Dreams, determination and a life's artistic work—that's what transformed a nondescript vacant lot in Detroit into an urban sculpture park.
City Sculpture is the creation of Robert "Bob" Sestok, who has been making art in Detroit since the 1960s. I met Bob in the early '80s, when the neighborhood now called Midtown was in its grittier incarnation as the Cass Corridor. Bob was already a fixture in that community, as one of the founders of Willis Gallery and part of the Cass Corridor Movement, a group of artists whose unconventional methods and materials reflected the crumbling, post-industrial environment of the time and were influenced by the abstract expressionists of the 1950s. Some of those artists, including Bob, were featured in a 1980 Detroit Institute of Arts retrospective exhibition, "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." (The title was a nod to the debut album of the rock band MC5, which played at the opening of an art show Bob organized in 1972.)
I've always been amazed at Bob's ability to segue seamlessly from drawing to painting to printmaking to creating massive metal sculptures. Many of those sculptures are displayed in public spaces in Detroit, its suburbs, and other locations around Michigan and beyond. Other pieces accumulated over the years in the alley behind Bob's studio.
But Bob had a bigger vision for those works: a public space to display the sculptures right in the neighborhood where they were produced. He didn't have to look far to find a good spot. A block away from his home and studio was a city-owned vacant lot that fronted the John C. Lodge Service Drive. A conscientious neighbor and his kids had been mowing the lot and keeping it trash-free, and when that neighbor died, Bob took over the job.
"I was cutting the grass and thinking, 'Why don't I own this?'" Bob recalls. So he bought the property from the city and then spent about a year cleaning it up, repairing the sidewalks, installing a fence and pouring concrete slabs for the sculptures. Once that work was done, he spent another week or so moving and positioning the sculptures.
"As soon as I did that, all of a sudden the news media got wind of it, and I was on all the television channels and in the newspaper," says Bob. "It was quite a big bang."
And quite a change for an artist who has always been more comfortable just doing his work than being in the public eye.
"I kind of shy away from stuff like that," says Bob, "but I was willing to do interviews and tell people about the work in the park. So I'm a little more public today than I have been in the past, but that's the nature of having a space like that. And it's a fun thing to have. People go there from all over the place."
Like Tyree Guyton's Heidelberg Project and Olayami Dabls's MBAD African Bead Museum, City Sculpture has become a destination landmark, as well as a showcase for an individual artist's life work.
"Tour buses pull up, school buses pull up, kids get out, all kinds of people," says Bob. "We give tours. People contact me if they want to have the artist's viewpoint of the park. I do a little talk. We've had thirty or forty people at a time."
He also throws a party in the park every summer. "It's kind of a big thing for me to put together," he says, "but I get local musicians and it's a lot of fun." This year's event, scheduled for Saturday, August 25, features Ethan Daniel Davidson, The Drinkard Sisters, Danny Kroha, Denise Davis and the Motor City Sensations, and Botanical Fortress.
I'd been hearing about the park since it opened in 2015, but hadn't had a chance to visit it until a few weeks ago, when Ray and I drove down to Detroit to have lunch with another old Cass Corridor friend who was back in town for a couple of days. We arrived a little early, and since the restaurant where we were to meet our friend was only a few blocks from City Sculpture, we made a side trip to the park to check out Bob's creations.
Seeing so much of Bob's work in one place was truly impressive. Thirty-two sculptures of welded steel, crushed aluminum, car parts, and garden implements are artfully arranged around the well-maintained site. A bench beneath a tree offers a place to sit and reflect. Even with traffic whizzing along on the Lodge Freeway, City Sculpture feels like a haven.
The works on display reflect Bob's eclectic approach to making art, a style he has described as the absolute lack of a single, cohesive style.
"When people ask who made all these, I tell them, 'Well, they could've been made by a lot of different people, because nothing looks the same.' There's a lot of diversity in my work. I think that keeps me moving forward."
A graduate of the College for Creative Studies (then known as the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts), Bob is known not only for his sculptures, but also for his paintings, including both permitted and unauthorized public art pieces. Among the first were murals commissioned in the early 1970s for the Edward W. Duffy Company, a pipe and tubing supply business. More recently, Bob created a mural for musician Jack White's Third Man Pressing, a vinyl record manufacturing plant in the Cass Corridor.
