January 25, 2014

3: Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Lois Teicher, Marie Woo

by Jim Welke

Detroit Artists Market

3: Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Lois Teicher, Marie Woo / Detroit Artists Market

Kathryn Brackett Luchs

Birdy / Kathryn Brackett Luchs

3: Kathryn Brackett Luchs, Lois Teicher, Marie Woo up thru 17-February at Detroit Artists Market, the 82-year-old grande dame of Detroit galleries, features works by three artists presenting art in three media (more or less). Entering the gallery through the back door you stand at the narrow end of a long rectangle facing into a tall, wide piece by Kathryn Brackett Luchs called Birdy: 12 graphic films set in two groups, 2-wide and 3-high, positioned on either side of the original charcoal on canvas work about 7ft tall and 3.5ft wide. The films show negatives of sections of the original arranged out of correspondence — sections from the middle appear on the sides, bottom on the top, etc. But at first, you might not notice that the films capture sections of the original. This writer did not — the self-revelatory process takes a bit: the mental gears spool up and you sort out what you see after the requisite processing delay. That’s fun. It feels like you own it when you get there. (Others might see what’s going on instantly. Bravo. Less fun. Revelation should have a price.)

Kathryn Brackett Luchs

Buddha, Buddha / Kathryn Brackett Luchs

Adjacent to that hangs a similar work, of similar size, with nine negative films stationed to the right of the original, titled Buddha Buddha. Clued into the magic, you compulsively study the films to find their correspondence in the original. The more you look at them, the more the films feel a bit like x-rays, though. That feels unsettling — x-rays give away too much, kind of like finding out how sausage gets made. Next, you might sense a deliberately primitive quality to these works. This emerges partly from their frenetic, sprawling execution in pencil on a pure white field that suggests a reluctance to overwork them; an automatic quality. Also, the canvas stapled to the wall, the films tacked up with pushpins suggest studied carelessness. This seemingly hasty presentation, combined with the implied motion of the swirling gestures (like sub-atomic particles in a particle collider) give these two works an evidentiary feel, like proofs to some fundamental but inscrutable principle.

Beside this hangs Allegory, another work with a similar motif, equally large and enveloping. These works engage via their immediacy and the mystique of the negative translucency in the films. Give them time to seduce with their seeming simplicity.

Kathryn Brackett Luchs

April My Feng / Kathryn Brackett Luchs

April My Feng, also by Ms. Luchs, expresses a more deliberate process, possibly a more elaborate intention. Another large work (about 7ft by 4ft), it consists of three long sheets of paper mounted on canvas to form a triptych with woodcut and block prints done in ink. In the center, at least five different colors form lavishly layered vertically aligned patterns similar to tree bark. Masked horizontal bands of distinct colors mirrored from the center section appear imprinted on the side sections, some washed out with white, also in distinct bands. The sides, impoverished of color and texture, appear almost as fossilized remnants of the lush center. The balance of colors and textures feels comforting in an ineffable, organic way, and the transition of intensity from side to center feels like a natural emergence. The effect compels your eye to the center where it finds rest.


Lois Teicher

Eclipse Series #6 / Lois Teicher

Moving down the long wall of the gallery toward the front, your attention might be drawn to an incendiary orange, circular form projecting from the wall: Eclipse Series #6 by Lois Teicher. Two sections comprise the welded aluminum sculpture. On the wall directly opposite are four framed cut paper studies for this and other pieces in her Eclipse Series, one of which, #4, occupies an adjacent alcove.

Lois Teicher

Eclipse Series #4 / Lois Teicher

These pieces, spare and geometric, possess a strange magnetism, they enthrall like the true solar/lunar eclipse stages the works represent. Or, perhaps they form a gravity-well that pulls the viewer in. But like the surface of a black hole, their surface remains satisfyingly, infinitely featureless regardless of how near you bring your eye to them. The intensity of these works seems to create an immeasurably slow vortex that impels you nearer and nearer, promising horrible, terminal ecstasy if your fall persists.

Lois Teicher

Three Orange Shapes (foreground) and Two Round Shapes (background) / Lois Teicher

Between these works, several others stand on pedestals, with their cool fashion model elegance on vivid display. These too pull you nearer, as your brain struggles to fit their delicate, kinetic geometry into an ancestral, archetypal frame of reference. They won’t fit, but your brain keeps trying, a windup toy bumping into the wall. It feels good, like synaptic gymnastics.

Marie Woo

Orange Bowl, Large / Marie Woo

Back toward the rear of the gallery, the ceramics of Marie Woo gather around you. They beckon like muses and your eye darts around from one piece to the next, like a child in a forest glade surrounded by wonderful flowers, pinecones, and fungi. But focus on one; look close. Each piece occupies its own little place in Ms. Woo’s universe with a character all its own. A large, orange bowl, rightly called Orange Bowl, Large will catch your eye. It seems forlorn at first, riddled with imperfections, but then you appreciate the imperfections as part of its charm.

Marie Woo

stack / Marie Woo

A flapjack like stack of warped, undulating, topsoil-toned, ceramic discs appears as a monumental mushroom from the child’s enchanted forest — you become that wide-eyed child when you encounter work like this (at least you should).

Marie Woo

Winter / Marie Woo

Nearby sits an outsized clutch of insect eggs, Winter, that form an oddly compelling bracelet in non-reflective color, gradating from blackish on top to greenish underneath. They look nourishing somehow. Over on the wall hang six wall pieces that appear as ancient and unknowable glyphs, all in those dark, subterranean, almost mystical tones. Beside these, two shelves offer seven more pieces, one a dark little totem with untold powers, the rest more traditional pottery.

Marie Woo

wall pieces / Marie Woo

Finally, in a screening room, a short video of ceramic creation projects on a large, grid-like ceramic piece with protruding hemispheres randomly placed in the grid. The irregular surface distorts the projected image with novel effects, but the whole thing might work better out in the main gallery with the other work (despite the diminished brightness). As it is, it feels a bit isolated, but worth a look.

Kay Young

Photographs by featured artist, S. Kay Young

And do not forget to spend time with the photographs of DAM’s featured artist, S. Kay Young. These 21 images offer close in shots of woodland details that might escape the undiscerning eye during a romp through the forest. The colors and contrast of these earth-toned images will engage the viewer to an unexpected degree, and might inspire them to take closer notice of their surroundings. Pick up one of her prints, and support a local artist.

Observe Ms. Woo’s ceramics, resting opposite those energetic, intense, cryptic works of Ms. Luchs, and adjacent to the forceful, monolithic pieces by Ms. Teicher: you feel an ethereal sense of balance and unforced grace, an unquantifiable harmony. That’s a credit to the artists, but also to Gary Eleinko, the curator. Nice work.

DAM will present an artist talk moderated by Sharon Zimmerman of the Kresge Foundation on 1-February (2-4PM) — be there if you want some stirring insights into the work herein and tales of the Detroit art scene.


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January 24, 2014

Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition

by Jim Welke


Raise your hand if you visited a student art exhibition in the last year. Well? Well, this writer might have kept his hands in his pockets, but for the MFA graduate show in the Wayne State Community Arts Art Department Gallery (Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition: part 1 of 2, part 2 opens 14-Feb).

The gallery extends long and narrow with a north-facing wall of glass that offers a first-class view of the McGregor Reflecting Pool (which appears as a scene from Dr. Zhivago this time of year). Most of the light in the gallery comes from that cool northern glow reflected off snow and flatters the work therein.

Clara W. DeGalan

Free Storm Hush in the Neighborhood II / Clara W. DeGalan

Clara W. DeGalan, a Detroit native, finesses large charcoal drawings with skill that astonishes. Charcoal can be messy, and to create large, detailed works that consist of more than a few broad sweeps must be a daunting task. But she does it over and over. Free Storm Hush in the Neighborhood II offers that sense of natural harmony and balance you might find in a pastoral landscape, but instead it shows a collection of buildings intersected by a chain link fence and overhead wires — it feels urban, but the buildings appear non-descript enough that they could be outbuildings on a farm. Snow covers the scene and no humans complicate the view with their tendency to obstruct serenity.

Passed This Way Before / Clara W. DeGalan

Passed This Way Before / Clara W. DeGalan

But there’s something else hovering in another dimension of Ms. DeGalan’s work. All her works here, at first glance, feel serene and the figurative pictures bring the warmth — or heat — you get from human close-ups. And then you sense an Edgar Allen Poe-esque, Gothic-novel, sinister presence. Her painting, Passed This Way Before, which appears to show a mirror standing in an sun-dappled alley way or street, surrounded by a lush growth of bushes and trees with a tall building in the distant background, and another building reflected in the mirror. The picture, executed in gentle, blurry brushstrokes and diluted colors, feels comforting. Yet, like a well-placed metaphor in a short story, that inexplicable reflection and the sharp angular washes of light and shadow somehow suggest either foreboding or a dark memory.

