CCS students create public art for Little Caesars Arena

The selected sculpture represents Detroit’s sports heritage and will debut in September

Stephanie Steinberg
The Detroit News

Detroit — When Jon Phillips moved to the city to attend the College for Creative Studies, he didn’t know much about Detroit’s sports franchises. In fact, he seldom followed sports.

College for Creative Studies student Jonathan Phillips views a video of his sculpture "Movement of Champions" which will be installed in front of the new Little Caesars Arena when completed in Detroit, Michigan on May 15, 2017.

But he soon discovered how much Detroiters take pride in being fans of the teams — win or lose. Channeling the Motor City’s sports culture as inspiration, the fine art major designed a 22-foot tall sculpture that will debut outside Little Caesars Arena in September.

A jury of academics, artists and gallerists chose the steel sphere titled “Movement of Champions” as their winner among 11 models proposed by students.

Olympia Development of Michigan, Ilitch Charities and the District Detroit — the 50-block sports and entertainment development where the new arena is located — invested $800,000 to fund the 2017 CCS class Public Sculpture. The 11 students were tasked with designing sculptures that could be installed in District Detroit.

Those in the arts community say the project, along with an influx of new murals, is one step toward expanding Detroit’s public art pieces.

While a handful of iconic statues such as the Joe Louis sculpture commonly referred to as “the Fist” and “Spirit of Detroit” have represented Detroit’s public art for decades, there’s a renewed interest from developers, businesses and artists to add more pops of color and artwork around the city.

Phillips, an Army veteran and former data analyst, used his GI Bill to return to school in 2015. Primarily a painter, the 31-year-old Seattle native was thrilled to learn the jury selected his sculpture earlier this month.

His piece combines movements from five sports that “have made Detroit the city of champions” since the 1930s, he said, listing the Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, Pistons and Joe Louis’ heavyweight championship.

“All five of these ... there’s a particular movement with each of them that leads to success…,” Phillips said.

“In baseball, it’s the swing of the bat, in basketball, it’s the toss of the ball toward the basket, in hockey, it’s the swing of the hockey stick in shooting the puck, in boxing, it’s the posturing of the fists, and in football, it’s the taking possession of the football, dropping back and throwing it toward the player. Those are the five movements that I took.”

Phillips proposed the sculpture — featuring LED lights and 6-foot, 6-inch wide planes that wrap in a sphere — be constructed on the northeast corner of the arena along Woodward. He originally planned to use wood but considered Michigan’s winters and opted for stainless steel.

“The reflective properties are similar to Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago,” said Phillips, referring to the steel sculpture known as “The Bean.” “That welcomes people to entertain themselves, and it engages them with others that are doing the same thing.”

Construction Phillips sculpture will start this summer and the artist will be part of the team.

Other proposed models included sculptures of everyday Detroiters and a pagoda honoring Chinese Americans in Detroit. All are on display at the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education through May 26.

CCS associate professor Chido Johnson led the course and said grades were based on effort.

“It’s more about how they push themselves as artists,” said Johnson, adding the class offered a platform for students to contribute to the city’s public art. “It’s a great opportunity for young artists to come in and present their perspective of the future, as they become the new generation of the city.”

George N’Namdi, owner of the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit

George N’Namdi, owner of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Midtown, sat on the jury that selected the winning model.

The Detroiter said people tend to think of the Joe Louis sculpture commonly referred to as The Fist, Hart Plaza sculptures and People Mover murals as Detroit’s public art.

“As a major city, we need to do a lot better...,” N’Namdi said. “Just a few years ago, our public art was our ruins. That’s what people would come here to see, as if it’s our public art.”

N’Namdi said the District Detroit, which connects downtown and Midtown, will afford new opportunities to install art pieces.

“I’m hoping that this District Detroit project really becomes not only a place for sports, but I’m really hoping to see art sprinkled throughout the whole district,” he said.