White remembered seeing the Duffy Company murals when he was in high school, and once he became a successful musician with his own factory, he got in touch with Bob to commission a mural for the record-pressing facility.
As for unsanctioned street art, Bob says he's pretty much "retired" from that line of work. "All the buildings I painted on were rehabbed or torn down. I said, I don't want to have my art destroyed completely."
The desire to preserve his art also has him thinking about the future of City Sculpture. "Now I'm becoming more of a businessman and trying to get corporate sponsorships," he says. "I created a nonprofit, which I'm thinking to turn into a foundation to manage the park." He plans to turn over management of the foundation to his daughter Erika, who grew up in the neighborhood and has experience in park management.
Meanwhile, Bob keeps making art and displaying his work in different venues. He recently delivered five sculptures to Michigan Legacy Art Park at Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, and he's currently in a show at Marshall M. Fredericks Sculpture Museum in Saginaw.
"I'm a lucky guy," he says. "I've got a job for my life. I can't stop—I just keep doing my thing. I like to discover things and challenge myself. If you don't challenge yourself, you're not learning anything. You have to push yourself and reach outside of your comfort zone in order to be prolific."
With nearly one hundred sculptures, more than five thousand drawings, and some one thousand paintings completed to date, he should know.
City Sculpture is located at 955 West Alexandrine in Detroit.
To help support City Sculpture, visit https://www.citysculpture.org/donate/
Bob Sestok has exhibited at the Detroit Institute of Arts, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Cranbrook Museum of Art, and Marianne Boesky Gallery (New York City), among others, and had work in ArtPrize 2009. His work is held in numerous collections, including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Cranbrook Museum of Art,and Wayne State University. He has received grants from the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and The Kresge Foundation.
Do you ever have those back-in-school dreams? Like the one where you realize you're late for the final exam in a class you've somehow forgotten to attend for the whole semester? Or the one where you have to make a presentation that you haven't prepared for? And you're inappropriately dressed. Or not dressed at all.
Distressing, aren't they? Fortunately, I don't have those dreams so often any more, but I've had them often enough over the years. Between those nightmarish episodes and all the waking-life years I spent in actual classrooms, I have no interest furthering my formal education.
So it's kind of funny that one of the things I most looked forward to when I retired was having time to take classes. Not the kind that involve brain-busting study and deadlines, but the fun and enriching kind.
Recently I took just such a class, and it turned out to be so enjoyable, I may never have another school-days nightmare. The class was a six-week Intermediate Photography course at Artworks in Big Rapids, taught by local photographer Dave Johnson. Dave has been a shutterbug since high school, but got serious about honing his skills over the past ten years. Now he focuses mainly on event, lifestyle, and landscape photography. A proponent of life-long learning, he not only strives to keep improving his skills, but also shares his passion and knowledge with others through classes, photo walks and individual lessons.
I was a little nervous about taking the class. For one thing, I wasn't sure how "intermediate" it would be. Though not an absolute beginner, I consider myself a novice. Would I be out of my depth?
For another thing, I'd been looking for a hands-on class, where we'd spend at least part of the class period actually shooting and getting feedback on our work. But once I found this class, I was anxious about that very aspect of it. I know how I can feel suddenly brainless and blocked in writing workshops where we have to write on the spot. Would I turn photo-blind when it came time to shoot in class?
I needn't have worried. Dave's an easygoing instructor who makes the course relaxed and fun, encouraging experimentation and allowing plenty of time for questions. He also shares his approach to photography: trying to look at the world in unique ways, focusing on both the details and the larger scenes they come together to create. When he photographs people, he looks for ways to capture something of their life stories and sources of inspiration.
A few more examples of Dave's work:
For our first out-of-class assignments, Dave encouraged us to photograph everyday objects we could find around the house. I found eggs . . .
and the candle I light every night at dinner time . . .
and a still life of kitchen utensils.
In class, Dave showed lots of photos to illustrate points he was making. But rather than simply showcasing his best work (and possibly intimidating us in the process), he also showed us some of his less successful photos and engaged us in discussions of what would've made them better. It was a good reminder that learning any skill takes lots and lots of practice and that even accomplished artists have to work at getting everything right.
Each class session mixed lecture and discussion on the finer points of exposure, composition, lighting, and specific types of photography—such as landscape, macro photography, and night photography—with breaks to try out techniques we'd just discussed. When the weather cooperated, we took our breaks outdoors.