June 1982 (The Kiss) / Clara W. DeGalan

June 1982 (The Kiss) / Clara W. DeGalan

June 1982 (The Kiss) creates a similar baleful sense of mystery. Who kisses the girl in the pool? Why does the woman kissing the girl wear all white? What does she hold in her other hand, the one obscured by her uniform-like dress? Why does the girl have the pool all to herself? Aside from the girl and the woman, the scene fills with contrasting angles; a restrictive crosshatched wall behind them. The picture feels documentary, like a snapshot, a fleeting moment in time that leaves the viewer wondering about the prologue and epilogue. Or so this writer sees it. Maybe the dark is not there at all, but when you get up close to these works you sense complexity. That much is sure.



Beard Triptych 2 / Alex Drummer

Beard Triptych 2 / Alex Drummer

Alex Drummer earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Metalworking. For his master’s thesis show, he presents a series of knitted beard triptychs that surely set a mind to wondering. The knit work appears well made, and one needs to be impressed that a man who pursued metalworking with such assiduous application might as easily take up knitting. So there’s that.

Alex Drummer

Beard Triptych 4 / Alex Drummer

But why knitted beards? Well we all wear costumes and disguises to get through our difficult lives, and we change those costumes and disguises as circumstance requires. Flanking each of the five knitted beards mounted on boards, Mr. Drummer presents photographs of men and women wearing the beards, hence triptychs. The unnaturally colored beards, almost like witty commentary on the fashion of such beards in some circles, conceal the faces of the wearers to the point of obscuring their identifying features, even their sex — women wearing beards? Perhaps Mr. Drummer suggests more than mere social disguises here, but something of general utility to hide us from the Orwellian eyes of our burgeoning surveillance state? Perhaps a comment on controlling religious codes that require beards for men, or head coverings for women? As a playful nod to the inevitable question: What would I look like in one of those? Mr. Drummer offers Portrait Beard 2, which allow the visitor to prop themselves before a suspended knit beard and view themselves in a mirror. These are fun works, but not so lightly dismissed if you ponder the underlying motivation for their making.


Alex Drummer

Portrait Beard 2 / Alex Drummer


Emilee Arter offers big, sculptural works formed of various natural and synthetic fabrics along with tape and other fasteners. These pieces will likely mystify the viewer on first approach — the drapes and folds confront the viewer with seemingly chaotic turmoil. Yet as one gazes into them, you sense harmony, a balance created by non-random forces, a stasis that which naturally occurs in ecological niches with their hard won, long-evolved symbiotic relationships. And then there are the titles, which for certain were labored over for precise tonal affect like spare lines in a poem.

Emilee Arter

His Prediction was a Question, Not a Statement / Emilee Arter

His Prediction was a Question, Not a Statement is a title the visitor can sink their teeth into. And the work offers the least cohesive assembly of the collection from Ms. Arter, as though the work were something else once, and now represents the aftermath of the prediction misinterpreted, an explosion with woeful consequences of lost opportunity.

I’ll Never Forget Last September / Emilee Arter

I’ll Never Forget Last September / Emilee Arter

I’ll Never Forget Last September inevitably forces the visitor to contemplate their own Septembers. This writer immediately remembered a camping trip on the shore of Lake Superior and a night deluged by rain that left belongings floating in the old tent. One can see this work as that tent, dashed asunder. Or not. The plastics and dark, almost internal organ-like colors will elicit a multitude of reactions. But the September that it will most universally summons is that infamous September day, the eleventh of 2001.

Conquest / Emilee Arter

Conquest / Emilee Arter

Conquest, oddly, given its title, feels like the gentlest work presented by Ms. Arter. Burlap sacks with various printed source and content declarations fold and drape to reach an off-center pinnacle with a banner-like strand extending outward like those colorful banners atop medieval circus tents. Shredded and tumultuous toward the interior, the burlap at the boundaries forms flowing arcs that feel almost musical, thus perhaps that sensation of a caress rather than a slap. This works also seems to offer commentary on global consumerist trade and the piles of detritus it creates, detritus that often ends up floating on the surface of oceans, swirled and nudged into forms echoing those here. Find your own path into this work, but give it time. Abstraction provokes unique associations in every viewer. That’s the fun — and challenge — of it. Treat yourself. Go see these and the other works in the show.

Wayne State University MFA 1 Thesis Exhibition runs through 7 February. The second half opens 14-February.


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January 18, 2014

Photographer Flora Borsi Comes to the Museum of New Art

by Jim Welke


The work of Hungarian photographer Flora Borsi comes to the Museum of New Art (MONA) Detroit, Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media annex (2501 Rochester Court, Troy, MI 48083) on February 23, 2014. She will visit Detroit for the opening, her first trip to Motown.

Photography holds a unique position in the disciplines of art. Photographs confront us everywhere. They appear in advertising, news, science, medicine, snapshots, propaganda, pornography, and art. At one time, drawing and painting played the representational role photography does now. Before we mass-produced cameras, travelers on grand tours carried sketchbooks. Only the most momentous scenes warranted preservation on paper.

advertisement -- 1871

advertisement — 1871

Before industrialization and consumerism, advertising focused on the qualities of the product for sale. Ads did not seduce with appeals to self-image and ego, they announced the virtues of the product. Drawings and paintings supplemented the ad copy with relatively straight on representations of the merchandise. When industrialization came along and populations migrated from farms to cities, labor saving gadgets for harried urban inhabitants were soon ubiquitous. Deplorable though they were, sweatshops made fashionable attire accessible — necessary even — for urbanites clawing their way up the social ladder. At about the same time, photography came along. With the ease of image capture that photography offered, ad agencies were quick to adopt it. Ad makers took the opportunity of abundant imagery to sell more than the myriad, confusing details of competing products. They sold lifestyles, status. Photographs, with their implied realism, let buyers embed themselves in the pictures of ease and opulence before them. Carefully constructed still life images presented accessible, idealized worlds only attainable with the purchase of the product therein. Consumers bought it.

As film and cameras got cheaper and easier to use, everyone wanted one for keeping a visual, visceral log of their existence. Snapshots of weddings, baby pictures, graduations, religious milestones, and vacations overflowed from albums and scrapbooks.

Newspapers, magazines, and academic journals all adopted photography to document events and elucidate concepts. Government propagandists co-opted advertising technique to sell ideology with the same subtle seduction as wristwatch advertisers. Commercial photography and photojournalism offered solid careers.

And right alongside these fast-inflating realms of photography, artists worked in parallel to add universal messages and meaning to photographs. Photography branched into the art world — but not without resistance. Some viewed photographs as ephemeral kitsch — mainly those who painted and drew pictures. It was thought that photography with its rigid documentary qualities could not embody the vision and intention of an artist in the same way painting or drawing could. Yet fans soon realized photographs could present portraits, landscapes, still life, and abstraction with depth of interest and point of view comparable to other media. And as cameras improved, photographs froze moments in time to create art like no other medium.

The problem with photos, of course, is that they can be reproduced ad infinitum. For advertisers and journalists, that’s a virtue. But for artists, it’s a problem. How do you sell something that can not be an original, one of a kind work where the value comes at least in part from its scarcity of one. But this problem plagues print-makers, too. The same solution solves it: limited print runs, with numbered and signed prints. Still, in some precincts, photography seems to hold a less elevated position among the visual and plastic arts. Often in ads or the arts section of newspapers, the words “art and photography” will appear as description of the contents of a gallery or exhibition, as though you would see art, and alone in another room you would see the abused stepchild: photography. (This happens with music, too: art and music.)


And then along comes an artist like Flora Borsi who brings a unique eye and well-tuned technical craft to photographs that do more than document or seduce a consumer. Her images do seduce, but not your materialist impulse. They engage your soul and intellect equally, like a perfect lover; like art. She follows the footsteps of a long progression of fine art photographers, but happily carries the banner to new territory.

The show at MONA’s newest annex, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and New Media, will offer thirty-two large prints of Ms. Borsi’s photos from various thematic series spanning her career. She shot her first art photo in 2007, so her career to date is brief. Twenty years old, she lives in Budapest, Hungary where she attends classes at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. She intends to earn a BA in Photography Studies.

Brief career or not, it continues, and the work of Ms. Borsi evolves. On her website, you will find seven series of works plus a section for recent work. The MONA show selects works from all of these, plus a few others. The series range from Des Monstres to Time Travel, which appears to have garnished the most attention and was selected by Yahoo as a 2013 favorite after a feature in Shine. Time Travel re-imagines historic photographs with the added superimposition of Ms. Borsi, costumed to fit the context, but she holds a camera as though she skipped back in time to document the notable occasion and stumbled into the original photographer’s viewfinder. The photos provoke that universal wonder and wistfulness we all feel about time travel. And they amuse with their fanciful premise. They set a mind to wondering what it might be like to dart back in time to witness, even alter, historic events that captivate or horrify us.

Des Monstres presents Ms. Borsi in deep contrast silhouette, draped in gauzy veils blown askew like reptilian appendages. She hurls herself to and fro as though in the grips of mythological gods to imbue these images with a sense of magical realism. The kinetic energy they project infects the viewer with an impression of buoyancy. These photos, despite their edgy darkness and stark hues feel like fun for the photographer and viewer alike.

The collection titled Lookbook suggests Houdini suspended from a coat hanger. Or perhaps the photos reveal a more existential crisis. The figure in the photos, Ms. Borsi, finds herself entangled in a garment suspended from the coat hanger. The garment, a tank top, wife-beater shirt, a little raggedy and threadbare like the one Brando wore in “Streetcar Named Desire,” envelops her face and torso. In the sequence of photos she seems to struggle for comfort within the shirt without ever donning it in the expected fashion. This feels like an interior struggle against angst projected outward, dramatized with props.


Identity consists of six photos, three of which show Ms. Borsi modeling a blue turtleneck and black, bobbed wig. The images form pairs, with Ms. Borsi in the first, absent in the second One pair begins with her head, partly obscured by a vertical partition. The second shows a panel comprised of blocks of color taken from the wig, the turtleneck, and her flesh, as though a distillation of the model’s essence in the preceding scene; as though the exterior surfaces define her.

The second pair begins with her holding a white plate aloft to eclipse her head, with her face partly revealed. The second image shows the wig and turtleneck on a table beside the plate.

The third pair shows Ms. Borsi standing erect with a vacant doll-like expression. She stands in front of a clothing rack, one hand clasped over the rack, with the horizontal bar seeming to pass through her head. The second image shows the wig and the turtleneck suspended from the rack.

The intent might be a skeptical, ironic study of consumerist grasping for off-the-rack, corporation-vetted identity. As though identity can be browsed, tried-on, and bought rather than cultivated.

Asphyxia begins with a definition of the term:

asphyxiation (from Greek α- “without” and σφύξις sphyxis, “heartbeat”) is a condition of severely deficient supply of oxygen to the body that arises from abnormal breathing.

The photos capture Ms. Borsi underwater, face pressed against a glass surface. Her expression shows amused detachment, but provokes in the viewer a disquieting sense of dread. This can’t end well, one thinks while submerged in primal fear of asphyxiation by drowning.


The Real Life Models pose Ms. Borsi beside well-known paintings:  “Gelber Narrenhut (yellow fool’s hat),” Rudolf Hausner; “Portrait of a Polish Woman,” Amedeo Modigliani; “Woman with Green Hat,” Pablo Picasso; “Bust of Woman,” Kazimir Severinovich Malevich; “The Corn Poppy,” Kees van Dongen; and “the real life models” from “American Gothic.” Her photos in this series are precisely staged, with the real-life Ms. Borsi on the right, and the original painting behind her on the left. She wears the clothes, the hats, and expressions (except for the Malevich, where she shrouds her head in a red stocking). The effect startles, and testifies to Ms. Borsi’s chameleon-like persona as well as her deft use of image manipulation software. These images delight. The one “unstaged” photo, or so this writer believes, is the last, the “American Gothic,” which seems to represent the prototype for the series.

“Photoshop in real life” plunges Ms. Borsi’s altered countenance into the editor window of Photoshop image altering software. In each photo, she holds aloft in one hand a sketch of the software pull-down menu that pertains to the alteration therein. The series humorously pokes fun at our vain aspirations and eagerness to alter our own appearance, to normalize our distinguishing but imperfect aspects. You can laugh, but don’t frown. That causes wrinkles.


Ms. Borsi’s “Recent Work” shows varied portraits, some playfully surreal like her head in a dome-shaped birdcage, door open, a bird resting on her upheld hand; some unsettling such as an image of her, shown twice, one figure machine-gunning the fleeing image of the other. Golden hair streams behind them both, but from the victim’s head, a cloud of butterflies emerges. Another image that seems to sting the viewer by just looking at it presents Ms. Borsi curled into a near ball on the floor, head tucked under her torso, one hand emerges tentatively grasping the string of balloon, while gruesome thorns grow from her back and sides. Suggesting a commercial fashion shot, another image shows her emerging from a gaudy seashell, all in washed out, artificial, almost sepia-toned hues of brownish gold.

While Ms. Borsi’s work appears tightly bounded by her target concepts, her photos always express creative tension; you sense the narrative playing in her mind and funneled into her work. One also senses ambivalence about the world around her, a desire to challenge viewers to think and act differently if for no other reason than the excitement of it. That ambivalence might spring from youthfulness, and one hopes it does not harden into cynicism, the bogeyman of truth and beauty. She may veer into more ponderous themes, or choose fanciful, magical angles on reality. Her images to date suggest a capacity for both. If she proves to be as astute as her work suggests, she will learn well at university what paths not to follow, and veer away from the pitfalls of early acclaim and well-intentioned but toxic advice.


Q: Your website bio states that you began shooting photos in 2007. Did you practice art in other media before that?

A: I drew a lot digitally, and manually as well. I’ve been interested in visual art since I was a little kid. I tried to develop my abilities — I’ve always wanted to become an artist and do what I love.

Q: Why photography now? Are there photographers whose work you admire; who inspired you to pursue photography?

A: My biggest inspiration is Tim Walker. I really like his dreamscapes, the atmosphere of his masterpieces.

Q: Do you have a favorite artwork, perhaps something in a museum or public-square, that captures for you what art is all about — the power of art?

A: Art is everywhere. Art is freedom. For me, all beauty symbolizes the power of art.

Q: What will your degree in Photography Studies from Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design allow you to do that you can’t already do? In other words, what have you taught yourself that you will not learn at school, and vice versa? (Keep in mind that this writer urges you to continue your studies regardless of your answer!)

A: The field of art is wide, and my teachers explain only some of it, so I try many styles of photography on my own. I’m always curious and open minded.

Q: Do you have more ideas for photos to shoot than time to shoot them, or do you experience dry spells without inspiration?

A: I’ve been so many times without inspiration. Sometimes I need to refill myself with good experiences. These times are very hard for me. While it happens, I’m afraid it will never end. But it always does!

Q: Do you use different cameras for different work, or stick mostly with one model? Do you ever use film instead of a digital camera?

A: I use only one camera; I don’t need others. I don’t need the smartest camera, it’s only a tool to make an image. The moment I capture depends on me. Applying too much “technique” could go wrong. The most important aspect is what I hope to express.

Q: Given a plane ticket to anywhere in the Universe, where would you go and what would you photograph?

A: Definitely into a superhero’s mind. I’ve always wanted to try out levitation, or duplicate myself.


January 8, 2014

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology

by Jim Welke

River Reveries: Citywide Poets Anthology presents poetry written by Detroit metro high-school students who participated in the Citywide Poets after-school writing and performance program sponsored by InsideOut Literary Arts Program:

  • Khaylon Bell
  • Ashley Brooks
  • Amiah Burner
  • Dejiza Coleman
  • Ajanae Dawkins
  • Michael Faison
  • Bianca Gould
  • Wendy Hernandez
  • Damon Hogan
  • Kennedie King
  • Cynthia Lee
  • Terrell Morrow
  • Aminah Muhammad
  • Briana Sanders
  • Ralph Smith

The poems in the anthology were selected by Joy Gaines-Friedler, Kim Hunter, and Dawn McDuffie.

As Detroit stumbles through its fiscal crisis, created largely by actors other than city residents and leaders, the students of Detroit schools live their lives shrouded behind a curtain of misinformation and cynicism. When you hear people outside of Detroit talk about the people inside of Detroit, you hear distrust, and bigotry. The public comment sections on the websites of media outlets amplify the negativity, the fault of anonymity these sites afford cowards eager to blame everyone but themselves for all of the world’s ills. Sadly, these same observers influence public policy by electing clever demagogues who echo the observers unfounded beliefs in exchange for votes. This pernicious reverberation affects education reform with things like standardized tests rising to excessive importance, ill-conceived cost cutting, and pressure on teachers unions. The real fixes for education are usually more complex, but achievable if we forgo demagoguery and pursue solutions that keep the students’ interests at heart — witness Baylor-Woodson (see following). In a state where educational achievement compares poorly to other states, and Detroit ranks below other big cities, our elected leaders tend to fault urban students for dragging the averages down. To quote a report from The Education Trust, Midwest “Annual Report 2012 What Our Students Deserve” (pg. 6)

So why has our ranking declined? The conventional wisdom in Michigan holds low-income, and black and brown children responsible for our state’s low average — and assumes middle-class and white children are doing just fine. Indeed, this belief is so prevalent that state educational leaders and policymakers have been known to say, “If it wasn’t for our urban and poor students, we would be doing a whole lot better.”


Not only is this belief based on dated stereotypes, it also is patently false. Yet, it is used to justify inaction on improving our state’s schools.

Then, the same report goes on to profile Baylor-Woodson Elementary School in Inkster, MI (sidebar, pg. 4):

The demographics alone predict that a school like Baylor-Woodson would rank among the lowest performing in the state. Most of its students (98 percent) are African American, and 84 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals. Serving third through fifth graders, the school was in dire financial straits and rapidly losing students to nearby charter schools when Maridada (previous district superintendent who initiated reforms) arrived.


Despite the obstacles, he and his school leaders — including Bashir (current district superintendent) — committed to raising achievement. Baylor-Woodson beat the odds, countering recent trends in almost every way. While student learning has stagnated for years across all racial and class distinctions in Michigan, the children at Baylor-Woodson have made huge academic gains.


In the 2010-11 school year, nearly all Baylor-Woodson’s more than 550 students met state reading and math standards. Moreover, 73 percent of the school’s fifth-graders exceeded the math standard; statewide, only 45 percent of fifth-raders posted advanced scores that year. Reading proficiency rates in the school are almost as impressive, with 63 percent of fifth-grade students posting advanced scores in 2010-11, compared with 44 percent statewide. Local families have responded.

