Avenue of galleries: How art enriches life in Live6

Walking down Livernois Avenue around Seven Mile in Detroit, it's evident that artists are prioritized here. There are eye-popping murals featuring African-American icons like J. Dilla, Barack Obama, and Aretha Franklin. There's an attention-grabbing public fiber arts installation on the median between Outer Drive and Cambridge.

And then, of course, there's the galleries.

Right now, six galleries dot the avenue between Eight Mile and the Lodge expressway, and a seventh, Mac Galleries, is set to open shop there later this year. All of this points to the emergence of a thriving art scene along and around the Detroit corridor traditionally known as the "Avenue of Fashion."

"With the number of galleries located on this strip, the Livernois area is becoming known for art," says Toney Hughes Sr., co-owner of Sherwood Forest Art, a gallery located on Livernois near St. Martins Street. "We get people from all over Southeast Michigan. We get people from Cleveland, Chicago, Toronto coming here."  

Hughes, who has been doing business in the area since the mid-'90s, founded Sherwood Forest Art with his son, Toney Hughes Jr. in 2007. The combination gallery and framing shop offers services like custom framing, photo enlargement, and engraving. As for the art, Hughes and his son focus on African- and African-American-themed works, showcasing both internationally-known artists like Charles Bibbs, as well as Detroit-area phenoms like Judy Bowman, whose 2D mixed media collages have gotten a lot of buzz, and 21-year-old College for Creative Studies student Ackeem Salmon, who had his own solo show at the Charles H. Wright museum in 2016.

Art in the Fel'le galleryEach of the Livernois galleries have carved out their own niche. Detroit Fiberworks specializes in fiber-based creations, Art In Motion focuses on ceramics, The Fel'le Gallery deals mostly in portraits, Jo's Gallery offers modern and abstract art as well as jewelry and gift items, and Eric's I've Been Framed Shop And Gallery showcases African and African-American arts, photography, books, and Black memorabilia. 

"Every gallery here has their own clientele," says Fel'le, whose shop sits at the corner of Livernois and Pembroke. "Different styles of art, different artists they work with. So we don't feel we're in competition with each other."

Fel'le is also a professional artist who got his start creating backdrops for Tyler Perry plays before doing work at concerts and tours for artists like Beyonce, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Mary J. Blige. Known internationally for his body painting work, Fel'le also appeared on the first season of the body art-themed reality show Skin Wars.

His gallery serves several functions: a personal studio, an avenue for other artists to exhibit and sell their works, and as a school and workshop space to help pass on his artistic knowledge to others. Lately, he's also been hosting art parties at the space, which have been wildly successful.

"Throughout the weekend, I might have 120 women come through here," Fel'le says. "I've been doing selfies, so every party now is women painting pictures of themselves. That's really been blowing up."

Eric's I've Been Framed's home is a little further south from the rest of the pack, by Six Mile near the University of Detroit-Mercy. Artists are frequent visitors to the shop, coming in for framing services and to increase their visibility by selling their work on consignment.

According to proprietor Eric Vaughn, the gallery scene had building for years and came into increased prominence after the Detroit Design Festival began highlighting Livernois in 2014. Lately, the area has become a real stomping ground for local artists too, something he attributes in part to establishment of the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club. Started by local collectors Henry Harper and Harold Braggs, the club serves as a weekly meet-up for local artists and takes place at Noni's Sherwood Grille.

"It's been going on a couple years now," says Vaughn. "It gives the established and budding artists a forum to meet and show their ways and talk about the industry, which is great."

Detroit Fiberworks display on Livernois Avenue
And the artists aren't the only ones getting organized. Over the last month, the local gallery owners formed a new association, the Livernois Gallery Alliance, to consolidate their efforts and create an arts identity for the corridor. 

"I think the formation of our group is really going to put our footprint in the area for galleries, kind of like they do in Midtown," says Vaughn. 

The new association hosted its first group effort on June 9. Each of the galleries will have their own event tied to the occasion; Vaughn's gallery, for example, will host a showing of work by Detroit mixed media artist Donald Calloway.

Supporting the arts

The June 9 group event coincided with the opening day of MarketOnTheAvenue, a farmer and artisan market sponsored by the nonprofit Live6 Alliance. The outdoor market will take place on a Livernois lot owned by University of Detroit Mercy, located between Florence and Grove streets. It'll be held from noon to 5 p.m. on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, from June through September. 

"This is a platform where artists ranging from textiles to culinary to performance can present their work and goods to the public all summer," says Live6 Arts Coordinator Ajara Alghali.

Live6, a planning and development group centered on Detroit's Livernois and McNichols corridors, sees the arts as playing a vital role in revitalizing the area and has acted accordingly. In addition to the MarketOnTheAve, they've also partnered with the Detroit Institute of Arts on their Inside/Out Project, which involves placing reproductions of famous pieces from the museum's collections on display in everyday settings in local communities. 

The organization has also embarked on an ambitious effort called the Detroit Neighborhood Arts Project (or DNA Project). Starting last year with a call to local artists, the project will create installations for the business corridor and surrounding neighborhood. Ultimately eight artists were chosen and the installations, which are set to begin this month, include murals by Monica Brown and Fel'le, a photo essay by Asia Hamilton, a banner by Darryl Smith, and other works by Donna Jackson, Megan White, and Whitney Smith.

"Hopefully," says Alghali, "the processes, partnerships, and projects that define the DNA Project will help create a destination for the arts and creative entrepreneurship that celebrates the identity and assets of the neighborhood."

The nonprofit is also making art a centerpiece of the new Ella Fitzgerald Park located in the nearby Fitzgerald neighborhood. The city of Detroit in partnership with the Trust for Public Land commissioned celebrated local artist Hubert Massey to create two murals for the park. A resident of Detroit, Massey got his start as a sign painter and later trained with Stephen Dimitroff and Lucienne Bloch, who were apprentices to the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. 

Hubert Massey (left) leads the fabrication of two murals that will be displayed in Ella Fitzgerald Park
The murals, "Hands of Happiness" and "Celebrating Resilience and Song," were designed with input from people he met at community forums. Local residents will also be involved in both the fabrication and installation process. 

Massey has been making the mural's tiles at a nearby ceramics facility located at Marygrove College. While work is still ongoing, the artist expects them to be installed later this summer. He's confident the murals will last a long time and make a memorable impression on residents. And more generally, he's optimistic about the positive impact public art like this can have on the surrounding community.

"Artists can play a big role," he says. "The murals open up opportunities for other artists to create artwork in the area, still celebrating the community, still getting people involved in the process, still making it an environment where people can bring their kids and families.

"I think art can be the glue holding communities together."

This article is part of a series where we revisit stories from our On the Ground installment and explore new ones in the Live6 area. It is supported by the Kresge Foundation.

All photos by Nick Hagen
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Read more articles by David Sands.

David Sands is a Detroit-based freelance writer. He's covered the news for Huffington Post Detroit as an assistant editor and worked as a staff writer for the transportation news site Mode Shift. Follow him on Twitter @dsandsdetroit.