When the weather didn't cooperate, we found things to photograph indoors—either the Artworks exhibits or items Dave brought in: tiny toys for close-up practice, prisms for special effects, and a variety of dollar store light-up doo-dads for a session on playing with light.
That one, with the light-up gadgets, was probably my favorite in-class exercise. We experimented with shooting long exposures of ourselves and Dave moving around with glow sticks and strings of lights. It felt like pure play, but we ended up with some pretty cool abstract images.
In spite of my early fears, I didn't freeze up when it came time to practice our skills together. I did find group shooting a different experience from roaming around on my own, but it was fun to see what other people were shooting.
To promote even more of that kind of exchange, Dave maintains a Facebook group where current and former class members can post photos and comment on photos that other group members post. Busy schedules kept some class members from taking full advantage of this resource, but I appreciated having a place to share work and get feedback.
At the end of each class period, Dave issued a challenge for the coming week, such as photographing a fast-moving subject at different shutter speeds, or taking photos at different distances from a given subject.
For once, I loved having homework! When I spent an afternoon wandering around with my camera, I wasn't just goofing off, I was working on an assignment.
I came away from the class with a fresh set of tips and techniques, but perhaps more important, the inspiration to keep stretching my skills, trying new things, and seeing the world in different ways.
Have you taken an enjoyable or challenging class recently? What have you learned?
Enjoy a few more of Dave Johnson's photos:
Bea Cordle is a woman with a mission. Every morning, she wakes up inspired and ready to get going. Right after breakfast, she begins her work, continuing until evening.
Bea is, by the way, ninety-three, an age when she could be excused for doing nothing more than sitting on the porch swing, listening to the birds. Instead, she's brightening the days of children who may need a little lift.
The project that absorbs Bea every day is drawing whimsical characters on brown paper bags for the Kids' Food Basket program, which supplies "sack suppers" to children living at or near the poverty level. These free, balanced evening meals are distributed at the end of each school day and during summer programs at schools where 70% or more of the student population receives free or low-cost lunches.
Volunteers decorate the bags, and that's where Bea applies her talents. Curled up in a comfy armchair in the living room of the home she shares with daughter Sandra Bernard and granddaughter Marquita Bernard, with a rainbow of markers at hand and a pile of coloring books for inspiration, Bea draws her cheerful creations and finishes off each drawing with big "I LOVE YOU" at the bottom.
"I'm so blessed, because this gives me something to look forward to," says Bea. "I think about it before I get out of bed in the morning, and I think about it after I go to bed at night."
For Bea, the project has revived talents that took a backseat while she was raising her five children. In her youth, she enjoyed painting landscapes and cottage scenes. Then, for many years, she turned her creative energy to sewing clothes for her children (including wedding dresses, bridesmaids' dresses, and flower girls' dresses for all the family weddings) and crocheting outfits for the grandchildren that came along later. When she lost sight in one eye six years ago, she could no longer crochet.
"About a year ago, my other daughter brought me a package of the colors and some coloring books and some of the bags and said, 'I want you to try to work on this,' " Bea recalls. "And I said, 'Oh, I can't do that! I wouldn't be able to do that.' "
But she could. And once she got going, she was unstoppable. She estimates she has decorated more than 1,600 bags to date.
A social worker who visited one of the kids who receives sack suppers told Sandra the youngster's room was decorated with Bea's bags. Another little girl who cherishes the bags thanked Bea in person at a Kids Food Basket Halloween party. Sandra and Bea both get misty-eyed recounting the stories.
The bag project isn’t the only creative work underway in the big gray house in the heart of Newaygo. Bea, Sandra and Marquita recently published a children's book, I Am Never Too Me!, and Sandra and Marquita have two more books in the works: Things That Matter and Elton's Tall Tale.
"It's an exciting thing for the three of us," says Sandra, who also writes poetry and prose, in addition to singing and playing guitar professionally.
It was Bea's drawings that inspired Sandra and Marquita to collaborate on the first book and to recruit Bea to do most of the illustrations. Sandra, who used to make up stories about her son's imaginary friend when her children were small, quickly came up with an idea for the book.
"I got up in the middle of the night and wrote the story," she says. "I don't know what it is about writing, but the middle of the night, I wake up and ideas come to me, and I just get overwhelmed. I can't go back to sleep until I write the gist of it down."