A few more statistics and observations from the same report:

Certainly, our (Michigan) African-American children are in deep trouble: They were the lowest achieving black students in the nation, ranking dead last in fourth-grade reading among the 45 states that reported data on African American students. They also were last among the 44 states reporting scores in fourth-grade math on the 2011 NAEP.


Michigan’s eighth-grade African-American students fared not much better, scoring 34th out of 43 states reporting for reading, and 42nd out of 43 states reporting for math.(pg. 8)



But Michigan’s performance problem goes far beyond our communities of color. Our white students are sinking to the bottom of the national academic ladder, as well. They now trail 34 other states on the NAEP fourth-grade reading national examination.


While other states’ white students have been making significant gains in learning, our white students remain stagnant. (pg. 9)



Clearly, our state’s achievement challenge is hardly a “minority problem” or a “poverty problem.” Michigan has an education problem — and it cuts across all income brackets, races, and school sectors. (pg. 10)



As the data throughout this report make clear, Michigan’s students are falling farther and farther behind their peers across the nation. This is through no fault of their own; our students are just as talented, intelligent and full of potential as any children in the United States.


Be they white, black, Latino, higher income, or low-income, Michigan’s children are not the problem. Our state’s education problem is something that we, the adults of Michigan, have created, and we must fix it.


Certainly, Michigan’s parents must do their part by supporting their children in school and sending an unequivocal message that kids who work hard get smart. But we also call on Michigan’s political and education leaders to step up and provide the leadership and resources that our state needs to turn around our dismal student performance.


If we commit ourselves to creating the excellent schools our students need and deserve, the Great Lakes State can also be a Great Education State.

What all of this means for many students in Detroit is that they get their education in a parallel universe: parallel, that is, to the more affluent suburbs where the basic needs of student living — supportive parents, siblings, and neighbors; good diet; adequate sleep; a safe, quiet place to do homework; after-school recreation; absence of crime — are met. While legislators and bloviating observers seem to think these assets occur everywhere like sunshine and rain, they don’t. A lot of kids in Detroit have longer, more threatening walks to bus stops, where they wait interminably for buses, where they witness or fall victim to violent crime; many go to school hungry and tired due to chaotic and crowded households. Most go to school thinking they matter less than kids in other parts of the country, that they face opportunities limited to the point of suffocation — they believe the world at large doesn’t give a damn about them, and rightfully feel skeptical when outsiders promise to help. Yet, keep in mind that not every Detroit resident lives in abject poverty — just show up outside one of the magnet schools at the beginning or end of the school day and you’ll see a line of late-model autos driven by well-dressed, well-educated parents arrive to pick up or drop off their offspring. A plethora of solid, hard-working, media-ignored citizens occupy the neighborhoods of Detroit, and pay taxes that sustain it. At the same time, the emergency manager, governor, and legislature seek to drive municipal, teacher, and other labor unions out of existence, thus dealing a blow to the engines of middle class stability those leaders claim to revere. Not every student rides the bus through mean streets every day. But many do, and not by choice or inclination. If these leaders get their way, more will.

That’s a shame, because as the excerpts from the above report indicate, education in Detroit need not stay broken. But preserving the faltering middle-class should be a pillar of every aspect of the recovery.

The poetry in “River Reveries” proves that kids in Detroit know exactly what some benighted souls beyond the boundaries of Detroit think of them despite having never met those kids; and it proves the students are smart — smart enough to perceive the narrow slot their circumstance forces them into, and which demands they fight their way out of. “River Reveries” also reveals that youth in Detroit suffer the same vagaries of life, ride the same emotional and aspirational roller coaster as youth everywhere.

“Detroit” by Terrell Morrow in River Reveries brings many of the historic emblems of the city to bear — red wings, fists, a paradise valley, pistons — in a forceful argument for the resilience of city residents:

They tell me we can’t keep it together.

I fight for your honor, trying to ignore the families

I’ve seen ripped apart through the pressure

of financial stress that weighs down the strength

of even the toughest pistons.

Briana Sanders brings an impassioned defense against the prevailing misunderstanding of her and her peers in “Detroit For the 1%,”

We aren’t murderers, and the only thing

we’ve ever shot down are stereotypes.

There are some people in this city

who actually keep their heads in books for fun.

The authors of these poems see the world with the crystalline clarity that adults often fail to credit teenagers with. In “Moon to the Woman” by Ajanae Dawkins, subtle metaphors convey perceptions of inadequacy unfairly assigned:

I am still only the moon.


I am barely a light

and far from glory.

How do you think I feel

about the sun? The sky spends

its darkness resenting me.

