Of all the places I’ve been fortunate to live, none ever captured my heart as quickly and as deeply as Detroit. The creative expression, as well as the ideas, perspectives and histories, of the people I meet consistently grabs my attention, and ultimately leads me to see, hear and feel my life in new ways.
What follows is a conversation that never took place. It is a collaged memory of actual conversations I had over the past few weeks, by phone, email and in person, with four artists who inspire me with their creative practice, their artistic output and their fundamental ways of being in the world.
The spectrum of connected and disconnected memories, creative motivations, and individual passions in this unreal conversation reflects the aspect of Detroit I most deeply admire – the people who call this city home.
If you aren’t already familiar with the work of Sherrine Azab, JenClare Gawaran, Marsha Music and Ryan Myers-Johnson (or even if you are), I encourage you to visit their websites, and take every opportunity to experience their work in person.
Marsha Music: I began writing in school as a young child. In first or second grade I was on my father’s radio program reading a piece I wrote, for which I had won an award in school, entitled “I Love Michigan.”
At the same time, at a young age, I experienced the trauma of watching my father’s very successful Hastings Street record store having to close because of “urban renewal.” All kinds of businesses, primarily Jewish and Black, were destroyed when Black Bottom was razed and I-375 came in; most black businesses were unable to reopen and recover. I watched as my father’s livelihood was severely compromised when he was forced to close, then as he attempted to restart his business across town. This process destroyed African-American generational wealth that has never been recouped and it profoundly affected the lives of African-Americans in Detroit. Less than seven years later I witnessed the destruction of my dad’s second record shop in the 1967 riots.
I was a child when the black power movement began, but I was already aware of profound traumas that had been visited upon my people, here in Detroit.
Ryan Myers-Johnson: I remember when I was about six or seven my mom took us to Kmart. I asked her what kind of music was good for making "real" dances. She said jazz or classical, so I picked out some cheap records, took them home and started doing improvisation to the jazz. I'd make these dances for my mom and my sister. It was a pure exploration in choreography and movement.
Going to a public school for the first time was scary. I got in lots of fights. I loved recess because Duffield Elementary had this great hill we could run up and down. I'd pick dandelion bouquets on that hill for my mother and play "survival" with my friends. I remember getting stung by a bee for the first time while climbing an apple tree at a friend’s house in downtown Detroit. There was a lot of nature in my life as a kid, even though I was in the inner city.
I went to dance class at Marygrove College while my mother was in school - that was a sanctuary for me. It was this magical place, a beautiful old Catholic College surrounded by greenery. The dance building had cathedral ceilings, dark wood and chandeliers. I would pretend I was some type of royalty. Detroit was a good place to pretend.
Sherrine Azab: I was raised in Milwaukee, with an Egyptian father who had very traditional ideas about what men and women should do, but he was also depressed and didn’t work. My mom was very soft-spoken but she got things done. He definitely saw himself as being in charge, but she held everything together.
I was eight when my dad passed away, and, all of a sudden, our house was run by women. My mom put us in the car and we took a road trip and went to Disney World. It’s not like we had a lot of money, but I think the idea was to start over as a more typical American family.
I felt very different from the people we grew up with. We looked different…we were the only ones that didn’t go to church. I always felt like an outsider, and I wanted to be like my cousins who were blonde-haired and blue-eyed and had names people had heard before.
Where we grew up you could take inexpensive classes in anything. I wanted to take drawing classes and I did and I loved it. I was a young visual artist. Then I saw this play and I loved the idea of getting to create and be something else for a bit of time. So I auditioned for the Milwaukee Youth Theatre and did plays with them, and then I found out there was an arts high school. I got into the school and I was at home. I struggled at first to decide between visual art and theater, but I ultimately choose theater and I’ve never looked back.
JenClare Gawaran: I grew up in the affluent suburbs of Detroit. I think I had that "all-American" childhood that you read about in children's books, with mom and dad, two siblings and a dog. I was pretty sheltered, and I didn't have a lot to worry about. My most prominent memories are of summers with neighborhood kids just hanging out, being kids; walking to the park, riding bikes, flying kites, selling lemonade…
I remember various art projects for school, and drawing on loose-leaf paper I stole from my parents' office. I never got into theatre, dance or performance. I slightly got into music, but it was always the allure of creating images that I found captivating. I had motivating art teachers in school, and my parents never questioned my interest in the arts.
Marsha: I went to school in the Highland Park school system. It’s not apparent now because of the economic collapse, but these were among the best schools in the state at the time. So I was going to these great schools, but on the other hand my dad had a record shop in a rough and tumble area on Hastings Street. So I lived in this existential tension, this dual life, where two totally different worlds collided and resulted in my being hyper-aware of the world around me.
