said she got nothing but cooperation from the building owner. Masterminding the actual installation with the 60-foot forklift two Saturdays ago was Chuck Roy, owner of the Cass Cafe, where Macdonald exhibited her portraits this summer.

For his part, Fadi Ayar, who owns the tidy liquor store, is a big fan.

"I love it," he said Friday. "It's like an icon. Since it went up, I have seen so many people stop and take pictures."