The family invested in a computer, and Marquita, who has a background in design and illustration, created the front and back covers, added a few illustrations, and designed the layout.
Colorful and upbeat, the book celebrates diversity and encourages self-acceptance.
"I didn't just want to write a book with a lot of splashy colors. It's got to mean something," says Sandra. "But that's kind of the way I am with everything. If it doesn't have meat and guts to it, I just don't want to be bothered."
For Bea, Sandra and Marquita, working together on creative projects is part of a "spiritual movement" that began when they first started talking about living together.
"We decided, the three of us together, we're going to move in together and be a three-woman powerhouse. We're going to help each other, be there for each other," says Sandra. "And it's worked out really good."
I Am Never Too Me! can be found at Hit The Road Joe Coffee Café in Croton, River Stop Café in Newaygo and Studio 37 Arts & Culture Center in Newaygo and will soon be available on Amazon.
For more about Sandra Bernard's creative spirit and talented family, plus a sample of her poetry, see her April 20, 2016 guest post, Creative Thinkers.
Welcome to the second installment of HeartWood's occasional feature on creative couples. In this edition, I'm profiling Newaygo County residents Tonya and Eldon Howe, whose talents impressed me when I first met them at the River Stop writers' salon and continue to amaze me.
You know you're in the presence of a creative couple when you look around their house, and every angle reveals artistry they've created, either individually or together. In fact, Tonya and Eldon's house itself is one of their creations—a six-year labor of love and imagination, inspired by their wooded setting.
But even before they collaborated on that ambitious project, Tonya and Eldon were co-creating. A few years into their courtship, in the 1980s, the couple took a pottery class together. Eldon made the jug they're holding in this picture, and Tonya decorated it with the carved design and artfully-applied glaze.
Later on, when they took on the task of building a home, Eldon—a builder by trade—worked with Tonya to integrate her design ideas into the house, even when that presented a challenge.
"You see that curvy post over there?" Eldon points toward the kitchen. "I was going to put in a simple, straight post—just a post—and run the electrical up through it. But Tonya said, 'Can't we find something in the woods that'll be nicer than that?' So we walked down below the hill—there was snow on the ground—and she saw this tree and said, 'Can we use that one? I like that one.' I said, 'No, we can't use that one. It's all curvy. There's no way I can put electrical in it.' But she just kept looking at it."
Eldon started walking away, but then he kept looking back at it, too, thinking.
"Finally I said, 'Okay, I think I can. So I got a chainsaw out, cut it down, put it on a plastic toboggan and literally drug it up here and spent probably a day or more trying to carve it and get it to fit in place."
Now it's a focal point of the house.
It was Tonya's idea, too, to use crotched tree trunks and burls for the window posts. And the couple came up with other natural touches, from the twisting stairway railing to the stone walls and fireplace, that grace the sustainably-designed home.
In a second-floor studio off the bedroom, Tonya pursues her passion for oil painting and drawing.
"I like to paint mostly scenery and people, trying to capture the mood or character, or the exchange between people," she says. Though mostly self-taught, Tonya took some classes in the 1980s with Pentwater artists Cheri Petri and the late Bert Petri. Until recently, she favored realism, but now she's experimenting with more abstract, impressionistic paintings.
Some of Tonya's work:
Photographs from Tonya's "Rock People of Moonlight Beach" series:
Two floors below Tonya's studio, Eldon has a space for working on the guitars he crafts in a larger workshop down the hill from the house. Guitar-making is a natural pastime for Eldon, who's been playing guitar since the early 1980s and working with wood since his teens. What's more, his father, Elon Howe, is an award-winning maker of violins, violas, and mandolins.
"A nice side benefit is, Eldon's been able to work with his dad in his shop, so they're spending time together in his dad's later years," says Tonya.
Eldon's aim in guitar building is "functional artistry." Though beautiful to look at, the guitars are designed with specific playability goals in mind. "It's very experimental, what I'm doing," he says.
Music is also an area of collaboration for Tonya and Eldon. Eldon composes music, writes, and sings, and Tonya writes lyrics for some of the songs that he performs.
"When Eldon and I are working on a song, our creations always start with Eldon's music composition coming first, by chance and by relaxed daydreaming," says Tonya. "Then later, I run his music through my head and create lyrics to go with it. It's like I can see a story, poem, or drama play out in front of my eyes."
