Unofficial Art

Dmytro Szylak is not at home. This is worth mentioning only because the creator of Hamtramck Disneyland, a homemade construction that has been growing vertically on two adjacent garages since 1990, has nearly always been present to greet tourists from Japan, England, Germany, Canada, New York, California and students from a multitude of art colleges when they come calling day or night.

A Ukrainian immigrant who worked in a General Motors factory for 32 years before retiring two decades ago, Szylak is one of the more gracious outsiders among the seemingly growing number of Detroit outsider artists who have converted their private homes and businesses — and in some cases, their entire lives — into very public displays. Now in his mid-80s, Szylak has been known to invite visitors into his kitchen for a snort of fruit-flavored vodka or brandy, or play Ukrainian folk music that he says goes best with viewing the Concorde jet he made as part of the Disneyland project. His still-expanding art work sprawls across the garage directly in back of Szylak's home on Klinger near Carpenter on Hamtramck's north side, and connects to the one next door that he also owns. The massive piece includes spinning bicycle wheels, found paintings of Elvis and other pop culture icons, Christmas lights that remain year-round, wooden soldiers armed with toy guns, American flags and other objects that flap, turn in the breeze and delight nearly everyone who sees them. Though not everyone was always delighted. When Szylak first began developing Disneyland 16 years ago, his neighbors and some city officials were aghast. But he killed his critics with kindness, and briefly became a celebrity when Hamtramck's then-Mayor Gary Zych — who has an MFA in sculpture from Cranbrook's Academy of Fine Arts — and Zych's mentor, the critic, sculptor and folk art collector Michael Hall began including pieces of Szylak's whirligigs in local art shows and singing his praises on the lecture circuit. Thanks to political and art-academic muscle, Disneyland gained status as a national must-see, alongside the more established Watts Towers in Los Angeles and Howard Finster’s  Paradise Garden in rural Georgia. Szylak’s construction has since been featured in several television shows and magazines around the world, including England’s Raw Vision.

Earlier this summer, Disneyland received an unlikely visit from the world’s most notorious woman of the moment, supermodel Kate Moss, and famed New York fashion photographer Bruce Weber. The pair was in Detroit doing a shoot for an upcoming spread in W magazine.

The Moss shoot also included the long-abandoned Michigan Central Train Station and other Detroit-area backgrounds, places coveted by photographers for their high content of gritty, timeless Americana.

Orange houses and trees of heaven

On a recent morning, when the air was not yet hot and skies were clear with a rich blue color, Model D photographer Dave Krieger and I set out to find a few more Detroit folk art treasures lesser known than Szylak’s work-in-progress. Leaving Hamtramck, we drove west to Highland Park, where a series of abandoned houses along Davison near the John Lodge Freeway have been painted bright orange. This is the unofficial work of some anonymous Cranbrook art students, says Rebecca Mazzei, the arts editor at Detroit Alternative Weekly the Metro Times.

“This comes from an entirely different aesthetic than the outsider tradition,” Mazzei says. “These artists are trying to force the city’s hand in demolishing abandoned homes, and it seems to have worked in some cases.” In a story Mazzei wrote in March, she called the effects on the structures “astonishingly beautiful.”

On a block behind the orange houses north of Davison at Trumbull, tucked away in a corner of Highland Park where the landscape is overrun by the Ailanthus altissima, otherwise known as the ghetto palm and even more poetically called the tree-of-heaven, we dodged concrete blocks placed on the street to prevent motor access in this neighborhood, and rolled through an empty field where the grass was so high it could be grasped through the passenger side window of Krieger’s truck.

Then, as if we entered another dimension entirely, we found ourselves on the meticulously well-groomed Grand St. heading toward Hamilton Ave. The street included one Craftsman-style house that was neatly landscaped and had ornamental objects strewn about its front porch. We knocked on the door but no one was home. Some men on the street told us everyone on the block took pride in keeping up the neighborhood. One of the men, Kevin Jackson, said his uncle Leroy Jackson, owns the interesting house.

“He’s been working on it for a long time,” says Jackson, who’s 47 and was living on the block when he attended Highland Park Community Schools in the 1970s. “My uncle wants to keep up the neighborhood, just like all of us do. There’s no drugs on this block, just people doing their best to live a decent life.”

The land of 10,000 Polaroids  

In an old Southwest Detroit neighborhood, at the intersection of Lawndale and Chamberlain streets, is a place you would never know existed … unless you know, of course. At the Lawndale Market, where the inscription “God loves you” stands out more boldly on the façade than the actual name of the business, you will find a refrigerated case stacked with fresh submarine sandwiches, aisles of canned and packaged foods, beer, wine and liquor, and a lottery machine. On the wall above the shelves of liquor, and on opposite walls that frame the interior of the store, are portraits and posters of Marilyn Monroe. Asked to explain why, his best answer is the most obvious: “I like her,” owner Amad Samaan says.

Most unexpectedly, however, about 10,000 Polaroid snapshots hang from the ceiling. The hanging pictures are of customers who have come into Samaan’s store since he inherited it from his father in the 1990s. Before that, Samaan worked in a Chrysler factory, he says, “for money.” This, he says, “I do for love.”

At first, he was reluctant to talk about his photo project and says he’s chased reporters “from CNN and everywhere else” from the store because “I don’t need no one to know about me.” But soon he warms up to the idea of a story and takes turns posing for pictures with us. He points up to photos of pregnant women, men in Halloween costumes and children staring into the camera lens. There is no pretense of professionalism. Like family photos long ago hidden away in shoeboxes, the images are smudgy, yellowing in the humid air. But they possess the intimacy of real life, of people making simple contact with one another, an essence that appears to have become most rare.

“Write about them in the pictures,” Samaan says. His shirt has the top three buttons open, gold chains cross his tanned neck. He lights a cigarette. “Write about God’s love. I’m not the important guy.”

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer and DJ. This is the first in his series of stories on Detroit’s originals, the people and places that make an impact on cultural life in the city.


Hamtramck Disneyland

Orange Ruins in Highland Park near Hamilton and Davison

Lawndale Market

Amad Samaan

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.