This North End studio complex is giving artists a home base — and neighbors a taste of the arts

Saffell Gardner, a local artist who specializes in African spiritual paintings and sculptures, feels art can be a lonely game.

"You go in to your studio and you’re alone," he says, standing in the front room of his North End studio, which is located in a former firehouse near Mount Vernon and Beaubien in Detroit.

A quick glance at the space is all the proof you need that Gardner, who lives in Highland Park, spends a lot of time there; the front of the studio is home to series of vibrant oil paintings in progress, and the back is filled with steel that's either been transformed into sculpture or is awaiting its turn to do so. 

And, yet, despite his bouts of creative solitude, Gardner is far from alone. As one of eight artists chosen this year to be part of the Live Coal artists collective, he's part of a tight-knit artist community in the North End area. The collective is a project of the Live Coal Gallery, which is located in the Clairmount Studios arts complex at 80 and 82 Clairmount Avenue.

Each year Live Coal selects a new contingent of aspiring, emerging, and established artists dedicated to its mission of engaging community members in the arts into the collective. Members can exhibit and sell work at the gallery, lead workshops, and create special installations and performances. 

Live Coal Gallery features rotating exhibits as well as a small section dedicated to hand-blown glass made by the late Detroit artist and educator Larry Humphrey. It also hosts events, such as book release parties and artist talks.

The gallery itself is the creation of Yvette Rock, a Detroit-based artist, activist, and educator who holds degrees in Fine Arts Yvette Rockfrom Cooper Union in NYC and U-M Ann Arbor. She's a former artist-in-residence with InsideOut Literary Project and has exhibited work in a variety of mediums all over Southeast Michigan. Her efforts with the Live Coal Gallery began in 2013, when she launched the first version of the art space in a red-brick house in Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood. Rock was motivated by a desire for a local venue that would support emerging artists and serve as a space for intergenerational collaboration and exhibition. 

"I found that it was challenging for a lot of artists to be able to have shows who were new to the art scene," she says.

The Live Coal Gallery maintained an active space in Woodbridge for two years, before shuttering its doors in 2015. For several years after that, it's led a traveling existence, headquartered in an 18-foot trailer called the Live Coal Arts Mobile, which serves twin roles as a gallery and workshop space. But this year, the gallery set down roots again, finding a new home at Clairmount Studios, which just held its grand opening April 13. 

Clairmount's Studio Scene

The studio complex is a project of the social services nonprofit Central Detroit Christian Community Development Corporation (CDC), which received a $100,000 Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit (KIP:D) grant in 2017 to transform a duplex on Clairmount Street into a community space aimed at helping local artists teach classes and hone their crafts while engaging residents in the arts.

CDC decided on this approach for the space after reaching out to local residents and finding they wanted to see more art in the neighborhood.

Lisa Johanon, Executive Director of Central Detroit Christian, hopes Clairmount Studios will inspire young people in the surrounding neighborhood to see that, despite life's chaos and drama, there’s still a lot of beauty to be found.

"I want kids to know that I want them to feel [that beauty], and I want them to enjoy it and be able to have the opportunity to be creative and expressive," she says.

In addition to the Live Coal Gallery, Clairmount is also home to The Red, a children’s museum operated by the gallery that features a permanent collection of art from Detroit-area youth, creative play space, open studio, weekly programming, summer art camps, special performances, and a gift shop. The two-story art complex serves as a meet-up space for groups like the Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, which established its own multipurpose art and performance pavilion in North End with KIP:D funding.  Several artists-in-residence are headquartered in the studio too, including Edwin Geronimo, fiber artist Sarah Mark who runs the Asmara Design program there; performance artist and poet Billy Mark; jewelry artist Emily Mbong; and Steve Cato and Jarod Pratt, a pair of writers and videographers known as The Storiers who offer workshops and other activities.

Sarah Mark moved to Detroit with her family in 2012, after designing women’s high fashion sportswear in Los Angeles. Early on during her time here, she met several neighborhood mothers whose daughters wanted to get into sewing and clothing design, but she kept running into a big hurdle, finding studio space. 

Thankfully Clairmount Studios has helped her address that issue. From her sunny second-floor space, she now teaches young aspiring fashion designers the basics of fashion illustration, pattern making, and sewing. Mark wants her students to envision futures in the fashion field, encouraging them to think about attending design schools, working for established companies, and setting up their own businesses.

Her husband, Billy, also works to empower young artists at Clairmount. But, rather than fashion, he focuses on performance and music. His studio space was at originally the Marks’ Detroit home. But the fact it wasn’t being used when he was out seemed like a waste to him, so he relocated to Clairmount Studios, where he's begun to work with young people and other locals to support music in the neighborhood.

"There’s an opportunity to not only create space for artists, but to also connect with the tastes and the styles of people who are living here — and the young people and their tastes — to try to find a way that we can all share ideas," he says.

His first project has involved setting up an open mic called The Clair for local youth. It's been enthusiastically embraced by four local teens, who are now running the show. The inaugural open mic took place April 20 and future shows are scheduled for the first and third Saturday of each month from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. Mark interested in using the open mic as an area to come up with ideas that can be polished at a recording studio on the lower level of the facility.

"The hope is that there would be some kind of circulation that curves between the open mic and the studios," he says.

Art On Wheels

Meanwhile, life for the Live Coal Gallery crew has gotten pretty lively of late. 

Rock just celebrated the gallery’s sixth year anniversary with a special reception at the Andy, another arts venue in Detroit's HOPE Village neighborhood, on Friday. Visitors got a chance to check out an exhibition from the collective, see a live glass blowing, and hear live jazz and literary readings.

They also had an opportunity to check out the Live Coal Arts Mobile, which Rock continues to tour through Detroit with as part of her mission to engage with local residents. Right now, the Arts Mobile tends to focus on North End, Piety Hill, and Brightmoor, but it also takes regular trips to Southwest Detroit and Cody Rouge.

While she enjoys the traveling aspect of the museum on wheels, she doesn't miss the challenges she used to have storing the mobile gallery's artwork. Thankfully, having Live Coal Gallery based in a physical location again means she no longer has to stash art in a trailer, storage place, or friends’ houses for shows.

"Having what I call a home base has been really special for me, because I've been scattered for several years as Live Coal Gallery," she says. "This feels really good!"

Clairmount Studios is located at 80 and 82 Clairmount Ave. 

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the North End. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

Photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.
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