"She pays attention to the emotion of what I play," says Eldon. And Tonya's response is a kind of barometer, he adds. "I know it's a good piece of music if she wants to write lyrics to it."
The Howes recently released a CD album of their songs, titled "Sundown," currently in the music rotation on WYCE. (Songs can be requested online at https://grcmc.org/wyce/wyce/request or by phone at 616-742-9923.) Tonya shot the cover photo of Eldon before a performance at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.
"He was just warming up before going on stage," she recalls. "I saw how he was sitting and said 'Stay right there.' I just could see in my head that that would make a good promotional picture."
Tonya also offered suggestions on accompanying instruments that would convey the proper emotions and fit the theme of each song. Now, she's mixing music into her art in another way. "I'm trying my hand at quick sketches of musicians while they're playing a song," she says. "I call them 'one song long' sketches."
As Tonya describes the genesis of the book, "I took notes on Eldon's memories of how the story played out, and then I said, 'Give me a few days to write it, because I can't think of anything right now.' But that night I couldn't sleep, and all of a sudden the story started coming to me, and I saw it through the eyes of the elephant." She wrote the story, and her daughter Sherry Perkins did the drawings that illustrate the book, along with some of Tonya's photographs.
Stories, paintings, photographs, songs, instruments—who knows what Tonya and Eldon will create next? I only know I want to see and hear whatever they come up with.
The CD, "Sundown" is available from Eldon Howe at email@example.com
Listen to tracks from "Sundown"
I was at my desk, working on this week's blog post when a mysterious missive came over the transom. The thing literally flew in as if borne by winged creatures.
Now, I'm pretty good at ignoring tweets, pings, and such, but a fluttering billet is quite another matter. Of course I had to give it a read, and when I did, I knew I had to drop everything and share it with you.
Here it is . . .
FAIRYLAND, Newaygo County (April 28, 2018)—This year's late spring had officials in the Enchanted Forest (also known as Camp Newaygo) concerned about the availability of housing for all the fairy folk returning from their winter homes down South.
"Construction has been delayed all over the county, and the Enchanted Forest was no exception," said Elvira Elf, housing coordinator. "Fortunately, however, artisans from all around pitched in to fill the forest with creative homes for wee folk."
When fairies, gnomes, pixies and their pals showed up last weekend to check out the offerings, they found every kind of dwelling imaginable, from condo to castle.
However, it's common knowledge that pixies can be, well, picky. And fairies are notoriously fickle, with whims that shift with the wind. So we sent a reporter out to tag along with the fae and find out what they thought of the choices.
Pierre Pixée, who winters in the South of France, was searching for something palatial. "C'est si bon!" he said when he spied this turreted manse, complete with moat.
Scurrying along a woodland path, Grizela Gnome pulled her cloak around her. "It's still too cold here in Michigan," she complained. "I wish I'd stayed on the beach."
"But look," said her friend Sophie Sprite, pointing to a cottage nestled beneath a tree. "This house will make you feel sunny and warm no matter what the weather."
"You're right! I'll take it," said Grizela. "Care to stay for a piña colada?"
On the stairway leading down to Pickerel Lake, Fairy Fiona paused to take a breather. "These houses are all beautiful," she said, "but what I'd really love to find is one with room for my wine collection AND a view of the lake." Then she leaned over the railing and there it was: Gnome Top Vinyard. "It's an oenophile's dream!" she said.
Up on the patio of Lang Lodge, Ivan Imp took Elvira Elf aside. "I hate to admit this," he said, "but I'm not much of a woodsy fellow. Really more of a garden guy. Any chance that the house I choose could be, um, relocated?"
"As a matter of fact," Elvira said, "that's what we're hoping for. All the houses are up for auction, to raise money for Camp Newaygo's ongoing improvements. When bidding closes Sunday night, some lucky humans will be taking the houses home—complete with tiny inhabitants, of course—to install in their own special sites. I'm quite sure more than a few will find their way into gardens."
What magical beings do you suppose chose these homes?
Ray and I are hitting the road again—heading back to the Southwest for a few weeks. I wish I could bring you all along, but once we stash all our gear in the truck, we just don't have room. Don't feel left out, though. I'm sending you on your own site-seeing tour—a virtual visit to a few websites that I think you'll enjoy. This week's tour has four stops. We'll visit more another day.
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.