Hamtramck Historical Museum prepares to open after renovations and the installation of murals The Detroit News


As seems to happen with every painter from Michelangelo to the guy touching up your kitchen, Dennis Orlowski is running behind.

What's already on the walls at the Hamtramck Historical Museum, though, makes the key point in vivid colors.

Across more than a century, from the French to the Germans to the Poles to the African-Americans to today's Yemenis and Bangladeshis, the makeup of Hamtramck has changed. It will keep changing. And the occasional fevered commentator who yelps about "Hamtramistan" doesn't know his Conant from his Caniff.

Orlowski, 74, has been commissioned to paint a 175-foot-long, 6 ½-foot-tall mural along the high upper walls of the main floor of the museum. 

The theme is "Coming to Hamtramck," and gawking will be understandable — or perhaps even mandatory — when the parts that are finished are formally presented to the community at a free 6-8 p.m. gathering July 19.

Bankrolled by a $15,000 grant from the Michigan Humanities Council, the mural is supposed to make clear what Hamtramck native Greg Kowalski, 67, tells everybody who walks through the building.

"We've had every ethnic group here, starting with the Indians," says Kowalski, a founder and chairman of the museum. "As far as we know, we're the most diverse city in Michigan now, and one of the most diverse in the nation."

That does not automatically turn Hamtramck into Disneyland — though it is home to Hamtramck Disneyland, a renowned assemblage sculpture that spans two garages at 12087 Klinger. A city that was 83 percent Polish in 1930 is now 8 percent, and there has been pointed observation from members of the newer ethnicities that they are underrepresented in municipal jobs.

But reporters from as far away as Singapore have come to Hamtramck to study immigration, Kowalski says — "to see how we come together and work together," and sometimes grouse at one another, and elect both a majority-Muslim city council and a Polish-American mayor.

Orlowski's job is to convey that in acrylics, or at least to show the progression. He was supposed to finish by November, and then April, and then in time for the unveiling.

He won't, but at least two-thirds of the 12-foot to 20-foot-wide panels should be in place, each of them devoted to a specific group instrumental to the city's evolution.

"They know I'm good," he says, and quality takes time. Besides, who else would devote a year and a half to a project for $15,000?

The way Orlowski tells it, he took stock of his abilities at age 14 and came up with two: he could draw, and "I could jump off garages real good."

Only one of those seemed marketable. After various detours, he earned a degree at Wayne State, taught public school art in Detroit for 30 years, and made his mark as a muralist on interior walls ranging from the City-County Building to a Mexican restaurant.

His process at the museum is multi-layered and typically includes obsessing about details. He starts by quickly sketching the figures who'll appear in a panel, most of whom are real humans.

The segment devoted to Albanians, for instance, features a Hamtramck police officer named Luigi Gjokaj standing in front of the Albanian-owned Hamtramck Coney Island, flanked by the owner of the weekly Hamtramck Review reading a copy of his own newspaper.

John Ulaj, the publisher, jokes that "I think they could have picked better people." But seriously, there's a lot to be said for being immortalized in your hometown: "I am honored."

"You can see the struggle in my drawing," says Orlowski, pointing to the likeness of Ulaj  on a panel-sized block of paper. "Adjust, adjust. The hands, is that correct? The sleeves?"

Once he's satisfied, the figures get cut out, placed on a Masonite rectangle, traced in ink and removed.

When actual painting commences, any change in pose or color starts a chain reaction, as other figures and tints are adapted to keep a vital balance apparent mainly to the keen eye of the artist. The painting process alone takes four to six weeks per panel.

The completed panels line the side walls beneath a white tin ceiling in a 15,500-square-foot former department store, barber college, dollar store and abandoned shell. The museum opened five years ago — one showpiece is a complete Prohibition-era still — and a continuous renovation has included six figures' worth of electrical work donated by IBEW Local 58.

The doors are open weekends from 11 a.m.-4 p.m., though you can sometimes get an off-hours tour from a staffer at the adjoining Polish Art Center on Jos. Campau between Poland and Norwalk.

"The roof leaked when we took over," Kowalski says. "There were dead pigeons upstairs."

Now there's a leopard, an animal rarely spotted in Hamtramck. It's in the Yemeni panel; the Arabian leopard, rare and beleaguered, used to roam the nation's highlands.

"It's not just pretty pictures," Kowalski says. Accuracy is important, be it cultural or historical.

So when Orlowski paints Gail Kobe, a busy Polish-American television actress of the 1950s and '60s, he places her face in a TV screen — and the TV is black-and-white. He asks the son of a Ukrainian school principal “How did your dad stand?”, and Peter Stasiw  winds up preserved for posterity with his hands in his pockets.

That takes time, he says.

Time takes oversight, Kowalski says.

"He's on my case," Orlowski says.

But he's used to that. He's a painter.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn

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