Muralist builds bridges between Detroit’s past, present

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Artist Nicole MacDonald enjoys seeing her work in galleries — and she’s been in plenty of them from Detroit to the Netherlands. Seeing her paintings grace the boarded up windows of Big B Liquor Party Store is quite another experience.

MacDonald prefers the Detroit party store. Or the abandoned warehouse on Grand River. Or the renovated house in North Corktown, to name a few of Detroit places where her paintings hang for anyone to see.

“A liquor store is a whole different echelon, people day and night. It’s free,” MacDonald said. “I really like that accessibility.”

MacDonald’s public art is serving an important new purpose, her patrons contend. Her big, loving portraits of Detroit people and places serve as a bridge between old and new residents, preserving local history at a time of growing concerns about gentrification.

Big B Liquor is on the corner of Trumbull and the Interstate 94 service drive on the edge of Wayne State University’s Tom Adams Field. It’s in Woodbridge, one of the many parts of Detroit that’s been MacDonald’s muse for decades. Her party store paintings are celebratory, larger-than-life portraits of Detroiters past and present. Among the portraits: The musician Sixto Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”; the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine; and Naomi Long Madgett, Detroit high school teacher and founder of Lotus Press.

“I want to show everyday kind of people, people who fought on behalf of their fellow citizens,” MacDonald said. “A liquor store is more appropriate than a gallery for that.”

The Motor City has inspired MacDonald, 37, for a long time. It inspired the native Detroiter during the time when empty buildings grew like weeds, just as the people who lived here inspired her with their resiliency.

She learned to paint as a child in extension classes at the College for Creative Studies downtown. She spent her high school years in Grosse Pointe Park and attended the University of Michigan to study philosophy and anthropology. After graduation, she returned to Detroit.

MacDonald finds herself in a new era: an economic comeback. She lives in the Cass Corridor, which has been rebranded by some as Midtown and “greater downtown.” The latter term refers to 7.2 square miles of the city that’s seeing an influx of mainly white residents, who tend to have more affluent backgrounds than longtime Detroiters, and where real estate prices are soaring.

Not surprisingly, tensions between longtime residents and newer ones occasionally arise.

“Sometimes, I hear old-timers like me say things like, ‘Do the new people really know anything about the neighborhood? Do they care?’ ’’ she said.

That stuns MacDonald: “To me, it’s so full of amazing artists, activists, educators, it’s just a joy to tell that story and share that history.”

The party store is just one of the spaces that displays MacDonald’s homage to Detroiters. An abandoned warehouse at Grand River and I-94 is adorned with 11 portraits, each 10 feet by 7-feet, of more Detroiters she respects. Among them is activist Grace Lee Boggs, jazz musician Yusef Lateef, Chief Pontiac and the 19th century Gov. Hazen Pingree.

She’s now working on a portrait of Buddha for the Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, located in a Victorian home on Trumbull in Woodbridge. Buddha wasn’t a local resident, of course, but MacDonald said she likes helping celebrate a place of worship and peace.

In the parts of Detroit seeing the biggest influx of new residents, MacDonald’s work is increasingly in demand. She continues to collaborate with her longtime patron, Larry John, who has bought and renovated Woodbridge homes for decades. She’s done recent work for the nonprofit that runs Eastern Market and various galleries. She rarely works as a paralegal these days, the job that has kept her financially afloat in the past.

Most of her art commissions are under $5,000. “Sometimes, I work on things and maybe I make a profit, maybe not,” she said.

She is often hired by Detroit residents who want MacDonald to celebrate someone who made Detroit great to them. A recent example is a two-story portrait of Mary Ellen Riordan, the former longtime president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. It’s on the side of a North Corktown home on Cochrane and Martin Luther King. It was commissioned by local developer Jon Zemke, who along with his wife, Kristin Lukowski, began to renovate Detroit properties in 2009.

“Riordan is my great aunt, and also one of the key people who introduced Detroit to me,” said Zemke, who grew up near Ann Arbor. “She was so accommodating; she introduced us to the Catholic church we still go to. I have so much respect for her overall.”

Zemke originally just wanted people to stop tagging his rental property with graffiti. Then he realized he could make it a tribute to an important Detroiter. He also wanted to show his support for teachers in the embattled Detroit Public Schools system.

“Nicole is just such an open person. The process of working with her, with the kind of honest, sincere approach she has,” Zemke said. The tagging of the property has stopped, he noted.

MacDonald recalls working on the mural when one of the best things that could happen to her happened.

“A group of students were walking by and they stopped and asked, ‘Who’s that?’ and I had the opportunity to tell them,” she said. “That’s what public art is all about. It’s empowerment.”

Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN