Dutch artist searches Detroit, finds inspiration and 'Icons of Hope'

Artist Diederick Kraaijeveld is standing over what looks to be a pile of junked wood. The pieces are assorted in color, jagged and broken, and the rusty, crooked nails jutting from the ends of a few slabs seem like prime territory for acquiring tetanus.

"I know where each one of these came from," he says as he plunges his hand into the pile and grabbing a yellow, short, stumpy, square plank. "This came from the Packard Plant. The color has a lot of texture and history to it." Sure, but watch those nails, please.

Kraaijeveld isn't from these parts -- as you could have probably guessed from the obscene amount of vowels in his last name. He comes from Hilversum, which is in Holland, about 40 minutes outside of Amsterdam. He was in Detroit, along with his friend and Dutch photographer Gideon Elings, salvaging pieces of wood from various spots -- mostly abandoned -- to build what he calls "Icons of Hope."

Kraaijeveld is an artist. He creates with wood. He takes planks of all sizes that have been discarded and cuts them to form images (he's done everything from a Coca-Cola can to a Mustang to Barack Obama). He doesn't repaint them, he uses the colors and textures as is. Imagine a mosaic but replace the tiles with old wood and a lot of texture.

He's on the porch of the house in the Conant-Davison neighborhood made famous by the hundred-dollar house. The two Dutch guys are drinking Budweiser. Kraaijeveld's glasses are broken and glued together. A group of children have gathered on the porch two doors down, laughing, playing. Across the street are two charred structures that, at one time, were houses.

"My goal is to make desirable things out of stuff people throw away, don't want, leave behind," he says. "I want to make them beautiful again." It's a sentiment Detroiters can relate to these days, and probably every day of the last 50 years.

Kraaijeveld saw a picture of Detroit's blight in a newspaper. "I thought it was New Orleans," he says. Those who participate in the "Assignment Detroit: The Drinking Game" get ready to do a shot: "I realized it wasn't Katrina damage but the financial crisis in Detroit."

It's a story Detroiters have heard before -- the whole Katrina/Detroit comparison -- but in Kraaijeveld's case, it stirred him to make a difference, or at least to try to make a difference. He reached out to his fellow Dutch compatriots at the Detroit Unreal Estate Agency for help.

The Unreal Estate Agency is, essentially, a group that educates and assists creatives in working with and engaging in the city of Detroit. They are also in the process of putting together a neighborhood-housing co-op that will work locally out of Detroit to the same means.

"There have been many experiments aimed at revitalizing Detroit's urban development," says Christian Ernsten, a member of the Unreal Estate Agency, "yet Diederick's project does not present answers for Detroit's condition. It does however show how individuals working within international networks can do projects in (Detroit) with the aim of making positive contributions to a local situation."

Kraaijeveld says he will create three "Icons of Hope" out of the wood he salvaged during his time here. He pulled pieces from a few blighted and abandoned homes, the Packard Plant, the Fisher Body Plant on Piquette and St. Antoine, the old Highland Park Courthouse just off Woodward, and a shattered yellow barricade from in front of the house where he stayed. He kept that last piece inside in case the city came to claim the pieces. They never came while Kraaijeveld was there.

The work will then be sold or auctioned and all the proceeds will be invested back into Detroit, via the Unreal Estate Agency. Ernsten says he wants Kraaijeveld's project's success to be an example the agency can use to promote Detroit and thus create more opportunities for investment. "I hope that Detroit will keep the pioneering spirit that can be seen by artists and others in the city, (which) could lead to new ways of urban living," he says.

"We all hear about Motown and cars," Kraaijeveld says about Detroit. But he isn't looking for the same ol', same ol'. He's looking for new icons, new images of Detroit's hope. "Maybe a dollar bill? Artists can move here for a dollar, there's a lot of hope in that. … The work is not to entertain out of depression but enthusiasm. (Detroit) is very special and so different than (Holland)."

Kraaijeveld was here for a week in the middle of September. He says it wasn't nearly enough time to spend with the city, especially since he was out salvaging for most of the day. But he says he felt Detroit.

"Detroit was very heavy," he says. Then turns to Elings, his photographer, "Is that the right word?" And they began to deliberate in Dutch for about a minute.

Heavy turned out to be the right word. Heavy meaning intense was what he was getting at. But, that sentiment, and the two army duffel bags of salvaged, broken, rusty-nail-filled wood aren't the only things he took back with him to Holland.

"You feel the potential, and if you don't grab it and run with it, you'll lose it," he says. "You can't do these things anywhere else. People with ideas are coming here; there is hope in the people that come here. … There is possibility in Detroit."

Terris Parris Jr. writes for Model D and is special projects/Buzz editor. He lives in Southwest Detroit with his two cats, Charlie and Chubby. Send feedback here.
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