Resilient Neighborhoods: Central Detroit arts studio complex broadens horizons following COVID

Detroit artist Mandisa Smith found herself at a turning point in 2019. 

For the previous six years, she'd been the co-owner of a gallery, boutique, and learning space called Detroit Fiber Works, located in the city's Live6 neighborhood.Mandisa Smith She'd exhibited over 100 local artists, some of whom, like Cyndney Camp and Waleed Johnson, had even made their debuts there. 

"I loved giving exposure to other local artists, but running the gallery left little time for creating my own work,"  says Smith. 

Around that time, she ran into Sarah Mark, co-founder of Neighborhood Arts School (NAS), a neighborhood-based arts hub she runs with her husband, Billy. Located in the North End-adjacent Detroit neighborhood of Piety Hill, the school's brick-and-mortar location offers a mix of classes, lessons, workshops, and salons, as well as studio space. 

Mark, a fellow fiber artist, got to talking with Smith and invited her to collaborate at NAS. She agreed, becoming an artist-in-resident at the school. The experience has been a boon for Smith as an artist and a teacher. 

"My experience at NAS has been nothing but positive," she says. "I was able to expand the number of teen sewing students in our sewing program because Sarah already had a sewing studio set up. I’ve been able to focus on my own artwork, and I’ve exhibited my work [at different galleries] every month this year, which is really exciting to me."

Billy and Sarah Mark at Neighborhood Arts School. (David Lewinski)A place for creating beauty

The Marks, who moved to Detroit a decade ago, bring a wealth of art experience to their work at NAS. Sarah Mark holds a fine arts degree from Seattle Pacific University and is an alumni of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City for fashion design. She spent a decade designing high fashion sportswear in Los Angeles and has since expanded her fiber work to include fine art, installation, and ethically-focused clothing design. 

Billy Mark is a graduate of the California Institute of the Arts and Kresge Literary Arts fellow whose interdisciplinary background includes poetry, songwriting, MCing,Clairmount Studios (David Lewinski) theater, sculpture, movement, and installation. Before moving to Detroit, the couple jointly ran a nonprofit art gallery in L.A.

Over the last several years at NAS, they've hosted everything from sewing and rapping classes to comedy shows. The school has also opened its doors to artists like Smith, Sidewalk Detroit founder Ryan Myers-Johnson, jewelry artist Emily Mbong, and writer-videographers Steve Cato and Jarod Pratt, and groups like the Taylor Street Collective.

NAS, however, is just one half of a 3,500-square-foot art complex located near the intersection of Clairmount Street and Woodward Avenue. The Marks headquartered their arts hub at 82 Clairmount Avenue, while the other side of the duplex, 80 Clairmount Avenue, is occupied by Live Coal Gallery. 

Run by Yvette Rock, the gallery hosts exhibits, events workshops, and a children's art museum called The Red that features work from Detroit-area youth. Rock holds degrees in fine arts from Cooper Union in New York and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She previously ran a version of Live Coal Gallery in Woodbridge and also operates the Live Coal Arts Mobile, an eighteen-foot mobile gallery and workshop space that is currently stationed in Brightmoor. 

Saffell Gardner, a Highland Park artist, sculptor, and educator who's spent a lot of time at Live Coal Gallery believes it's succeeded in spurring creativity in the neighborhood.

"Yvette is on a mission to get people to uplift the community through art from that gallery there," he says. "She's bringing children in and really getting that community acclimated to art being something that the community can do together." 

Together NAS and Live Coal Gallery make up an arts complex called Clairmount Studios. Dedicated to supporting local artists and fostering arts in the community, the arts facility came into being through the efforts of a nonprofit called Central Detroit Christian (CDC). 

CDC purchased the building that would become the studio complex for around $6,000 in 2016. Looking for neighborhood guidance on how to use the space, CDC initiated a community engagement process. Residents gave strong feedback that they wanted an art space at the building. 

In 2017, CDC was awarded a $100,000 Kresge Innovative Projects: Detroit (KIP-D) grant to renovate the duplex into a community space geared towards helping local artists hone their skills and teach classes while working to engage local residents in the arts. 

The nonprofit spoke to several potential artist tenants, eventually choosing Rock and the Marks to run their programs at the space, which opened its doors in 2018. CDC currently handles the cost of rent for NAS and Live Coal Gallery, while Rock and Yvette handle the operational side of their spaces.

