SLAW Meets Norman Rockwell

In the fall of 1946, when artist Norman Rockwell climbed a ladder in the lounge of Detroit's illustrious Scarab Club to sign one of the exposed ceiling beams known collectively as "the guestbook," the 52-year-old had made a career extolling the simple, noble joys of domesticity. During the preceding five years in particular, when the nation's sons were fighting across the Atlantic, his oil paintings for the Saturday Evening Post were a balm for the war-weary, reminding readers on the home front that their men were preserving a cherished way of life. Mothers were still tucking their children into bed, kids still making mischief, neighbors still gossiping.

More than 60 years after Rockwell's visit to Detroit, on a Friday last month, an artist named SLAW sits in his studio on the third floor of the Scarab Club discussing his own plans to put domestic life on canvas. The lifelong Detroiter, who studied at the city's College for Creative Studies, has for some time explored his love affair with the mid-century cocktail party — what would ensue "if the Rat Pack met the Jetsons," as he puts it — but is now planning to take his work in a "darker" direction by depicting the "1970s mom who's self-medicating." (Think of the voluptuously listless Angelina Jolie as Brad Pitt's cocktail-clutching wife in the searing fictional photo story of marital ennui Steven Klein shot for the July 2005 issue of W magazine.)

There are generations and an ocean of artistic sensibility separating Rockwell and SLAW, but the two are joined by a strong tether: their place in a timeless, unbounded community of men and women devoted to the fine arts. It was to honor and promote this community that a group of Detroit artists and art patrons, who met informally after lectures at the Detroit Museum of Art, established the Scarab Club in 1907. Named after the Egyptian symbol of rebirth, the group devoted itself to the perpetual renewal of the arts in Detroit.

While the Scarab Club has followed an arced trajectory of social and artistic influence over the past hundred years, it remains a cherished symbol of Detroit's historical relevance. It is also an important source of funding, education, and inspiration for the city's artists and art connoisseurs, hosting or sponsoring sketch sessions, art lectures, exhibitions, social events and fundraisers.

The Farnsworth digs

It's impossible to separate the Scarab Club from the building it occupies, which was designed, constructed and decorated by its own membership in 1928. Located on Farnsworth just a few hundred feet from the Detroit Institute of Arts, the clubhouse has for 80 years served as a nexus for Detroit's notables, bringing together the who's who of art, industry, business and politics for the promotion of the arts and for newsmaking social affairs. (Life magazine in 1937 devoted two pages to the Scarab Club's annual themed costume ball, which was for years the single most important social event in Detroit).
The smooth brick edifice, which sits on local, city and national historic registries, is fairly unassuming in the back and on its sides, save for the abstract Phoenix by sculptor Stephen Veresh on the west façade (representative of the rebirth of Detroit and the club). The front of the clubhouse showcases delicate, sophisticated elements of Northern Italian Renaissance style, including Moorish designed cutout stonework, leaded glass casement windows, Moorish decorated mosaics, and a large ceramic scarab, basking serenely in the inimitable blue, green, yellow and brown glazes of Detroit's own Pewabic Pottery.
Inside, the clubhouse bears innumerable marks of the men and women who have worked and played within its walls throughout the decades, from stained-glass windows and furniture designed by members to the paintings, taken from the club's archives, that grace the walls. Most of the first floor is devoted to a large gallery space, which is open to the public and hosts four invitational and four juried exhibits each year. Just inside the front door, steps lead up to the foyer through a square entrance around which Detroit muralist and club board member Dennis Orlowski this year painted a centennial tribute to the club. Orlowski's mural features a faux brick wall and stained glass rose window encasing the club's titular insect. Below the window are a painter's palette and a rendering of the club's 1915 holiday party invitation, representing the club's artistic and social relevance. Between these are reed pens used by the Egyptian scribes who wrote cartouches and thus made art instrumental to civilization.