Other benefits

Besides beautifying an area, public art can be a revenue generator. For instance, the 19-day festival ArtPrize in Grand Rapids attracted 26,710 daily visitors and had a $28.6 million economic impact last year, according to the 2016 ArtPrize annual report.

“Art can be part of a lot of catalytic activity that helps transform a city,” said ArtPrize exhibitions director Kevin Buist, explaining that ArtPrize attracts people nationwide who spend money on food and hotels.

He added that public art can give a space “value.” For example, Cloud Gate attracts tourists and instills a “sense of character.”

“The kind of experience you're having there, you couldn’t have just anywhere because you're in the presence of this really incredible unique object,” he said.

Detroiters, meanwhile,have 18 artworks at 13 People Mover stations.

People Mover spokeswoman Ericka Alexander said the murals, sculptures and mosaics were constructed so the community could interact with them.

“The People Mover experience has been greatly enhanced by the presence of public art,” said Alexander, noting the Downtown Detroit People Mover Art Commission raised $2 million for the project in the 1980s. “People of all ages have the opportunity to really get up close and experience it and interpret it in their own way.”

This weekend, Detroit artists and entrepreneurs are pairing up to create six murals for businesses in city neighborhoods. Quicken Loans partnered with art publisher 1XRun to curate the Small Business Murals Project.

1xRun COO Roula David said the project will “shine a light on businesses,” some which are just opening, like Social Sushi on 7 Mile and Livernois.

“A mural that celebrates 7 and Livernois will draw people to the business,” David said. “They’ll want to take pictures in front of it ...and it adds another element of conversation for the businesses.”

Come for the art

Anthony Curis opened the Library Street Collective gallery downtown with his wife about five years ago.

Detroit artist Charles McGee, 92, got a first look at his new mural at 28Grand on Griswold on May 15, 2017. Sitting outside Cafe D'Mongo's Speakeasy across from the mural, McGee met Kelly Golden and Jordan Zielke, co-owners of Golden Sign Co., who are painting the mural that McGee designed. The black and white mural, titled "Unity," will be McGee's largest mural in Detroit. It measures 118 feet, 6 inches by 50 feet, 9 inches. Work on the mural started in early May.

“One of our ideas was to try and interject change beyond the brick and mortar of the gallery ... and change the conversation of public art,” he said.

They partnered with Bedrock Real Estate Services to bring in 27 artists to paint the Z garage and graffiti artist Shepard Fairey to create a mural at 1 Campus Martius. The next goal is to restore dozens of murals painted across Detroit during 1970s public art projects. Through that effort, Curis met 92-year-old Detroit artist Charles McGee, who has a fading mural on W. Larned.

Curis passed along an opportunity through Bedrock to design a 118-foot by 50-foot mural on 28 Grand, micro apartments opening this summer on Grand River. McGee accepted, making this his largest mural yet.

On Monday, he got a first look at the facade that’ll bear his black-and-white design called “Unity,” which McGee said represents how “we do better when we work together.”

“This mural is the opportunity of my life,” he said, facing the white-primed wall.

A Kresge Eminent Artist whose work is along the People Mover and outside the Museum of African American History, McGee said public art is necessary to beautify cities.

“Cities can be beautified without everything being industrial,” he said. “I think we should have a relief from just looking at structures without any kind of decoration.”

As the area around Little Caesars Arena develops, N’Namdi said he’ll push for the creation of public art so that visitors can have a more “holistic experience.”

“People could come there not only to see the arena, because it’s a state-of-the-art design,” he said, “but they also would include in there, ‘Oh, they got great art down there too.’ ”

CCS President Richard Rogers said in a statement that CCS students have participated in conceptual projects in Detroit, but this is the first time one will come to realization.

“Not only did they get to work with an actual client on a real-world project to develop public sculpture for a prominent location,” he said, “but they got to be part of one of the most significant and transformational projects to occur in Detroit in many years.”

Once built, Phillips said he hopes his sculpture resonates with fans.

“It reiterates whats going on in the arena — those physical actions of basketball and hockey,” he said.

(313) 222-2156

Twitter: @Steph_Steinberg