I recently wrote an article about the Detroit art scene for Chicago’s New Art Examiner, focusing on three organizations/projects that seemed to me to exemplify important features of Detroit and its artists right now. 1XRun, Playground Detroit and the North End neighborhood’s American Riad project demonstrate the entrepreneurial creativity, DIY energy, and artistic/social inclusiveness that I see in the city. I’m sorry I couldn’t write about more of the Detroit’s great galleries and projects, but that would take a book, not a magazine article. To read what I wrote, go here
Sculptures spill out over the lawn of Kegham Tazian’s neat suburban home as if the restless creative impulse inside can’t be contained. Tazian, a trim and cordial man with salt-and-pepper hair, meets me at the door, and ushers me into an interior where hundreds of sculptures and paintings are neatly displayed, evidence of nearly 60 years well spent as a prolific and productive artist in Detroit. Like architects Eliel Saarinan and Albert Kahn and sculptor Corrado Parducci, he is an immigrant creative who has found a home in the city, nurtured by its energy and sheltered by its community.
Tazian’s story begins in Turkey, where his family was part of a persecuted Armenian minority. His mother, displaced during the troubled times of World War I that culminated in the Armenian genocide, was taken to Beirut, Lebanon as a child to study in a Catholic convent. During a lull in the unrest, her family moved her back to Turkey, but after her marriage and the birth of her 5 children – of which Kegham was the youngest at 1 year old–the entire family relocated to Lebanon with the support of the French government. Tazian’s father died when he was 4, and his mother carried on raising the family alone. Their first years in Lebanon were difficult. “My mom is my hero,“ Tazian says. “She couldn’t read or write, but she spoke 4 languages… She never asked for any help.” Tazian recalls, “[when] I was 7 years old, along with my 3 brothers and my mom, we would walk some 8-10 miles one way to pick potatoes and onions.”
Tazian developed an early ambition to become an artist, even though he had very little exposure to the arts. “My background was completely zero in art. There were no classes in elementary school or high school. I went to two different high schools, and none of them had art, but in my mind I always planned to be an artist.”
“The only person [who encouraged me] was my 5th grade English teacher, Olivia Balian,” he says. “She really opened the doors of art for me. She said, ‘Those students who are interested in art can stay behind after school and I will show you how to paint and draw.’ Somehow [that] changed my life– she gave me that spark.”
When one of Tazian’s older brothers started a successful button-making business, giving the family some stability and making study abroad financially feasible, Tazian came to the U.S. to study at St. Francis College in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Tazian humorously recalls his lack of preparation: “When I came there … to an art school, I had no idea what an art school [was]!” Somehow, in spite of this, he earned a bachelors degrees in art and a masters in art education, and then managed to get admitted to Wayne State University in Detroit, where he went on to receive an MFA in sculpture in 1966. For the next 47 years, he taught art at Oakland Community College’s Orchard Ridge Campus in Farmington Hills, while maintaining an active studio practice, showing his work regularly in galleries around the country and fulfilling numerous commissions for public art in the Detroit area.
Kegham Tazian is a kind of magpie artist, always on the sharp-eyed lookout for materials that spark his creative impulse. Ruined styrofoam from a job site, a cow bone, a battered oil pan, a discarded circuit board – all of these apparently un-prepossessing materials have found their way into his work. He collects and combines objects he finds in the environment and enters into a dialog with them to create a finished painting or sculpture. “I’m open minded …If I see something in nature, then that becomes part of my art work… More than anything else I’m curious about how I can express myself, in what medium.” He continues, “I never know from one day to the next what I’ll do. It all happens in that moment. One of the luxuries I’ve had is teaching – a steady income – so I never [had to] weigh doing something the public likes so I can make my car payments or house payments.”
Asked about his creative influences, Tazian takes a panoramic view. “When it comes to… the idea of uniqueness, I always say, I’m indebted to the first person, man or woman, who did something in a cave.” He is dismissive of the idea of the artist as a solitary, heroic figure. “To me, it’s all work,” he says. “We’re all walking that same road, just maybe in a slightly different way… the idea of originality – I don’t really believe in it…all you’re doing is making a variation on what others who have preceded you have done. So you put your own stamp on it.”
Since his retirement from teaching in 2014, Tazian has, if anything, increased his creative output. He is currently preparing for a solo show of his recent work at Detroit’s highly respected Galerie Camille, from October 3 – 10. Among the planned 40 artworks on display will be new limestone and bronze sculptures, multi-media paintings and computer-aided works on paper, evidence – if any were still needed – of the artist’s continuing curiosity and restless energy.
For more information about the exhibit Kegham Tazian: A Journey Through Art go here
This is the first essay in an ongoing series about Detroit artists, curators and gallerists, with an emphasis on the city’s emerging art ecosystem.
The Detroit art scene right now is a funny place, a multi-venue stage for unorthodox performance, experimental installation and a playground for talented art newcomers, recently minted BFAs, and self-taught makers and doers. Art venues emerge, move and close at a disorienting pace, and the skills of a treasure hunter are required to keep track of them all, but constant throughout this ever-changing and evolving art ecosystem are a few artists whose instantly identifiable work shows up regularly all around Detroit.
