Gardening As A Gateway

Russell’s friend Emily Staugaitis is one of those people who seems to be a kind of natural difference-maker.  Where other people see challenges she can identify opportunities, and she’s not afraid to tackle a big project — like trying to set up an urban apple orchard in a depressed part of the Detroit area.

https3a2f2fcdn-evbuc-com2fimages2f223578392f1807581212702f12foriginalOne of Emily’s projects is Bandhu Gardens.  It’s a collective effort that uses gardening to help Bangladeshi immigrants in the Detroit area use the green thumbs they developed while growing up in south Asia to connect with each other, and with local restaurants that are interested in fresh, locally grown foods.  It’s also a way for Bangladeshi women to make some extra money, achieve more autonomy in their households, and get a taste of the business world in our capitalistic society.

Last year, the Bandhu Gardens group collectively sold 120 pounds of greens, beans and peppers and 25 pounds of squash to restaurant accounts.  They’ve also hosted “pop-up” dinners, including some at local restaurants owned or operated by women, have begun to offer cooking classes, and this year will be selling their produce at a large public farmers market in Detroit.

It’s a classic American immigrant story, of how people come to our country and begin to make their way forward, drawing on their traditional experiences and know-how and applying them to realize opportunities in their new home.  Sometimes, though, it helps to have someone who can help to point out the openings and make the potential opportunities into realities.  Congratulations to Emily for helping to serving in that important role for some of the new arrivals to our land of immigrants!

Emily Appleseed

One of Russell’s friends and fellow Cranbrook Academy graduates is interested in urban farming.  Emily has started a fruit farm in the middle of Detroit on some derelict property, in hopes of bringing fruit and a neighborhood resource to families in the area who don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s an incredibly cool idea that shows that, once again, one person and a dream can really make a difference in America.

Emily’s efforts are being chronicled in a Detroit Journal video series called Emily Appleseed.  You can watch the first episode above.  Russell himself makes an appearance in the second video, below, helping to clear the property and following a tractor to turn the soil.  He looks like a natural farmer.  His grandfather, Bill Kishman, who was a farmer for many years, would be proud.  The rest of the series can be found on YouTube.

Blowing Things Up

Let’s face it:  many of us like seeing things get blown up.  The entire Die Hard movie franchise is, effectively, based on that one crucial assumption about movie audiences.

When it comes to buildings being demolished, we might rationalize that we like to see the engineering wizardry, precision of the placement of the charges and the careful timing that allows the toppling building to fall just so — but really we just like to see things get blown up and collapsing in a huge, billowing cloud of gritty dust.

So it is with the implosion of the abandoned Park Avenue Hotel in Detroit, which was demolished a few days ago to make way for the new Red Wings arena.  As the hosts of SCTV’s Farm Film Report would have said, “it blowed up real good!”

Detroit, On The (Cutting) Edge

Russell decided to stay in Detroit, in part, because he felt a certain energy there, and in part because it is so affordable.  After living for a few years in Brooklyn, he knew how ridiculously expensive living the New York City artists’ life had become.

IMG_5170As always, Russell has a pretty good set of antenna for a developing trend.  A few days ago the New York Times carried an article about how NYC artists are moving to Detroit for the same reasons Russell has long articulated.  Why not?  Detroit is a cosmopolitan city.  There is still a lot of art-buying wealth there, as well as space galore and buildings available at prices that New York City artists couldn’t even conceive.

There’s a certain vibe to Detroit, too.  The article linked above refers to “ruin porn” — an apt phrase that captures the kind of slack-jawed wonder at the decaying cityscapes that we have noticed in our visits there and reported from time to time on this blog.  The dereliction not only makes you ponder how a great city fell so far, but also what can be done to raise it back up again.  Part of the allure of Detroit for young artists and other risk-takers is the chance to be part of what could be a great story of urban renaissance.  For an artist, that sense of frontier-like opportunity not only is bound to stoke the creative fires, but it also gives the city’s art scene a certain cachet that may well attract attention — and art sales.

I’m rooting for Detroit.

Urban Entrepreneurialism

IMG_5361The downfall, many problems, and staggering challenges of Detroit have been abundantly chronicled, here and elsewhere.  During our visits to Cranbrook, in the Motor City’s metropolitan area, Kish and I have been awed by the magnitude of Detroit’s predicament.  With entire neighborhoods falling apart, acres of rubble where once there were productive, tax-paying employers, and burned out and abandoned houses and derelict commercial buildings and former factories around every corner, where do you start?

It seems clear that local government can’t lead the recovery process.  The task is too overwhelming, and the city of Detroit simply doesn’t have the money or the manpower.  If there is going to be a renaissance of sorts, it will be led by by individuals who are willing to commit, invest their own money and sweat equity, and take the personal and financial risks that inevitably come with being the first in on the urban renewal effort.

IMG_5359Russell has decided to become part of this risk-taking process. He’s leased studio space in a gritty building in Highland Park, one of the Detroit neighborhoods that is struggling to recover.  His studio is in what was a manager’s office of a formerly abandoned industrial building that once was home to squatters.  The factory was purchased by a sculptor from New Zealand named Robert Onnes, who saw artistic opportunity in the building’s high ceilings, open spaces, and many windows.  Onnes will be using some of the vast interior space as his metal-working studio, and now Russell and some of his Cranbrook classmates are also part of the vanguard.

The building is very much a work in progress, with lots of work to be done in improved weatherproofing and power supply among many other issues, but a look at what it was when it was first acquired shows that it has made progress already.  When we moved some of Russell’s materials in to his space over the weekend, the owner was there supervising work on the building.  Russell and the other can-do artists no doubt will be supplying some elbow grease to improve their studio spaces, too.

It’s just one building in a vast and deeply troubled urban area — but perhaps it’s a start.

Cranbrook Open Studios And House-Warming Party

This weekend it was back up to Cranbrook for the Open Studios event, where all of the artists open their studios to the public.  It’s a great chance to see what the students are working on — and it’s also a reason for them to straighten up their cluttered spaces, too.

IMG_5229This is a very busy time for the Cranbrook kids, and particularly so for Russell and some of his fellow graduating students.  They not only are showing their work at the Open Studios and in the Cranbrook Art Museum, but they’ve also decided to stage a group exhibition of their artwork in downtown Detroit.  Called House-Warming Party, the exhibition features pieces from Russell and 11 other Cranbrook artists.  The show, located at 2170 Mack Avenue in Detroit, is open on Saturday and Sundays from 1-6 p.m. and by appointment between now and May 10.

I know Russell has been burning the candle at both ends on this last big push before graduation, and I hope he gets a chance to rest a bit.  But his artwork at Open Studios looked great and seemed to attract a very interested crowd.  And I think the notion of Russell and some of his classmates venturing off the picturesque Cranbrook campus to stage an exhibition and engage with the artistic community in the city is very cool, indeed.  The grit and grime and spunk and comeback spirit of Detroit clearly has  influenced Russell’s art, and having a show is a good way to make a payback of sorts to the Motor City.

Kish and I will be seeing House-Warming Party when we go up for graduation.  If you are in Detroit between now and May 10, I encourage you to visit the Cranbrook Museum and the House-Warming Party to see what some up-and-coming artists are doing.  You can get more information about the latter at housewarmingshow@gmail.com.

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