Port Austin becomes the Thumb's artistic beacon
Port Austin — The term “art installation” might bring to mind tuxedos and champagne at the Detroit Institute of Arts, or young creatives milling around an abandoned industrial yard.
But along M-53 in Huron County near the tip of Michigan’s thumb, an old weathered barn — sitting alone in a sugar beet field — is the latest evidence that Port Austin is becoming a rural arts and culture destination.
On one side of the structure, a 35-foot pigeon is painted on the gray wood, flanked by the words “Hygienic Dress League Corporation.” On the other, “American Gothic,” the famous Grant Wood painting, is reproduced complete with pitchfork, but with the addition of farmers dressed in gold bling and gas masks.
Known to many as a place to launch a boat into the clear waters of Lake Huron, Port Austin is also getting attention these days for its growing artistic community.
With two nearby large-scale art installations completed, a third underway and seven more planned, the scope of these artistic endeavors is creating a unique space for artists and audiences in Huron County. With the addition of farm-oriented restaurants and new businesses, the area is quietly being transformed — all less than three hours from Detroit.
Dorota and Steve Coy, the artists behind the barn project, are a Detroit-based art duo known as The Hygienic Dress League. When asked how they conceptualized their barn installation, Steve Coy looks enthusiastic.
“It was incredible,” he said. “We’re urban artists, but this was the rural edition.”
In this farming community, some might think such large-scale art objects are an odd fit, but the Coys see it differently.
“We thought the installation might push the boundaries of comfort in the reaction it created from the people who lived in town. But they loved it,” Dorota Coy said.
Jim Boyle, a longtime Detroit resident who grew up in Huron County, created the barn art concept, and he believes the Detroit-led projects are a logical fit in the Thumb.
“They’re both home to me,” Boyle says about the two areas. “Having grown up in that community, I have seen the eradication of the family farm in my lifetime. These parallels between (agriculture) and manufacturing … each have impacts on the communities and the physical environment. … I really liked how Detroit artists were responding to those issues.”
Scott Hocking, a Detroit artist and sculptor was inspired by the location as well. His piece, the “Emergency Ark,” is a dramatic installation that brings to mind the biblical story of Noah. The work, as the name indicates, appears to be a slim watercraft, built out of the wood scraps from another decaying 19th-century barn. It rises out of the flat expanse of a field in nearby Kinde as if waiting for the flood.
Hocking, taking a lunch break from his current project, talked about his process in the Thumb, hours away from his Detroit studio.
“Working on a project where I’m using an 1890s barn… on this wind-stripped land, these things make a difference,” he says. Hocking recognizes the downstate connection in this work.
“I didn’t know much about the Thumb when I started doing that project,” he says. “My projects end up connecting because I’m (often) working in areas that have in some way been left behind or forgotten.”
However, just as Detroit is undergoing big changes, Huron County is feeling the effects of increased cultural visibility and economic development.
Bird Creek Farms, a restaurant and taproom, has created a small menu designed to feature its organically grown produce, and it has an accompanying beer list that would be the envy of any big city bar.
“People come to Port Austin for the quaint small-town charm,” said Abby Fischer of Bird Creek Farms, adding that visitors “love that they can play games in the yard right next to the chicken coop, or sit on the deck with a drink and watch the farmers in the field.”
Just down the road, where M-53 ends, tourists can easily get on the water at Port Austin Kayak. There you can rent a kayak or paddle board and head out onto Lake Huron.
A little farther south, another barn project is taking shape. Architect and artist Catie Newell’s project, titled “Secret Sky,” is in the construction stages. Standing in the middle of the old barn, with hair pulled back and wearing dusty work clothes, she indicates the foundation for the “slice” that will be taken out of the building so that observers will be able to see right through the structure.
The challenge in creating the project, says Newell, was “how can I take something that’s the size of a building that’s enormous to me but is small in this setting and have it make an impact?”
Her solution was to create a “kind of optical maneuver that allows the landscape and the sky to keep going through the iconic form of the barn.” The work is well underway and should be done this fall.
Carl Osentoski, a Thumb native and executive director of the Huron County Economic Development Corporation, is excited about all the cultural and economic development and the relationship being created with downstate neighbors.
“We thought these barn projects would be an opportunity to create some bridges with our neighbors in the Detroit metro area,” Osentoski says. “As that [the art projects] has kind of taken on legs of its own, I think the business owners have really started to invest in the community.”