Revered and preeminent Detroit artist Charles McGee, 96, has died

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News
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Prominent Michigan artist Charles McGee has died at age 96. 

A co-founder of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit, McGee's art career spanned 70 years and included exhibitions across the globe. He was the first Kresge Eminent Artist in 2008 and in 2012 The Detroit News honored him with a Michiganian of the Year award.

Charles McGee's work often features clusters of rolling continuous lines, which is about "togetherness."

"He will be deeply missed by the countless people whose lives he has touched, but will live on through his art, which chronicles the Black experience, and champions unity and a love of nature," reads a statement from the Library Street Collective Friday confirming his death. 

Kresge Foundation president and CEO Rip Rapson said in a statement that McGee's influence on Detroit "looms as large as his towering downtown murals."

"He literally beckons us to look up from the everyday, the humdrum," writes Rapson. "His art is kinetic. He celebrates perpetual motion in way that’s befitting for an iconic artist of a city that put the nation on wheels and in motion. His art proudly displays its African American roots — and affirms life itself."

Rapson said as the first Kresge Eminent Artist, McGee "set the bar for excellence and achievements in his artistic forms."

"He will be missed even as we reap the rewards of his long, productive life far into the future," he said. 

Even those outside the art world were likely touched by McGee's wide array of talents, which included paintings, sculptures, drawings and carvings. The South Carolina native and World War II veteran had several large-scale works of art installed in public places as well as at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Brooklyn Museum and Whitney Museum of American Art.

In a statement release Friday, the DIA describes McGee as "a local, regional and national treasure."

“Charles McGee left a tremendous legacy for all Detroiters, and for all those who visit our city and see his work in our museums, in our parks, and even on our buildings,” said DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons in an email. “I can think of no other artist who has so profoundly impacted the daily lives of those in our community – from the tens of thousands of students who visit ‘Noah’s Ark: Genesis’ on field trips to the DIA to workers and visitors that experience a downtown made more beautiful with his murals and installations.” 

McGee taught at the University of Michigan, the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center and was an instructor at Eastern Michigan University for almost 20 years. He was also given an honorary doctorate from Detroit's College for Creative Studies. 

A sculpture titled 'United We Stand' by artists Charles McGee stands in front of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

"McGee's impact nurturing successive generations is the stuff of legend," writes former Detroit News fine arts writer Michael Hodges in a 2012 profile of McGee when he was given a Michiganian of the Year award. 

"His wider impact goes well beyond individual students," Hodges wrote, adding that McGee's groundbreaking "7 Black Artists" exhibit after the 1967 riots/rebellion was "the first significant all-Black exhibit at a mainstream venue." 

More:McGee sculpture unveiled at Detroit community plaza

More:Exhibit ‘Charles McGee: Still Searching’ dazzles

mbaetens@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @melodybaetens

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