From Aretha to Eminem, Detroit artist creates portraits with personality

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Looking for inspiration for a mural she was painting on the side of the new Meijer Rivertown Market in Detroit, artist Desiree Kelly didn't have to look far. She used her 4-year-old daughter as a reference.

The mural — dynamic and bold, as so much of Kelly's work is — features Isabella with pineapple-accented sunglasses, her curly hair in pigtails. Slices of different kinds of fruit are layered in the background. 

"I wanted to add more personality to it, color, make it resemble one of my pieces you'd find on canvas," said Kelly of the mural on the Meijer store that opens early next month. 

One of portrait artist Desiree Kelly's latest murals is one the side of the new Meijer Rivertown Market in Detroit. It depicts her daughter Isabella.

Personality-infused art has become one of Kelly's specialties. No wonder her work is popping up all over the city.  

Before her Rivertown piece on Jefferson, Kelly unveiled her new Aretha Franklin-inspired mural in August, just in time for the release of the movie "Respect." Instead of painting Franklin, she was asked to paint actress Jennifer Hudson depicting the Queen of Soul. The mural, which had an interactive element to it with music, was in front of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. 

"The whole idea was to not portray Aretha but Jennifer," said Kelly, 31, who was commissioned to paint the mural by an agency working on the movie.

From left, Actor Jennifer Hudson poses outside the Charles Wright Museum's mural by artist Desiree Kelly and director Liesl Tommy in Detroit on Sunday, August 1, 2021 during a conversation for the film "Respect," in which Hudson plays Aretha Franklin.

Capturing Hudson as Franklin was a little nerve-wracking, admits Kelly. But the response has been great, she said.

"I actually painted it at the studio at the Russell (Industrial Center) and then installed it," said Kelly. "As soon as we put it up, people were kind of gravitating toward it... It’s totally a new concept."

A mural by Desiree Kelly is outside the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History to promote 'Respect,' the movie about Aretha Franklin's life which opens in theaters on Aug. 13, 2021. Photos taken in Detroit on July 25, 2021.

Born and raised in Detroit, Kelly was drawn to the arts even as a child, though she never planned on it as a career. She studied graphic design at Wayne State University and worked at the Metro Times as a production manager and senior graphic designer.

But even there, she was always encouraged to paint, she said. After leaving the Metro Times in 2014, "portraits were something I've always done but eventually it just evolved into being a full-time portrait artist," Kelly said.

Today, her work is often inspired by historical figures. She's painted portraits of Whitney Houston, Langston Hughes, Elijah Cummings, Abraham Lincoln, and many more. A portrait she painted of Flint boxer and Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields was purchased last year by the Flint Institute of Arts.

The 'Queen of Soul' keeps an eye of Stephanie Lee as she walks past a piece entitled Aretha by Desiree Kelly in Eastern Market.

And Kelly's portfolio is filled with portraits of iconic Michigan artists beyond the Queen of Soul — Eminem, Madonna, Jack White, Diana Ross, Kid Rock. She says she's known for her distinctive mix of street art and traditional oil technique. The Charles H. Wright museum purchased another Queen of Soul portrait she painted. And she painted an Aretha mural at Eastern Market.

Recently, she painted portraits of nine Black baseball players that were featured in a special Washington Post section detailing the decline of African-American players in baseball. 

"That was a fun, fun project," said Kelly, who painted each portrait by hand.

Next, Kelly will unveil another mural at the end of the month in Detroit for a nonprofit, though she can't share many details yet. Being a portrait artist, Kelly said the best part is the variety of projects she's asked to do. 

"It's great that it's different every time," she said.