Pascal’s triangle tells us there are a lot of ways to pick a few out of many. Suppose there are exactly 100 artists in Detroit and you have to pick nine for an article: there are roughly 1.9 trillion ways to make those picks. Now further suppose that exactly 83 of those artists are black, more or less matching the overall population of the city percentage-wise. Picking the nine artists randomly, it is highly likely that at least one of them will be black.
Vulture editor Carl Swanson has recently gotten a lot of criticism for an article titled “Is Soho in the ’70s Just a Two-Hour Flight Away? 9 Artists on Why They Live in Detroit.” Swanson mentions the 2010 Census, which counted Detroit’s population as 83% black, before going on to profile nine white artists. If he picked them at random, it’s entirely possible that he would have come up with a list of nine white artists. Weirder things have happened, like bridge players getting the same hands three boards apart.
But Swanson did not pick the artists at random. Presumably he used some subjective criterion, like the artists being good, or an objective criterion, like the artists having won awards. Viewed in this light, the absence of black artists from his list is more than a simple oversight, it is offensive. As the criticism began to roll in, Swanson essentially blamed Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD), who supposedly handpicked the artists for him – he “threw [her] under the bus” is how Richard Horgan characterized it in Media Bistro.
Here is another list of nine Detroit artists. This list was not chosen randomly either, but at least in terms of race, the list is likelier to match a randomly generated list. The artists listed here are good enough to have exhibited formally in at least one art gallery and they all have the means to live in other places if they wanted to. But there will be no questioning of why they live in Detroit, there is no need to apologize for, explain or excuse it.
It’s possible that the proportion of black artists could be reduced if we broaden our definition to include artists who primarily work and show in Detroit but do not necessarily have a home address in the city. But even then, there really are only two valid reasons for a list of Detroit artists to only consist of white artists: either the list was randomly generated, or the potential picks were deliberately limited to white artists and the one doing the picking is upfront about that.
The existence of the list below does not relieve Vulture of an obligation to do a better follow-up than some little note added to the end of an article. But perhaps they should send someone other than Swanson.
At Dell Pryor Gallery, Taurus Burns has exhibited right alongside Bryant Tillman and Prof. Gilda Snowden (who taught at the College for Creative Studies right up to her untimely death). Burns has also exhibited at Detroit Artists Market, 4731, Start, Re:View Contemporary and Sherry Washington to name just a few. His paintings of Detroit landscapes have been characterized as “intimate” by Steven Neavling of the Motor City Muckraker.
She has been around the world and she has exhibited around the world. Born in Romania and having lived in Japan, Sanda Cook still travels but calls Detroit home. In the past few years she has exhibited extensively throughout metro Detroit. She is an accomplished painter, able to work quickly, but also a perfectionist, and recently she has taken to photography quite naturally, exhibiting both paintings and photographs at the Majestic Cafe a few months ago.
Not all the artists on Swanson’s list moved here recently. Greg Fadell was born here. If Swanson had consulted Canvas Detroit authors Julie Pincus and Nichole Christian, it’s likely they would have also named Fadell, who appears in their book.
The notion that Borowy-Reeder would fail to mention Tylonn Sawyer (more on him later) is preposterous and should have been met with severe skepticism. But only Kelly Guillory thought to call the MOCAD director, and discovered that not only was Swanson told about Sawyer, he had been very unclear as to what the article was going to be.
Guillory is the co-author of the graphic novel Blood Money and an expert on making masks. She has been to comic conventions throughout the country and has lately been making the rounds at talk shows like Flashpoint with Devin Scillian. She has exhibited at 4731 and Corktown Studios, where she showed her own take on The Spirit of Detroit and a portrait of Michelle Tanguay.
John Marroquin, Jr.
Born and raised in Detroit, John Marroquin, Jr. is proud of his Mexican heritage, with both of his comic book titles, El Mariachi and Masheeka having Mexican themes. Marroquin has also been to comic conventions throughout the country, and his only formal gallery exhibit so far (at 555 Gallery and Studios, where he paired a pensive Batman with a Basho haiku) may very well be the first of many.
Not many jewelers have exhibited at Re:View Contemporary. Tiff Massey is one of them, with her solo show there taking place shortly before her stay at the Red Bull House of Art. One of the things she has in common with Fadell is that they have both exhibited at Re:View, and she has Red Bull in common with Sawyer.
Which brings us to Tylonn Sawyer, who has exhibited extensively, was at the Red Bull House of Art in 2013, appeared in a nationally televised Red Bull commercial in 2014, was featured in BLAC Detroit a few months ago and is now Youth Program Director at MOCAD. Borowy-Reeder has not made publicly available the list she gave Swanson (nor should she, any good public relations consultant would probably advise), but Sawyer is certainly someone any gallery director would be proud to have on their staff.
One of the most prestigious awards is the Kresge Fellowship, and Carl Wilson was one of its recipients in 2013. The former automotive worker is now a printmaker, and as curator at the Virgil Carr Center helps many Detroit artists.
She’s last but only because this list goes in alphabetical order by last name. With Daniel Sperry, she founded What Pipeline, an art gallery in Southwest Detroit. Like Fadell, Zivich also appeared in Swanson’s list. Swanson quotes her comparing Michigan to Frankfurt, where she lived for a time.