Group promoting Detroit art profiles over 100 local artists, releases new book

Detroit is often touted as some of the most creative art in the entire country, with its artists' work regularly featured in galleries around the globe. And yet, the scene still doesn't get the recognition it deserves. 

No one knows this better than the people at Essay'd. The group of three writer-editors, along with a handful of contributors, have profiled more than 100 Detroit artists over nearly four years. They are also about to release a third volume in their book series, Essay'd: 30 Detroit Artists, published by Wayne State University Press.
Cover of Essay'd 3 - Wayne State University Press
This volume, which profiles artists 61 through 90, differs from previous editions in important ways. For one, there is a more varied group of art forms represented, especially among performance artists. 

But more significantly, it greatly expands the number of contributors. In previous volumes, the editors also wrote all but one or two entries. But after winning a $30,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant, they were able to work with 12 guest writers and build capacity. 

And the editors intentionally sought to diversify its base of contributors, seeking out more voices from people of color. That also had a direct impact on who was profiled.

"Our approach has been to connect with a greater diversity of writing voices who will then in turn write about artists who are interesting and important to them," says Essay'd co-founder and co-editor Matthew Piper. "It has considerably increased the diversity of artists we're talking about." 

When Matthew Piper, Dennis Nawrocki, and Steve Pantonbegan began profiling local artists, it was mostly a passion project intended to live online. 

"Our guiding principle was simply to write about art that we, personally, were interested in, and we figured that diversity would follow," Piper says. "But once [the first volume] was bound and had a cover, we realized that 24 of the 30 artists were white. We were very concerned with that lack of representation because of the authoritative nature of a book."

One of the artists covered in the latest book is Maya Stovall, a dancer-documentarian and the only Detroit artist invited to the Whitney Biennial in 2017. Stovall does site-specific dance performances, often at liquor stores, where she also records interviews with locals talking about their perspectives on Detroit. 

"She's brilliant and working a whole other way," Piper says. "She's moving the marginal to the center, interviewing people who would never otherwise be interviewed about how Detroit is changing. It's a view of Detroit you just don't get in other media narratives about the city."

Others include Billy Mark, whose intense, confrontational performance art often pushes him to the brink of exhaustion, and Matthew Angelo Harrison, a sculptor who uses 3D printers to make works reminiscent of African iconography. 

But the profiles are just part of a larger mission to grow awareness of the Detroit arts scene.

Essay'd sponsors talks at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center and Anton Art Center as a way of getting people in the suburbs engaged in Detroit art. 

It also organizes exhibitions at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and other galleries featuring artists profiled in the books. The current exhibition, Art @ the Max IV, was curated by Panton and is on view until Dec. 23.

Another essential component of Essay'd are its workshops. Often multiple days, they're part of the organization's efforts to promote critical discourse around art. It has organized workshops on art writing basics, curating exhibitions, and art publishing. The latter workshop was taught by Dushko Petrovich, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and founder of his own arts press, Paper Monument, and showed students how to make their own arts publication concept into a reality. 

Piper will be co-teaching a workshop this November, called "Art Writing As an Act of Love," with Bridget Goodbody, a former New York Times art critic. "The idea is to take people's love and enthusiasm for art and translate that into sound, critical, thoughtful writing," Piper says. "We want to dispel the myth that criticism is all about value judgments and can instead be about enthusiastic engagement."

It's not surprising that Piper wants to foster more love in art writing. If it weren't for that, Essay'd wouldn't be well on its way to volume four. 
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.