No visit to the Scarab Club is complete without a visit to the second-floor lounge — also open to the public — which boasts the beams bearing not only Rockwell's signature but those of more than 230 of the 20th century's most significant artists. Fine arts enthusiasts will reel to see the Hancocks of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, French Dadaist Marcel DuChamp, American pianist Van Cliburn, American artist and activist Pablo Davis, Michigan poet laureate Edgar Guest, and Juliana Force, the first director of New York's Whitney Museum (and, in 1947, the first woman to sign the beam).

The lounge also features the Scarab family tree mural, designed and executed in 1928 by artist Paul Honore, which pays tribute to drama, music, literature, printing, graphic arts and architecture. Metal and mica art deco chandeliers, designed by Scarab Club member Victor Toothaker, straddle the famous beams, and member-crafted photographs, paintings and collages line the walls. Just off the lounge is the Historic Room — formerly the dining room — which is used mainly for administrative functions. The room is worth a glance if only for its pendant lamps, whose metal rims feature cutout designs depicting a fish-baiting hook, a bear and a beehive, a harried waiter, and other scenes relating to the service of members' meals.

The artists

The third floor is divided into six private studios, each of which is configured in a loft manner to maximize space. The rooms are rented by local artists, who enjoy ample light and ventilation from the large vertical windows. Artists traditionally open their spaces to the public during the Detroit Festival of the Arts, Noel Night, and for club fundraisers and exhibition receptions.

Pat Duff, whose mixed media works include "figure landscapes" that treat the contours of the human body as geographical planes, recently secured one of the studios, something she says she waited 20 years for. Duff, who shares her studio with artist Carolyn Keith, says the connection to artists and artistic venues afforded by the space is the greatest advantage to membership.

"When you work at home you are so isolated," says Duff, a former instructor at Macomb Community College, Wayne State University, Henry Ford Community College and other local schools. She praises the architectural details of the studios and their split levels. "You can work and then get away to reflect on what you've done," she says "You don't have to leave the studio to get away from the work."

Artists are also given carte blanche to decorate the spaces. SLAW, who shares his studio with photographer VATO, created a "quasi-retro living room" on the lower level, with a 1930's cigarette machine, modular chairs and couches in orange, mustard and black, and atomic age chrome lamps. A cocktail shaker and bartending accoutrements crown the tiled bar, which anyone can sign provided they are nude (according to the edict posted on an adjacent wall), and a Pepsi machine from the club's earlier days sits in a corner, chilling beer.

SLAW marvels over the sense of continuity he feels in the studio.

"I love the fact that this place has always been exactly what it is," he says, as the voice of a young Frank Sinatra drifts lazily through the room. "There were artists here doing exactly what I do 80 years ago. I feel like I'm carrying on a legacy. In Detroit, unfortunately the culture gets missed, and anyway we can perpetuate that is really important."

The club shares his sentiment. According to Executive Director Christine Renner, the club's two priorities are restoration projects to upgrade the heating, cooling and electrical systems and the recruitment and retention of young members. The club has rallied admirably since the 1970s, when membership dipped to about 125 individuals, by bringing its present-day roster to roughly 270 individuals and corporations. But that membership is aging.

"We realize that the baton has to be passed on to younger members if the club is going to remain in existence," says Renner, who came to the club three years ago from her post as executive director of the downtown development authority and chamber of commerce of Blissfield, MI.

To attract young adults to its Egyptian-themed costume ball fundraiser in September, the club asked local tattoo artist Mark Heggie to design an edgy cartoon Scarab for marketing materials. The club is also considering a scholarship for young art students and cocktail parties and brunches to attract potential young members.

As SLAW sees it, an investment in young people will preserve not just the club but Detroit.

"I'm committed to this city," he said. "There's so much culture, but it's underground. If everybody leaves, what do you have left? In the '20s and '30s this was such a huge, vibrant city. There's no reason it shouldn't be one now."

Midtown's Noel Night is a great chance for the public to visit the Scarab Club and surrounding Cultural Center attractions for free. This year's Noel Night is Dec. 1 from 5 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Click here for more info.


SLAW in his studio

The Scarab Club

Gallery Space

The Phoenix, by sculptor Stephen Veresh

The Lounge

SLAW's Attic Studio and Work

Stained Glass Window looking out towards the Gardens in the Gallery

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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