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Ouizi murals blossom across Detroit

The Detroit artist will have her first solo exhibition at Inner State Gallery through June 22.

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

If you stumble across a bright floral mural in Detroit, chances are you’ve come upon an original Ouizi.

In the last five years, her artwork has blossomed across the city — budding in shops like Astro Coffee and Will Leather Goods to outside Eastern Market buildings.

Detroiters might not know her name (pronounced “wee-zee”), but they sure recognize her murals. Corktown resident Patrick Cooney was typing next to her chalkboard mural at Astro one morning this month. He didn’t know her name, but he could name where to find her murals in West Village and Corktown.

“Me and my wife, whenever we spot these around town, we think they’re amazing,” says Cooney, 33. “They add a brightness and color to the landscape. I think they’re really beautiful.”

Ouizi — whose real name is Louise Jones — has her first solo exhibition in Detroit at Eastern Market’s Inner State Gallery through June 22 at 1410 Gratiot Ave. While her signature flowers will be part of the “Lucky Garden” show, viewers shouldn’t expect her typical pastels — or a typical gallery exhibit.

While working in her Detroit studio at Recycle Here earlier this month, she explains the show’s theme touches on her Chinese-American roots.

“I’m going to play with a lot of themes that are typically seen in Chinese-American culture ... lots of reds and golds and symbols that don’t actually originate from China but are considered to be very Chinese — like the lucky cat symbol that is actually Japanese and fortune cookies, which don’t exist in China,” she says. “They were invented here for Chinese restaurants.”

Raised by a traditional Chinese family in Los Angeles, she says it felt odd being surrounded by Chinese-American culture.

“When I was growing up, it was kind of embarrassing to be associated with it because Chinese restaurant food is gross,” she says. “It’s catered to the American palate, which needs salty, greasy, meaty. It’s not very complex, but at the same time, it is made by Chinese people, and it is derived from the same kind of flavors.”

Her exhibit opening during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month will embody this juxtaposition. Instead of a traditional white gallery, she plans to decorate the space as a Chinese restaurant with red drapes, waterfall images and gold shrines. Artwork prices will be listed on a fake menu.

“I might even put a table in the middle of the room with a table setting,” she says, describing the show as “a feast for the eyes.”

It’s supposed to be “cheeky,” Ouizi adds, yet visitors might feel uncomfortable.

“Issues of race and cultural appropriation are weird to talk about, but I think that’s why it’s so fun for me to do this kind of show because Orientalism is awkward... I’m going to probably walk into the show wearing a traditional Chinese outfit,” she says. “I want to make people feel weird.”

It’s a step away from the warm, whimsical murals that Inner State Gallery co-founder Jesse Cory says have become part of Detroit’s “visual aesthetic.”

“Her work really resonates with people in the street,” Cory says, noting her distinct floral style. “People really gravitate toward her work because the execution is beautiful, but it also has a softness to it.”

In February, the gallery sponsored her at the Pow! Wow! Mural Festival in Honolulu, where she painted tropical flowers around a two-story surf shop. Besides Hawaii, Ouizi’s murals can be spotted in Mexico, Shanghai, New York, Aspen and Raleigh. This year, she’ll pollinate walls in Atlanta, San Diego and Miami.

The 29-year-old notes her career took off soon after arriving in Detroit in 2012. Though, she admits she had a romanticized reason for moving to the city.

“I felt like I could live a more quiet and undisturbed life amongst the ruin,” she says. “... (I) was like, ‘I don’t want to be in mainstream culture in any way whatsoever. I just want to live off the grid, and I want to grow my own food and hang out with weirdos, and Detroit sounds like a cool place to do that because there’s nobody here, really. But there were people here.”

She quickly discovered Detroit wasn’t the apocalyptic city she thought it was. She fell into a booming art and music scene, and fell in love with Gabe Jones, a former musician whom she married last fall.

“The people out here are so down to earth and everybody supports working artists, and that’s what really cemented the I-wanna-move-here-and-live-here because I found this community,” she says.

The first mural she completed was outside an ice cream shop at Livernois and 7 Mile for an Avenue of Fashion revitalization project. The second, on an Eastern Market wall, got torn down to make way for the Dequindre Cut bike path. Of her 40-plus murals in Detroit, one of her favorites is at Division and Orleans, which she painted for the Murals in the Market festival.

Detroit artist Ellen Rutt, 27, collaborated with Ouizi on a mural outside a house off Gratiot. Ouizi painted the flowers; Rutt painted the patterned pots. While artists have painted florals for centuries, Rutt says Ouizi has a “unique approach to flower painting” that makes her work iconic.

“It’s fun to experience because the sense of scale makes you feel small, and I think that’s a very powerful part of her work,” Rutt adds. “It just makes me feel like, ‘Oh my god, I’m like a tiny little bug.’ ”

Ouizi can’t pinpoint why she’s drawn to flowers, but she compares it to a meditative, mathematical practice.

“(It’s like) learning one formula of painting a certain type of flower and then just being able to paint that again, over and over again, without looking at a reference and having them be different and realistic each time,” Ouizi says.

Fairly new to the medium, she started painting after graduating from University of California-Santa Cruz, where she majored in drawing and printmaking. She originally planned to go into fashion and recalls sketching wedding dresses and “weird” clothing.

“I remember drawing a corset that was made out of orange patent leather, and it had criss-cross ties in the front,” she says. “At the time when I was in high school, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I drew these things. I would never wear that!’ Now I’m older, and I’m like, ‘I would totally wear that!’ ”

This month, she had the opportunity to pursue her fashion interests by partnering with Detroit Hustles Harder to design a pink bomber jacket with florals embroidered on the back. They sold out in a week.

In the future, she wants to design more clothing. She also dreams of painting a mural in Brazil or on a “challenging” vertical wall. If the Detroit Institute of Arts called, she’d be up for that, too.

“I really want to do a mural in a museum,” she says.

The murals, which take about a week, require stamina and strength.

“Eventually, I will not be able to paint murals anymore because I will be older, and it does require some dexterity,” Ouizi says, speculating she’ll do smaller works when that day comes.

Detroit artist Paul Johnson, 25, liked Ouizi’s pixy style so much, he asked her to tattoo a design on his right forearm. (She only tattoos for select people.)

“It’s so special,” he says, showing off the black florals that took seven hours to hand poke. “I don’t want to depreciate it because it’s on my arm, and I see it all the time.”

For fans who’d rather have Ouizi’s art on their walls, works will be for sale starting at $65 at the show. Pieces include a series of the Four Gentlemen, which are four plant species highlighted Chinese culture: bamboo, orchids, chrysanthemums, and cherry blossoms. The largest work is a 5-by-5-foot botanical painting with a tomato background. Red symbolizes “good fortune” in Chinese, Ouizi explains.

“I think it’s going to be some of the best work I’ve ever made so I’m really excited,” she says, eyeing the red piece she’s been finessing for months. “Rarely ever am I, ‘Oh, that’s the best thing I ever made, but this is actually something I care about, so I’m happy to say that.”

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg