Art rises in shadow of Conners Creek power plant, for a few days only

Dan B. Jones
Special to The Detroit News

Detroit — Next to Conners Creek on the city's east side, a dormant DTE Energy Co. power plant looms over the landscape. To the south, across the Detroit River, a single thunderhead ominously moves over Windsor while occasional lightning strikes illuminate the shoreline. Framed by all this, a 24-foot steel diamond shimmers in electric blue.

"Spirit of the Forest" is another of the art installations on the vacant land,  featuring human figures with deer heads that are cast in aluminum and highlighted with UV lights and UV paint.

The glowing gemstone rising above the bleak industrial property is one of three separate art installations called “Value Proposition.” It's the latest show from Detroit-based husband-and-wife artists Steve and Dorota Coy, who call themselves the Hygienic Dress League. The installation is open to the public evenings Thursday through Saturday.

“It’s about questions of value,” says Steve Coy, looking up at the piece titled "Diamond II," suspended from an old coal chute 50 feet in the air.

 “We’re negotiating with the idea of superficial value, real value, what does it mean to be human and why are we attracted to the things we are.”

Made possible in part by the Knight Foundation, the installation is situated on the Detroit River. This industrial park was once home to the “Seven Sisters,” a group of towering smokestacks that were famously imploded in 1996. All that remains of the facility are several outbuildings and the “Two Brothers,” a set of sturdy chimneys that rise high above the now disused power facility. 

However, “Value Proposition” doesn’t sit on totally unused land. It shares space with the Edison Boat Club, a marina for DTE employees, while just to the west the roofs of several sizable mansions from the early 2000s are visible. On a recent night, the party music from a boat-side barbecue was audible.

Behind the dirt parking lot that hosts the neon blue diamond is another highly visible installation. Titled "Spirit of the Forest," it features seven cast aluminum human-like figures with deer heads and protruding antlers. The figures are painted bright red and individually illuminated by UV footlights. They are scattered throughout an overgrown field and appear to be emerging toward the viewer on a semi-circular footpath flanked by huge concrete planters. 

The third installation on the site is titled "Limited Edition." The life-sized carbon fiber and resin composite African elephant is tucked away in a darkened building on the east side of the property. The huge animal is covered in hundreds of thousands of rhinestones. For safety and liability reasons, viewers may only observe the “blinged out” pachyderm from behind a fence.

Conceptual artists Dorota and Steve Coy, who operate under the moniker Hygienic Dress League, have created three installations on the site of a former DTE power plant that explore the disconnect between humanity, value and environment.

Dorota Coy gestures at the installation, power plant visible to the left, says over the hum of the generators that the space was highly influential in the artistic choices that led to “Value Proposition.” “The 75 acres here that DTE owns,” she says, “is just the boat club and the power plant. This (unused space) is what’s left of it.”

The land is so under-used, in fact, that DTE has been seeking developers for the site, courting developers to the site of the former power production facility, which shut down when nuclear power plant Fermi 2 rendered the coal-powered facility obsolete.

The property is one of the largest riverside tracts eligible for redevelopment.

Cassi Meitl, a program manager in public affairs for DTE Energy, says the power company had “been exploring redevelopment models and researching the feasibility of plant and site reuse since 2012.”

To this end, the HDL’s installation project on the site is of mutual benefit to the artists and DTE. 

“The installation of the art and temporary park were designed to help people imagine a different future for the decommissioned power plant,” Meitl says.

And though the collaboration the artists and a huge power company might not be the most obvious match, Meitl says, “it connects to the company’s mission of being a force for growth in the communities where we live and serve.”

All around the property, evidence of this reclamation is clear. Paths are cut from high grass and only flimsy chain-link fences separate visitors from broad fields where birds nest in the undergrowth. In 2009, beavers were found busily damming up the creek, marking a return of the creatures to this part of the state after many decades of absence.

This context is meaningful to Steve and Dorota Coy.

“This isn’t just a diamond hanging here because we wanted to build a cool light installation,” Steve Coy says. “It’s a diamond in a boatyard in a coal factory. We crafted each one of these visual artifacts for this specific location.”

"Value Proposition"

Where: Edison Boat Club, 100 Lycaste St., Detroit, at the decommissioned Conners Creek power plant 

When: 6 p.m.-10 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. 

Cost: Free, but you must RSVP to get onto the site; visit