Shipping container art studio goes to ArtPrize

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

You might not think a 40-foot-long shipping container constitutes art.

But the huge steel box that's been one of the most visible elements in Detroit's Lincoln Street Art Park is picking itself up and going to the seventh-annual ArtPrize in Grand Rapids, which launches today.

The container — officially the "Activi-Tree Learning Lab" — will spend the 18-day festival in Calder Plaza in the city's civic center, facing the Calder sculpture, "La Grande Vitesse."

Most artwork at the radically democratic ArtPrize, where visitors vote on who gets the $200,000 grand prize in two rounds of balloting, is the sort you hang on a wall.

ArtPrize artist looks for new home after rejection

"Activi-Tree" is radically different — art designed to impact people's lives, often called "social-practice art."

"Why make art for prize money," asks "Activi-Tree" creator Ryan Doyle, best known for the motorized fire-breathing dragon that leads Detroit's annual Nain Rouge parade, "when we can put our time and effort into something that will change the culture?"

The change Doyle and collaborators Eno Laget and Rachel Klegon seek, in Doyle's words, is to "infect the minds of youth with creativity and imagination." Doyle smiles. "That's a really dangerous thing in our society now."

Over the summer, Laget and other Detroit artists taught more than 100 Detroit Public Schools students and homeless kids from the Coalition on Temporary Shelter the fundamentals of paper-making, mural design and stop-frame animation, all within the big white steel box.

At ArtPrize, adults and kids alike will be invited to make their own art, marking up the container inside and out with art of their own inspirations, all gently curated by Doyle and Laget.

"Activi-Tree" — which debuted in April at Art Park, near Trumbull and Marquette on the city's west side — channels any number of memes fashionable in Detroit's young art community these days, combining as it does recycling, environmental consciousness and art-making all in one oceangoing container.

Much of the impetus for the project came from Klegon, executive director of Green Living Science, a nonprofit that teaches kids in six different Detroit public schools about recycling and environmental preservation, lessons the three hope "Activi-Tree" will impart, as well.

For example, everything in this unlikely art studio was made from recycled or found materials.

Laget did the snappy interior design, wallpapered walls and ceiling with enlarged copies of old Detroit News front pages, with headlines like "Fort Falls to Reds," "Try to Kill Truman" and "7,000 Troops Guard Detroit; Riot Loss Near $100 Million." (Laget, aka Ray Stanczak, was former senior design director at The Detroit News.)

Work tables came from the now-dissolved Tashmoo Biergarten in Detroit's West Village. Floorboards used to be in a school gym, while the plywood walls started life covering Comerica Park grass for Rihanna and Eminem's 2014 "Monster Tour" performance.

Best of all, shredded dollar bills form the insulation between the walls and the steel exterior. Laget insists there's more than $1 million in cut-up U.S. currency, but a more accurate measure comes from Doyle, who thinks it amounted to about 800 pounds.

"We had this Uncle Scrooge moment when we had a bag full of money," Doyle says, "but it's actually horrible — incredibly tiny pieces of shredded paper that are impossible to pull out of your hair."

(How to get shredded money? Klegon says you write a nice letter to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which ultimately directed them to a Detroit company that does the shredding.)

Unknown at this point is how Grand Rapids will react to this unconventional entry, though anything that invites people to mark up walls is likely to be popular with kids.

In Detroit, where the "Activi-Tree" will return in three weeks, children went nuts over the courses offered this summer.

"It was such an amazing experience for our kids," says Frankie Piccirilli, interim executive director at COTS. "It was completely unique and different."

And Leah Ouellette, who runs a service program called buildOn at Detroit's Western High School, challenges the idea that "Activi-Tree" somehow isn't art.

"It's definitely art," she says. "It's living, useful and practical art."

Still, Doyle, Klegon and Laget aren't entirely sure what their reception in Calder Plaza will be.

Klegon notes that Doyle's fire-breathing dragon — it looks a bit like an SUV covered in random pieces of rubber and metal — wasn't such a hit when it went to ArtPrize in 2013.

"Apart from kids," she says, "the city wasn't that into it." She laughs. "That's why it's important to go back."

Jeffrey Augustine Songco installs his piece Revelry on Tuesday at Calder Plaza in Grand Rapids.


Wednesday-Oct. 11

All over central Grand Rapids

Oct. 3: Frst round of public voting ends

Oct. 8: Second round of voting ends

Oct. 9: ArtPrize winners announced

Oct. 11: Closing day