As a teenager I became a part of the Black student movement that was associated with DRUM, which was organizing in the auto plants, and eventually became part of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. This is when I began to write in earnest about society and inequality; I later began to write about Detroit’s music.
Ryan: Most of my family is from small towns in the south. We'd visit every summer, and all my relatives would make a big deal of us "city kids." I felt special, privileged that I didn't have to grow up in small town with no movie theaters or cool restaurants.
Growing up, I was a fanciful kid, and I still am, so I'm not sure if I saw many of the harsh realities of inner city life for what it was. I was raised with a great mix of realism and optimism. Detroit was in bad condition in the eighties and nineties, but I had love for it. I was encouraged to pursue the arts and, strangely enough, I've never been discouraged by my environment or naysayers when it came to pursuing dance. In fact, I was celebrated for it. I found a lot of resources as a young artist in Detroit, from joining All City Dance Company, to going to Detroit School of Arts, to dancing in the first production of “The Harlem Nutracker.”
My first job was working for the city of Detroit as a dancer when I was thirteen. I was paid minimum wage to learn dances and put on plays during the summer. It was unbelievable and great.
JenClare: Being a suburban kid with parents that worked in the automobile industry, I was surrounded by replication, duplication and mass-production. As a printmaker, that obviously influenced my creative process.
My parents were quite resourceful, particularly my father. He was always keeping odds and ends of random stuff other people would just throw away. He used them to create contraptions for various purposes, and that definitely influenced me. I keep my own odds and ends…scraps of wood, long strips of paper, twist ties and bits of plastic. I never know exactly why I keep these things, until one day they come in handy when I'm trying to construct something in the studio!
The moment when art all came together for me was in my first printmaking class in college. After pulling my first relief print, my entire world suddenly made sense. The creative process became much more fluid, and I found myself able to concentrate on the conceptual part of art-making, and less on the technical part.
Sherrine: Theatre is a discipline where people are looking at you. As a young actress I was told I had an “ethnic look” - whatever the hell that meant. Moving into college, that language got a little more mature, but ultimately it turned into my being the sidekick. That was my type. I wasn’t a leading lady or an ingénue.
All of this left me trying to piece it together with the feedback that I was a really good actress. I wasn’t interested in giving up so much control to other people, letting them tell me what parts I could play and when. None of it was adding up to why I got into theater in the first place.
Ultimately, this led to me making work that doesn’t have to be about type.
Ryan: I often make dances about relationships, for instance exploring how people relate to each other. I'm curious about how family both anchors and constrains you. Loving people is like being bound by a soft, beautiful shackle. It holds you down, it keeps you, it protects you, but sometimes you don't want to be stopped or held back. What happens when you throw off the things that anchor you…will you fall or fly?
Balancing motherhood with your practice is a challenge that I see a lot with women artists. I don't have children, but I'm a producer and choreographer who works with mothers all the time, and it’s always a challenge for them. I'm sure there are fathers grappling with this, too - the burden just seems to be more on the woman. Particularly with dancers, there are always those questions: “Will my touring career end with children? Am I neglecting my kid if I perform in this show?”
Marsha: Women in the movement were the foundation; I was younger and I could see that they were active and holding organizations together, but they weren’t treated with the level of respect that they could have been.
I was active in the student movement, but got pregnant at 16, and after my child was born I wanted to support myself and not depend on my parents or welfare. I left school and I went to work in a suburban factory. By my early twenties, I was active in the labor movement and by twenty-eight I was the president of the union – representing major industrial bakery and food manufacturing workers in Detroit and the metro area and as far away as Kalamazoo. I was the first African-American, the first woman, and the youngest president in that local’s history.
JenClare: As a woman, I’m often asked about my views of being a female artist, and how my work is influenced by it. My gender does play a role in my work, but it's just one facet of my background I explore. I think it's interesting that, sometimes, people may expect a female artist to create work about her views on gender roles, femininity, sexuality, etc. because she is a woman. That doesn't have to be so, although it’s probably strange that I'm saying this because my work explores my identity.
Sherrine: I mostly think about gender in relation to positions of power in art institutions. The curatorial practice program I did at Wesleyan had about fourteen women and one male in my class, but the teachers were the reverse in gender. If you look across the country at theaters and performance spaces, the majority are run by men. Women struggle to get to the top levels, which is why I’ve become more interested in shared leadership. I’m not interested in the hierarchy. I think what seems unattainable drives me to create something new.
