Upon walking into Detroit Fiber Works on a frigid winter afternoon, 24-year old Waleed Johnson receives a warm reception. Owners Najma Wilson and Mandisa Smith ask Johnson about his family and how he's doing. His gratitude is equally palpable.
That's because, aside from providing shelter from the cold, the multidisciplinary art space rooted in the Avenue of Fashion on Livernois Avenue is a place where local artists feel at home.
"I had my first show here," Johnson says. He had come to an earlier show at Detroit Fiber Works
and let Smith know he was an artist. She immediately invited him to exhibit in her space.
Mandisa Smith, co-owner of Detroit Fiber Works
"We do a lot of things," Smith says. "One of which is sell and show work by local artists." In addition to exhibiting and selling artwork, Detroit Fiber Works also offers craft workshops, housewares, and unique gifts.
Johnson makes large-scale oil paintings with people of color as his subjects. "I try to convey emotion through facial expression and color," he says of his work.
Smith is confident in Johnson's capabilities as an artist. "Waleed's going to be famous one day," she says with a laugh.
This kind of connection between artists like Smith, Johnson, and Wilson is not rare in northwest Detroit—an area home to a robust cultural and creative community. And with the increase in development in the Live6 area, there's an opportunity for artists and institutions to tap into that energy to spur growth.
Using data to forge connections
Rose DeSloover needed a project after retiring. Fortunately, an obvious one presented itself to the professor emeritus of Marygrove College.
DeSloover wanted to give back to the community where she had taught art for years by creating a network of artists living and working in the neighborhoods along Livernois and 6 Mile. The result of her efforts was a survey that collected data on about 120 artists living in the 48221, 48203, and 48235 area codes.
An earlier Kresge effort
mapped creative assets across the city of Detroit, but DeSloover notes that her survey offers a more granular view of the neighborhoods she was concerned with. "This survey we're doing really fits into that [Kresge study] because their survey couldn't say who the people were," she says.
Having a database of artists is already bearing fruit. DeSloover used it to coordinate an exhibit of 27 local artists in September. And plenty of people understand the database's potential. "There's definitely an interest in figuring out ways to use it," DeSloover says.
Now institutions and businesses can connect easily connect with artists, which will prove particularly important as initiatives like the Fitzgerald Project
ramps up. There will no doubt be a need for artistic contributions to the area's renaissance, and local creatives will have a better chance to tap into those opportunities.
DeSloover is also longtime friends with 93-year old Kresge Eminent Artist Charles McGee, a multi-media artist whose work is on permanent display at the Detroit Institute of Arts
. For years, he had a studio across from Marygrove's campus.
McGee cites upcoming changes in the Live6 area as a natural progression. "Change is simply change," he says. "Some of it is great, some of it is miniscule. But it's still change." He feels it is important to leave a legacy in the city and neighborhoods where he was shaped as an artist.
Sculpture by Charles McGee at the commons named after him
That legacy is partially enshrined in the the installation of his artwork at the Charles McGee Commons, a gathering area at the corner of Wyoming and 6 Mile on Marygrove's campus which DeSloover worked to get installed. DeSloover says this space was created with the community in mind, in an effort to make them feel more welcome. She's looking forward to activating the space in the spring with programming to build bridges between the campus and residential communities.
Art as entrepreneurship
For Mandisa Smith, art is not just for arts sake. It's also her livelihood. "One of the good things about being in this space is that we are surrounded by very stable neighborhoods that have been that way for decades," she says. The downside is that the Avenue of Fashion has still not generated enough traffic for her business to flourish.
"The biggest challenge for us is getting customers in the door," Smith says. "We don't want to just show the work, we want to sell the work." Balancing the need to make room for art and artists with her bottom line is a challenge Smith deals with every day.
Art in Detroit Fiber Works
Despite that challenge, there are a number of arts-based businesses in the area. There's neighborhood institutions like Jo's Gallery and Sherwood Gallery, as well as Eric's I've Been Framed
, which is further down Livernois near the University of Detroit Mercy's campus. Other shops like Motown Photography and Art In Motion Ceramic Studio add variety to the creative outlets in the neighborhood. This doesn't take away from the real difficulties that come with running an arts-based business.
Smith says that the empty storefronts don't deter her. The area has been steadily growing and is confident more is coming. But until that tipping point occurs, Detroit Fiber Works will continue to create a welcoming environment for local artists.
This story is part of Model D's "On the Ground" series, which gives voice to the community members, businesses, and developers who make the Live6 neighborhood come alive. Support for this series is provided by the Kresge Foundation.
All photos, except of Chalres McGee Commons, by Bree Gant.