Alexander Buzzalini, painter, printmaker and installation artist, is one of these itinerant and ubiquitous makers. I’ve seen his work in prestigious galleries like N’namdi Center for Contemporary Art and Wasserman Projects and in less exalted settings like Bumbo’s Bar and Public Pool. In spite of his use of a wide variety of formats and materials, Buzzalini’s work is always identifiable and relatable, with its comic wild west subject matter, saturated color and gestural pizzazz.
I was curious about the source of Buzzalini’s inspiration and motivation, how he gets along in Detroit and why he stays, when other millennial artists might decamp for Brooklyn or L.A. So I contacted him in search of some insights about what it’s like to live and make art right now in Detroit. We arranged to meet at Outer Limits, a venerable Hamtramck dive bar near his studio. When I arrived on a still-chilly April afternoon, I immediately noticed the bar’s proudly retro décor, which clearly hadn’t seen an update since the Carter administration. The bartender and I exchanged a few pleasantries until Buzzalini walked in a few minutes later, bearded and paint spattered, clearly just off work. We ordered our beers and dug right in, in classic Hamtramck fashion, to talk about art.
As it turns out, Buzzalini is a local boy, born and raised in Pontiac, MI, just north of Detroit. He moved to the city in 2012 to attend Wayne State University, where he studied printmaking with Stanley Rosenthal and Pam Delaura. After he got his BFA (summa cum laude), he saw no reason to leave. “I basically just stayed here,” he says. He has found a group of like-minded artists and writers like Steve Hughes and John Charnota, printmaker Ryan Stanfest and designer Jack Craig. Together, they produce publications, organize exhibits and generally bounce ideas off each other for their mutual benefit.
I asked him how he became interested in painting American frontier western themes. “The western has such a deep tradition in American culture,” he replied, adding, ”it’s also that internationally the western is seen as a purely American genre.” The American movie western represents an archetype of what an American is, but Buzzalini is well aware that vintage movie westerns are a reductive and simplistic representation of American manhood. Over time, he said, “I really started looking and paying attention to [these] things, and pointing to that façade. But I liked the idea of [examining] what is real and what is not real.” He went on:
I like to tell the story that when I was 12 or 13, I was in Colorado hiking through the mountains with my uncle and my cousin, and he says, “Stop , wait, look at that rock!”
“What?” And I say, “Yeah that’s a rock.”
And he says, “No, come here, look.” And he poked it, and it’s just a fake rock made of chicken wire and plaster from some John Wayne movie, left here after all this time.”
The anecdote gets to the heart of Buzzalini’s work, questioning received notions of masculinity, nationality and identity.
The images in Buzzalini’s painting are clearly theatrical and satirical. He subverts the manly images he paints. The cowboy boots are red and pointy, his guns droop, and even the cow skulls are wearing lipstick. “That’s my approach to dealing with what is masculinity… today, using the historical references to the western, where male roles are so prominent … I’m taking that example and making fun of it, [to] tell young people today, including myself, what it means to be masculine is just fabricated by Hollywood… I think people are beginning to be interested in ideas about questioning their identities and where those identities came from and [realizing that] they are fabricated by these larger corporate things.”
Buzzalini’s cowboy paintings are quick and loose, with gestural, almost cartoonish, brush strokes, “I tend to work quick, and on multiple things at once, because I have a hard time sitting and working on one painting and waiting for it to dry. I like [to make] quick paintings… they’re kind of like drawings, and [the speed creates] a good kind of pressure.” He continues, “It’s drippy and sometimes… I use certain mediums, mix it with paint and add water… part of it is I like the drips. It adds fluidity, gives immediacy, and from the physical aspect of the actual painting I can make one continuous brush stroke. I work fast, it’s gestural, it’s the way I’ve always painted except when I was forced not to, (and then it didn’t turn out too good.”)
When asked about what media interest him most now, given his background in printmaking and the numerous installation pieces he has exhibited recently, Buzzalini still pledges his allegiance to painting. “[I’m interested mostly in] painting, [even though] the last show I did was a two person show with John Charnota … at Public Pool. It was called 100 Beavers and I did do a couple of wood block prints for that, and a series of silkscreens…that involved doing this installation of a beaver dam on the back wall with all these sticks that were cut outs. …The beaver show was kind of a leap and speaks to [my aim for] a [high] level of productivity … it was a lot of work, and [I was] speaking of productivity as a way of projecting self-worth–that we’re not lazy.” He admitted this might be a particularly midwestern way of thinking about art, in terms of productivity and hard work.
We talked briefly about his current project, some funky, gloppy plaster lamps he made and recently showed at Butter Projects. He says, “I’ve been working on a series of lamps using plaster, inspired by work I did assisting Jack Craig–It’s very strange, weird design–and I thought, “I want to try this!” His description describes nicely how the cross pollination of ideas occurs right now in Detroit.
