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.
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.