The spaces regularly collaborate with CDC's youth programming both at Clairmount Studios and the nonprofit's space at 1550 Taylor Street. In fact, this past summer Billy and Sarah Mark collaborated with CDC's youth camp to create an original theater production about the history of the neighborhood.

Lisa Johanon, CDC's founder and interim director, is pleased with the progress NAS and Live Coal Gallery have made at Clairmount studios. And she feels its arrival — after years of crises in Detroit that included the collapse of the housing market and municipal bankruptcy — has been a positive contribution to the area.

"The first thing that's cut in emergency situations is art, and yet people need to see beauty or they really have a dour view on life," she says. "We're all about kids, so we wanted to have a place where they could create beauty."
 Yvette Rock at Live Coal Gallery event. (Nick Hagen)

Adapting to change

As fate would have it though, a short while after the arts complex opened, COVID-19 arrived in early 2020. The early pandemic forced both Live Coal Gallery and NAS to close down for a time and reassess their missions going forward.

Rock had been holding exhibitions, workshops, and events, many of which were connected to the Red children's museum and Live Coal's rotating artist collective. COVID-19 forced her to close the gallery doors for 15 months and she had to take out loans to keep the business running. 

During this time she set up a nonprofit to carry out the community side of the work she has been doing. Rock incorporated Live Coal as a 501c3 with the state of Michigan in February and recently hired Tia Nichols as a program director. 

The Live Coal nonprofit will focus on education, visual arts, and community Yvette Rock (NIck Hagen).development, serving the area around Clairmount Studios and Brightmoor, as well as the broader Detroit community. More narrowly, it will revolve around four initiatives: the Live Coal Arts mobile traveling art gallery; the Live Coal Collective,  a biennially selected group of creatives who develop personal, collaborative, and community-based projects; The Red children's art museum; and Detroit rePatched, a green space and arts hub based in Detroit's Brightmoor neighborhood.

While Rock will continue to operate the gallery as a small business, she is excited about the new nonprofit, which has already been attracting greater attention from the philanthropic community.

"It clarifies my purpose again," she says. "I don't want to wait until I'm 65 and about to retire and then go, 'Oh, who should now run the nonprofit?' [I'm building] a team of people who are going to help sustain this [community work] so it can continue." 

As the pandemic has receded, though, the NAS co-founders have worked to find common ground with other local artists by sponsoring a series of art gatherings at Clairmount Studios and other spots around the city. The meetups have featured music, food, and an intergenerational series of speakers. 

"Over the course of the last year, we really leaned into this idea and started going from place to place, neighborhood to neighborhood hosting artist meetups," says Billy Mark. "This is a great way to connect the elders to folks who are doing new things and to see what's happening in education and in the arts at these different spaces."

Building off these meetups, NAS has also been reconceptualized as an arts education network that includes its Clairmount Studios headquarters as well as other locations in a 20-minute walkable radius. The Marks are also in the process of creating a hybrid model arts curriculum that will combine online and in-person education covering areas like clothing design and music. 

In addition to these changes, Clairmount Studios is now welcoming a new neighbor to the area as well.  The Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center, a new housing and living facility for formerly homeless LGBTQ+ youth recently completed construction across the street from the arts complex and residents are now moving in there.

While the NAS doesn't have any classes or events scheduled with the Ruth Ellis Center, the Marks are interested in the possibility of collaboration.

"We’re excited to see in the upcoming weeks and months how we can work with each other," Billy Mark says. "Neighborhood Arts School exists to be a space where everyone in our neighborhood can learn and teach and feel at home. So we look forward to good things."

Live Coal Gallery will be showing floral and nature-based art installations by Lisa Rivera from October 2 to October 18 at 80 Clairmount Ave. There will also be a bouquet workshop on October 18 from 2 to 5 pm. Gallery hours are Mondays and Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Wednesdays, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Neighborhood Art School will host its next Artist Meet-up on October 20 from 6 to 10 pm at 82 Clairmount Ave.

Resilient Neighborhoods is a reporting and engagement series that examines how Detroit residents and community development organizations are working together to strengthen local neighborhoods. It's made possible with funding from the Kresge Foundation.

Live Coal Gallery event. (Nick Hagen)
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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.