Our discussion circled around, inevitably, to why he stays in Detroit, what still excites him about it and his future plans. His answer returned to the openness of Detroit’s artist community, the ease of artistic exchange, the wealth of places to show work, and of course, the cheap rents.
“Rents are going up–It’s not as cheap as when I moved here, when you could pay $400 a month for a 1000 square foot flat — now it’s more like $900, he says. “I recently purchased a house. I stay here because the community’s been really good, and it’s growing, not stagnant, and new people are constantly moving in. It’s easy to have a show, even at your house, and get enough people to make it worth your while to set it up. The community’s tight like that. Mostly a lot of my friends are Cranbrook graduates and a small group of people from University of Michigan have started to move in. The community’s close so there’s also the exchange of social gatherings and something [that] has to do with the walkability of the town. That’s what’s keeping me here, stuff like that.”
The non-profit artists’ collective and gallery Hatch Art has purchased Dmytro Szylak’s Hamtramck Disneyland, an extensive outdoor installation of handmade folk art along with the two homes located on the property. Szylak, a Ukrainian immigrant and former GM autoworker, created the work beginning in 1992. It was completed in 1999. He died in 2015 at 92, leaving uncertain prospects for the property and its art.
For a time inheritance disputes left the future uncertain, but recently the homes – and the art – were put on the market with the expressed preference of the seller (although not the requirement) that the work remain intact. To the relief of many, Hatch Art has stepped in to purchase and preserve Hamtramck Disneyland.
Hamtramck Mayor Karen Majewski calls Hamtramck Disneyland “a work of a premiere Hamtamck artist,” a “tourist destination worldwide,” a “neighborhood institution” and an expression of the immigrant and working-class experience in Hamtramck. “There is no alternative but preservation,” she adds.
Scott Collins, president of Hatch Arts’ board of directors, said his group purchased the property after obtaining a private loan. He said they plan to open the houses to tenants this summer, and start restoring and sprucing up the backyard artwork.
One goal is restoring the electric lights around the installation that haven’t worked for years. “We are going to make a lot of extra efforts to preserve the art,” Collins said. “It’s been a landmark in the city for a long time. It’s a great example of Hamtramck history, immigrant history and the independent arts scene.”
To get a tour of this unique site-based installation you can go here
It doesn’t seem possible, but time flies and Hatch Hamtramck has been around now for ten years. In celebration, the non-profit studio and gallery has organized its tenth annual juried exhibit Hatchback 10. This comprehensive exhibit, juried by Detroit art personality James Dozier, features 55 Hatch artists and is on display through April 30.
A celebratory 10th Anniversary Party will be held 6-10 on Saturday, April 30 in the Gallery. The event is free and open to the public.
Hatch is the brainchild of Hatch president Christopher Schneider and Erik Tungate, Hamtramck’s former Director of Community & Economic Development. They saw a need for an artist community that would promote Hamtramck in a positive way, where artists could pool their resources to challenge each other and reach out to the greater community.
United by the shared mission of Education, Expression and Exhibition, the group rapidly gained followers and supporters. Regular meetings were held in community centers, local businesses and artists’ studios. In 2007, Hatch achieved 501[c]3 nonprofit status and developed a full calendar of events. Within its first year of existence, Hatch founded the Detroit chapter of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti Art School, represented Hamtramck artists at 2 art fairs, and hosted concerts, critiques, educational workshops and more.
Hatch purchased the old police station at 3456 Evaline from the City of Hamtramck in 2008. For the next four years, renovations were made, concurrent with fundraising and maintaining a full events schedule. A new roof and central heating system were made possible through grants and crowd sourcing campaigns. Volunteers put in countless hours to help convert the former police station into a space for making and exhibiting art.
Hatch Gallery officially opened in April 2012. Upstairs, studios became available for rent in July and were at full occupancy by the year’s end. Classroom space was finished in March 2013.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting arts writer Sarah Rose Sharp when she served as juror for a show I was in at the Walter E. Terhune Gallery in Perrysburg, Ohio.
Sharp is a recent recipient of a Kresge Grant for her writing on art criticism. She writes for multiple print publications and online platforms such as Art in America. Hyperallergic and Knight Arts to name only a few. In addition to writing long form essays on Detroit artists for Essay’d ( http://essayd.org/), she keeps a lively blog called “Breakfast with an Artist”. In this more informal format, Sharp enters into open-ended discussions with artists on arts issues and the Rustbelt art scene in general. Here is a sample of her style, lifted from her most recent breakfast-with-the-artist post:
“You are not a Detroiter until you have learned the skill of delayed gratification, pride in work for its own sake, patience patience patience (I hate learning this. HATE IT). I am a different person than I was when I first arrived, and I am eternally grateful to Detroit for teaching me how to be that person, not to mention the first communities here that welcomed me, even as a vain and unproven entity, lost in my own searching.”
Pretty eloquent and spot on, right? I also had breakfast with her last week and was energized by her thoughts about the art community in Detroit and environs. If you want to check it out(and you really should) go to: http://sarahrosesharp.com/blog/