Muralist builds bridges between Detroit’s past, present


The artist Nicole MacDonald enjoys seeing her work in galleries – and she has been to many from Detroit to the Netherlands. Seeing her pictures grace the boarded-up windows of the Big B Liquor Party Store is a whole different experience.

MacDonald prefers the Detroit Party Store. Or the abandoned warehouse on the Grand River. Or the renovated house in North Corktown, just to name a few places in Detroit where her pictures are hung for everyone to see.

“A liquor store is a whole different level, people day and night. It’s free, ”said MacDonald. “I really like this accessibility.”

MacDonald’s public art serves an important new purpose, claim its patrons. Her large, affectionate portraits of people and places in Detroit serve as a bridge between residents old and new, preserving local history at a time of growing concerns about gentrification.

Big B Liquor is located on the corner of Trumbull and Interstate 94 on the edge of Tom Adams Field at Wayne State University. It’s in Woodbridge, one of the many parts of Detroit that has been MacDonald’s muse for decades. Her party store images are solemn, larger-than-life portraits of Detroit’s past and present. Among the portraits: the musician Sixto Rodriguez, subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Searching for Sugar Man”; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Philip Levine; and Naomi Long Madgett, Detroit high school teacher and founder of Lotus Press.

“I want to show everyday people, people who fought on behalf of their fellow citizens,” MacDonald said. “A liquor store is better suited to this than a gallery.”

Motor City has long inspired 37-year-old MacDonald. It inspired the native Detroiters during the time when empty buildings grew like weeds, just like the people who lived here inspired them with their resilience.

She learned to paint as a child in extension courses at the College for Creative Studies downtown. She spent her high school years at Grosse Pointe Park and attended the University of Michigan to study philosophy and anthropology. After graduation, she returned to Detroit.

MacDonald is entering a new era: an economic comeback. She lives in the Cass Corridor, which some have renamed Midtown and Greater Downtown. The latter term refers to 7.2 square kilometers of the city that is home to mostly white residents who tend to come from wealthier backgrounds than longtime Detroiters and where property prices are rising.

Unsurprisingly, tension occasionally emerges between long-standing and newer residents.

“Sometimes I hear vintage cars like me saying things like, ‘Do the new people really know something about the neighborhood? Are you interested? ‘ ” She said.

MacDonald is impressed: “For me it is so full of amazing artists, activists, educators that it is just a pleasure to tell this story and to share this story.”

The Party Store is just one of the spaces showing MacDonald’s homage to Detroiters. An abandoned warehouse on the Grand River and off I-94 is adorned with 11 portraits of more Detroiters she respects. Among them are activist Grace Lee Boggs, jazz musician Yusef Lateef, Chief Pontiac, and 19th century governor Hazen Pingree.

She is currently working on a portrait of the Buddha for the Still Point Zen Buddhist temple, located in a Victorian house in Trumbull, Woodbridge. Buddha was not a local resident, of course, but MacDonald said she was happy to help celebrate a place of worship and peace.

MacDonald’s work is increasingly in demand in those parts of Detroit that have the greatest influx of new residents. She continues to work with her longtime patron, Larry John, who has bought and renovated homes in Woodbridge for decades. She recently worked for the nonprofit that runs the Eastern Market and various galleries. She rarely works as a paralegal these days, which has kept her financially alive in the past.

Most of her art commissions are under $ 5,000. “Sometimes I work on things and maybe I make a profit, maybe not,” she said.

She is often hired by Detroit residents who want MacDonald to celebrate someone who made Detroit great for them. A recent example is a two-story portrait of Mary Ellen Riordan, the former longtime president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers. It’s on the side of a house in North Corktown on Cochrane and Martin Luther King. It was commissioned by local developer Jon Zemke who, along with his wife Kristin Lukowski, began renovating Detroit real estate in 2009.

“Riordan is my great-aunt and one of the key people who introduced me to Detroit,” said Zemke, who grew up near Ann Arbor. “She was so accommodating; She introduced us to the Catholic Church that we are still going to. Overall, I have so much respect for her. “

Originally, Zemke only wanted people to stop graffiti on his rental property. Then he realized he could make it a tribute to an important Detroiter. He also wanted to show his support for teachers in the competitive Detroit Public Schools system.

“Nicole is such an open person. The process of working with her, with the kind of honest, sincere approach she has, ”said Zemke. The marking of the property has stopped, he noted.

MacDonald remembers working on the mural when one of the best things that could happen to her happened.

“A group of students went by and they stopped and said, ‘Who is this? ‘and I had the opportunity to tell them, ”she said. “That’s what public art is about. It’s empowerment. “

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Twitter: @LouisAguilar_DN


Dusty Kennedy