Ryan: As a young black woman from Detroit, I do hit a wall of negative expectations a lot. Some people might think, “this little girl doesn't know what she's doing.” I just plow over that, but it can get annoying. Sometimes you've got to really push your credentials over other people’s stereotypes.
JenClare: There are so many stereotypes that are presented to me as an Asian-American female. I've explored the usual ones you hear: the nerdy math genius, the submissive young schoolgirl and the oh-so-common Filipino nurse, to name a few. On the other end, I've also explored some typical American stereotypes: the rebellious teenager and the all-American girl next door.There are grains of salt to all of these, but I've learned that we are who we are, we like what we like, and no one should tell us otherwise.
Marsha: I’m very committed to using my art as a means to tell this mid-century Detroit story. One of the things that I believe I’ve been put here to do is to tell the story of what has been in Detroit. That story is disappearing with every death of an elder in our community, and I want to keep that story from going to the grave.
This ties to my other task as an artist, to vehemently express the fact that the people who have been here have value. This is not a ghost town, nor a blank canvas. We are not invisible. I express that, while also reaching out to newer Detroiters and welcoming them here. Part of my story is the tragic breakdown and traumatic dispersal of people. Detroit has a great need for atonement and a great need for reaching out at the same time.
JenClare: I started spending more time in the city when I started graduate school, and I have been seeing Detroit change. There are more businesses opening, and more places for people to hang out. A lot of the things I've noticed seem to target young professionals.
Even though I see this change, I feel I haven't been in Detroit long enough to really express the amount of change that has happened. There's a lot of new development, especially in Midtown and downtown, but people and families have always been there.
Ryan: Detroit has been changing for as long as I've lived here. All cities evolve. Change isn't scary or unique to me. There are a lot of new developments in neighborhoods and downtown, and “placemaking” is the word of the day. I'm excited about that, as my work with Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts is about celebrating and creating a sense of place through the arts.
I'm excited about collaborations between urban farmers and artists. I'm excited about urban homesteading, because Detroit has always looked like a giant city farm to me. Now people are recognizing it, and I'm not the crazy one anymore!
There are so many organizations and artists making great community-based work. There's gentrification - there are lots of newcomers who have no clue and think they alone are God's gift to Detroit - but there's also an influx of new residents who just want to be here because they love the culture and want to contribute, not exploit. I meet more people who are collaborating, listening and contributing than those who aren’t.
I'm still in love with Detroit. I'm making an homage to Detroit, to the people who don't live in the glossy parts, to this crazy landscape, with my work.
Marsha: Different cities have different characters, difference essences. Here, there’s something in the water - Detroit has always been a city of arts. Though that is not always acknowledged; because of its proletarian character, it was not regarded as an “arts” city, like say, New York.
I hear people today, particularly those who are new to Detroit, talk about art like it’s something new here, too. But when you see the architecture in this town, for instance, you know those craftspeople were talented artists! The carving, the constructing, the designing of cars, the graphic design, this was a city that was full of artists, but their art was consumed by industry, by productivity, by real estate, by capital. Partly that was a good thing because it helped bring a certain quality of aesthetic life here – and artists didn’t starve in Detroit.
A lot of gifted artists worked in the auto plants and ancillary industries and the service sector; as graphic artists, sculptors, teachers, painters, tool-and-die makers, designers, and more. A lot of art was created in the basements and garages of the city and suburbs, after work hours; many artists created under the radar. The difference today is that Detroit artists have been day-lighted, released from the commercial and industrial maw.
Sherrine: Within the theatre scene in Detroit there aren’t a lot of people who are devising work together with an ensemble in the room, as opposed to following a more traditional, production process. In our process of finding the individuals who are game for it, we come across people who seem to have always had an itch for something beyond the traditional, who want more agency in the creative process. There is no blueprint to go by when we are creating our shows, so a lot of the time we are operating not knowing if we are on track or not. It’s a lot about being vulnerable, but it’s so much more fulfilling for those who are game.
I feel like that mirrors the experience of Detroit in many ways. It is messy and hard and there is a lot of work to be done, but it is exhilarating and it creates a connection like no place else.
Marsha: I come from the arts – growing up in the music world, and from the movement – as did so many of us during those days of intense social change, and I feel gratified by what is happening in Detroit right now; though I’m also wary. For no question, some of the people coming here have some retrograde ideas veiled as progress. But overall, looking at it through my prism of sixty years, I see this positive, optimistic, hopeful energy, very similar to the best days of the social movements of the sixties and seventies. It’s exciting, and I’m totally amazed at the changes that I’ve been able to witness in Detroit in my lifetime.