Artists find their ‘Edge’ in city-themed exhibit at Grosse Pointe Art Center

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published January 23, 2013

GROSSE POINTE CITY — The annual “Urban Edge” show at the Grosse Pointe Art Center — which opened Jan. 18 — features the expected scenes of decay in Detroit, but there’s also plenty of works that speak to rebirth and vitality, giving it surprising energy.

GPAC Director Amy De-Brunner said Heidelburg Project artist Tim Burke, the show’s juror, brought his own unique vision of the city to the fore, and his reputation attracted work by 59 artists, who, in total, submitted 117 works — a large number for the GPAC. Burke ultimately selected 69 pieces by 39 artists, she said, and not all of the pieces are set in Detroit.

“The show is as top quality as any show we’ve had,” DeBrunner said.

Although he now lives in Grosse Pointe Park, former Detroit resident Burke still has a studio on Heidelburg Street. He took his jurying duties seriously. A juror typically only gets one day to study the art before he has to make a decision about what’s in and what’s out, but Burke said he came in two days before the submission deadline to start looking at the work.

“It takes more than one day to sit with a piece of art,” he said. “To make any kind of statement about a piece of art, you should sit with a piece for two weeks.”

His time in the city has given Burke’s work a certain edginess, but he said he recognized that he needed to judge the submissions differently, so he said he tried to see the edginess each artist was trying to convey.

“Every human being has biases based on where they grew up, how they grew up and their life experiences,” Burke said.

The show is a mixture of imagery, much of it surprising.

“There’s a lot of scenes of buildings in decay, and yet there are some street scenes that are totally intact,” Burke said.

An example of that is best-of-show winner Alex Gilford of Davisburg, a GPAC newcomer who took top honors for his oil painting, “Michigan Steel,” which sold almost immediately. The former Grand Rapids resident said he was walking around Muskegon when he came across a structure that drew his attention.

“What I thought was an abandoned building was actually a booming industry filled with steel workers,” Gilford said.

The result was “Michigan Steel,” a dynamic, vibrantly colored painting of one of the workers. The artist said he wanted to show that the place was alive and teeming with activity. The Grosse Pointe Park man who purchased the painting said it reminded him of Diego Rivera’s powerful murals, and “the colors are magnificent.”

There’s a quieter dynamism at play in second-place winner Birgit Huttemann-Holz’s two encaustic paintings: separate pieces that Burke decided to jointly honor. “Laws of Nature” and “D-The Overgrown City” both spring to life with wildflowers.

“The idea was that nature takes back,” said Huttemann-Holz, a Grosse Pointe Park resident who’s originally from Germany. “It’s an homage to Detroit. Detroit is really growing on me. I feel like the city is a part of me now.”

For the last two years, she has had a studio in the Pioneer Building in Detroit, and she frequently visits Belle Isle.

“It’s a city that you can’t describe in 10 sentences or in one sentence,” Huttemann-Holz said of Detroit. “There’s something different around every corner. What strikes me about the city is that you always find beauty.”

Harper Woods artist Laura Reed earned third-place honors for “Toxic,” an oil painting that also incorporates resin, sand and acrylic. The abstract, complex work is a revamped version of a previous piece, she said. The artist used stencils — something that’s not typical for her, she said — and makes reference to her father by including California poppies, a flower he liked; she said her father died in December.

Most of the work in “Urban Edge” is two-dimensional, but there are a couple of exceptions. Ceramist Cheryl English, of Detroit, has two works in the show, both of which are pottery pieces placed in rusted brake discs she found in the street during a walk. The works are both sophisticated and earthy; she said she “wanted (to show) the contrast between the organic metal and the bowl.” She’s so happy with the results that she’s now looking for additional old brake discs to create more pieces like these, she said.

Veteran artist Mary Aro, of Grosse Pointe Park, received an honorable mention for a pair of oil paintings she has in the show, “Ruins on the Far East Side” and “Abandoned Factory Near Fox Creek Station.” Both are from locations not far from her east side home.

“I just looked at them and said, ‘I’ve got to do that,’” Aro said of the compelling scenes — one of what she believes was once a church and the other an old, long-shuttered factory, both having fallen into disrepair and being situated in a stark, snow-covered landscape. As is a hallmark of her work, the top two-thirds of the paintings are dominated by sky, with the buildings occupying the bottom third of the canvas.

“That horizontal line is in almost all of my paintings,” Aro said. “It’s the line of serenity and peace.”

Her daughter, Kit Aro — co-chair of the art department at Grosse Pointe South High School — accompanied her mother and admired what she saw.

“I think it’s a really impressive collection of work,” Kit Aro said. “It’s so diverse, and a rich collection of styles and techniques and media.”

Other honorable-mention winners include Bruce Giffen, of Dearborn Heights, Tony Shopinski, of Detroit, and Alfred Sonnenberg, of Shelby Township.

Artist Jon Bell, of Grosse Pointe Park, a former president of the Grosse Pointe Artists Association, was pleased to see the large turnout for the opening, as well as the growth in recent years of the GPAC. He was also happy about the latest installment of “Urban Edge.”

“I think it’s just a great show drawing on the urban experience,” Bell said.

The GPAC is located at 17051 Kercheval in the Village. Winter hours are noon-6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. For more information, call (313) 881-3454 or visit