Restoring memories and forging futures with Carl Nielbock of CAN Art Handworks

On the fringes of the Eastern Market district, curious passersby can see an anomalous little compound where a collection of metal windmills peeks above a wooden privacy fence enclosed by an elaborate metal-wrought gate.

Inside that fence and gate is Carl Nielbock's CAN Art Handworks, a metalsmithing facility that specializes in the restoration of historic architectural metalwork, but also the living and working space for one of Detroit's most dynamic and esoteric thinkers.

"Remember Bygone Battles. Prepare for the Next."

This directive is printed on one of the many reference boards that populate the research and development floor of Carl Nielbock's sprawling campus of innovation. Nielbock's work—which has unfolded over the last 30 years in Detroit and has roots reaching back to his native homeland of Germany—contains myriad and overlapping ambitions, but might best be summed up in this simple mission statement: learn from history in preparation for the future.

A hand-built metal eagle, alongside a fraction of Nielbock's African art collection

That history includes Nielbock's own fascinating story, which he 
tells from his comfortable perch in a deck chair on the middle tier of a 36-foot "sky garden"—a three-story sort of industrialized Hanging Garden of Babylon, bedecked with potted plants and supported by four salvaged Detroit light poles. 

Nielbock comes from the union of his father, a Detroit-native and WWII soldier, and his German mother. His early experiences as a person of mixed race in post-war Celle, Germany included his intensive training as a skilled metalsmith under the tutelage of monks in Celle, and a sense of alienation that in part caused him to seek out his father in Detroit.

Aftering finding his father and family, Nielbock then leveraged his craftsman training to make a start for himself in the business of reconstructing the architectural, ornamental metalwork that is the fading legacy of Detroit's more affluent days.
Nielbock poses on one of his engineering projects
"Fine hand-crafted work—like stained glass windows, the forging and blacksmithing and casting that adorned the buildings, monuments, statues, and so forth—that made this civilized society right here, and the richest city of the United States," says Nielbock.

The master metalworker has restored architectural details in private homes in Indian Village and Boston Edison, well-known public structures such as the Fox Theater, and historical fixtures such as the cannons at Fort Wayne.

But for Nielbock, metalsmithing goes beyond livelihood and into obsession; in his mind, the former architectural virtuosity of Detroit represents almost spiritual significance. And holds the key to its future. "America is so fast-changing," he says, "and I think we forget to take with us the benefits that some of the previous great people left behind, make it possible that we can exist right here."

For Nielbock, living these values is as much about creating new innovations as it is restoring details from history. Visitors to the sky garden can survey his collection of hand-crafted, low-altitude wind turbines fashioned from salvaged light poles, scrap metal, and satellite dishes, spinning energetically in the breeze.

When he speaks of the gifts of the past, Nielbock is both figurative and literal. In a YouTube video on CAN Art's channel, Nielbock outlines his vision to restore the estimated 80,000 light poles in Detroit, which until very recently were notoriously nonfunctional. The city has since replaced them with new solar-powered light poles—a decision that Nielbock regards as something of a missed opportunity.

"The light poles [were] our civic assets, that [had] already been paid for by another generation on the pretense that they're going to stick around and not be crushed in for the worth of the scrap money," says Nielbock, during our interview. "Restoring them would reinstate the skilled trade that originally built them. It would teach a curriculum and bring people to work that are maybe not academically inclined but good with their hands, to a fair wage, creating value."

Nielbock has a deep hunger to share his ideas, offering intermittent tours and training sessions to Detroit Public School students, and a seemingly limitless supply of ambitious restoration projects percolating in the research offices of the CAN Art Handworks compound. He is convinced that Detroit could be a leader in wind turbine manufacturing. The ones he's created on-site are in their fifth year of continuous running, withstanding all the fluctuations of Michigan weather.

That's more than can be said for the single, massive DTE turbine, just visible from the top of the sky-garden tower. "That only ran for a couple of years," sniffs Nielbock. "All their eggs in one expensive basket."

Nielbock's replicas of the Four Virtues statues that once adorned the clock tower. The head and shoulders of the originals each stood as tall as a man

Another of Nielbock's obsessions is the restoration of the old
City Hall clock towerbuilt in 1871 and demolished in 1961, once standing with Campus Martius in its courtyard. His desire to rebuild this historic landmark reflects Nielbock's belief that the building holds a kind of spiritual significance in the consciousness of the city.

[was once] the wealthiest city in America," he says. "We had the biggest building, the most innovation—it made us the 'Paris of the West'—and you can see it when you go in the library and look at these old photos."

It would be easy to write Nielbock off as a dreamer, if it weren't for his impressive ability to realize his projects. His work touches every corner of CAN Art Handworks: his office, filled with architectural renderings, schematics, and his handmade replicas of the statues of the Four Virtues that once adorned the City Hall clock tower; his workshop, filled with impressively burly and touchingly tender metalworks; his living space, housing an astonishing collection of African art—an interest that budded from his explorations of his father's history—and whose research uncovered ancient West African metal-casting techniques that predated those taught to Nielbock in Celle by hundreds, if not thousands, of years; his investigations into the history of Detroit landmarks—including the Battle of Bloody Run, which took place right along the grounds of CAN Art Handworks, and which Nielbock has commemorated with abstracted metalwork Indians perched along the reconstructed riverbanks in the lot adjoining his property.

Nielbock dreams big, but never takes his eye off the prize. He is a true Detroiter, one who remembers bygone battles, and is constantly forging tools in preparation for the next.
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Read more articles by Sarah Rose Sharp.

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, photographer, and multimedia artist whose articles have appeared in "Art in America," "Hyperallergic," "Flash Art," "ArtSlant," and others.