Artist and filmmaker tells Detroit’s story frame by frame

By: K. Michelle Moran | Grosse Pointe Times | Published October 14, 2015

 Macdonald works on a portrait of Aretha Franklin.

Macdonald works on a portrait of Aretha Franklin.

Photo provided by Nicole Macdonald


GROSSE POINTE PARK — Whether she’s creating a portrait of a prominent local figure or making a documentary about some aspect of Detroit, artist and filmmaker Nicole Macdonald incorporates the complex history of her creative subjects in a way that gives depth and breadth to her work.

Macdonald — who was born and raised in Detroit, and whose family moved to Grosse Pointe Park when she was a teen — again lives in the city that inspires her art.

“Stylistic pleasure is always a concern, making something that craft-wise is interesting, solving some stylistic problem, but also communicating the history of the city and weighing in on problems,” Macdonald said. “I like to offer an argument or suggestion either from myself or one of (my) subjects.”

One of Macdonald’s short documentaries, “A Park for the City” — which looks at the old Belle Isle Zoo — will be screened during a free event at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20 at the Ewald Branch of the Grosse Pointe Public Library. “Time I Change,” a film by Oren Goldenberg featuring Jit dancer Stringz will be shown as well, and a discussion with the filmmakers will take place afterward. Both films were regional finalists at the 53rd annual Ann Arbor Film Festival.

“A Park for the City,” which Macdonald calls an “experimental documentary,” was selected for a number of other festivals.

A former director of the now-defunct Detroit Film Center, Macdonald grew up in a creative household. She’s the older of Raymond and Susan Macdonald’s two children; she also has a younger brother, Ramsey, who’s now pursuing a doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Southern California. Both of her parents are artists; her father is also a writer and attorney, and her mother, a former director of the Grosse Pointe Art Center, has worked for nonprofit organizations and is a writer as well. Macdonald said she and her brother view their dad “as a bit of a renaissance person, so the idea is to pursue a number of different things in life.”

The 37-year-old is a 1996 graduate of Grosse Pointe South High School who received a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and anthropology, with a minor in film, from the University of Michigan in 2003. Besides her parents, South art teachers such as painting and drawing instructor Jack Summers and ceramist Gene Pluhar played an important role in her early development as an artist, she said.

“My dad was involved in various forms of art — painting and sculpture — so I do remember as a child doing clay manipulations with him,” Macdonald said. “On weekends, I would take extension classes at (the College for Creative Studies) … when I was in third, fourth, fifth grades.”

Most recently, Detroit visitors may have seen Macdonald’s “The Detroit Portrait Series,” large-scale murals of people who’ve played an important part in the city’s history. The series, which has been hung in various spots in the city, has included more modern figures like civil rights and social justice advocates Rosa Parks and the recently deceased Grace Lee Boggs, longtime U.S. Rep. John Conyers, and figures from farther in the past such as Chief Pontiac and Hazen Pingree.

“The series is … a different way of telling history,” said Macdonald, who selected people from the city’s history of more than 300 years. “It’s how to tell a potentially different story of Detroit, (through) people of different ethnicities who work in different capacities to improve the city.”

Macdonald said her focus was on people who were “champions potentially” of Detroit, but not necessarily famous or economically successful. Her series focuses more on people who struggled and made sacrifices in the name of social justice and other issues, she said.

Those themes continue to be reflected in a second installment in the series, on display at Eastern Market’s Shed through this week, that consists of important local literary figures, including late Cass Corridor poet Mick Vranich, Broadside Press publisher Dudley Randall, and acclaimed poets Philip Levine, Melba Joyce Boyd and Lolita Hernandez, among others. After Eastern Market, the works will be reinstalled in the windows of a liquor store at Interstate 94 and Trumbull Avenue.

“It’s like an outdoor gallery,” Macdonald said. “I really like the idea of bringing the art to different crowds, people who might not go into a museum or gallery. … Day and night, it’s open.”

She’s currently working on a third series of portraits that will feature Detroit musical legends such as Aretha Franklin. That series probably won’t be done or displayed for at least another year or two, she said.

Fellow artist Rosie Sharp said Macdonald’s work speaks volumes.

“Nicole’s work is extremely subtle,” Sharp said via email. “She uses subdued palettes in such a way that even images on the massive scale of her Detroit Portrait Series have a light touch. There is real humanity and emotion evident in her painting, and I think that’s a quality that reflects her deep respect and appreciation for her subjects, whether it’s the unsung champions of Detroit’s history or landscapes of the city itself.”

Veteran artist Dennis Nawrocki also observed the way that Macdonald’s work looks at the city and its people, past and present.

“Wherever one looks, then or now, one notes that Macdonald has always worked, as she says, from the ground up, whether limning the streets; thoroughfares; streetscapes; neighborhoods; nature’s rampant, omnivorous growth throughout the city; or — presently — Detroit’s sung and unsung personalities,” he said via email.

The Ewald Branch is located at 15175 E. Jefferson Ave. in Grosse Pointe Park. Admission to the screening is free but seating is limited, so attendees are asked to make reservations by calling (313) 343-2074 or visiting