Michael Faison with “The Real Glasses See Everything,”

I see the reason they call my city what they call it.

I see people selling green trees that burn like firewood.

I see females getting inside big black cars with dark-tinted windows

Like midnight.

I see two people fighting on the corner for money.

Angry pit bulls in cages.

“They Don’t Understand My Stance,” by Wendy Hernandez,

The resonating report of the searing bullet case.

It sprung but did not coil back.

Leering at me for coiling,

falling, crumbling, and gasping

between sobs at his lifeless knees.

But while these students stroll amidst the ashes of a city that we all hope has bottomed out and now begins a new ascent, they remain young and suffer all the slings and arrows the gods hurl at youth.

Such as this, in Aminah Muhammad’s “Advice from a Giraffe / to Any Tall Skinny Girl Going Through Puberty,”

…Ah my spots. I know you might wanna keep

those blemishes from the acne you’re going through right now,

But they’ll go away eventually. Unfortunately, they’re not

permanent like mine.

“Smile” by Bianca Gould:

Pretty girl,

why don’t you see

that everything

about you

is satisfying?

That the one thing

I desire

is your smile?

“P.S.” by Cynthia Lee,

You always made it seem as if

fatherhood was just another game

of hide-and-go-seek for you.


Forever hiding and leaving me to seek.

Kennedie King’s “So Vain,”

For once in my life,

I have written a poem about this woman:


And for once, I am forcing you

to listen to me.

Amiah Burner with “Silence,”

“I see you as a friend.”


There is nothing more

to say now, as we sit

in awkward silence.

In some of these poems, the anger rises up unmistakably. And other times we see despair and angst that no child should countenance.

“When Life Gives You Lemons” by Damon Hogan,

When life gives me lemons, I say

give me oranges.


Because life — I’m tired of this!

You expect me to drink

your lemonade forever?

Dejiza Coleman, “My Bomb”

Is not made of time,

it has no limit.

What created it? I’m not sure,

but it’s indestructible

inside of me

And sometimes these poems wander into the realm of taboo, where irrational denial blinds us to what’s going on.

Khayleen Bell’s “Wait For Me,”

Age is just a number,         Right?

Age shouldn’t determine

who you can love, who you can’t.

I want to go back

to the Elizabethan Ages

where this kind of love

is allowed.

Ralph Smith’s “The Artist,” that enumerates various paths to suicide, and then:

So I’m here on the floor,

on the floor on my back.

On the floor on my back

when my vision fades black.


So what do we do now?

I asked the voice in my head

Now we just wait until

you’re on the floor dead.

And then we find the pure, hard-earned resilience that so blesses Detroit residents.

Ashley Brooks, “I Wanna Be a Bottle of Water,”

So I can be recycled,

Or poured into something

To make it grow,

Or used to wash things

When there’s nothing else to use,

Or mixed into red Kool-Aid,

Or crushed like a junkyard car

Only to get my shape back.

Except for the above poem, you’ve only read excerpts. Get a copy of “River Reveries” from the Citywide Poets and the InsideOut Literary Arts Program. The work enshrined in “River Reveries” stands as testament to the decency, dignity, and most importantly the discipline of the students who composed these poems, as well as the efforts of those who mentored them. And, it gives the lie to the small-minded myths that hover and cloud perceptions of urban youth everywhere. Kids, in their brief careers as students can accomplish much when granted the opportunity and given a little guidance. They possess a nearly infinite capacity to learn and startle all of us with their creation. This volume of poetry will bring clarity to your vision of youth in Detroit that no jaded news anchor or journalist can. George Bernard Shaw said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In a way that’s true, at least when seen from the perspective of age. But we can listen, and learn. And then it won’t be so much wasted.


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January 7, 2014

The Psychiatrist, Poetry by Mariela Griffor

by Jim Welke

The Psychiatrist, poetry by Mariela Griffor, from Eyewear Publishing

The poetry in The Psychiatrist, written by Mariela Griffor and published by Eyewear Publishing, vibrates with enough resonant force to shatter the complacent sang-froid of any reader with at least an iota of empathy in their veins. The fifty poems recorded in this narrow volume do share revelations of interior, psychological torment to fit the title, The Psychiatrist, but they also reflect on the human condition at large, particularly the deleterious effects of political injustice on the human psyche. The numbing pressure of threatened violence plus the trauma of realized violence bears down on this verse, compacting and distilling it into the sort of clarity that a confrontation with imminent destruction induces: dilation of time, heightened sensory awareness, eerie calm. Often the violence, the trauma, occurs in recollection as though the writer invokes post-traumatic stress disorder. A riff on insomnia called “Poem without a number: house,” reads in part:

I remember:

a barricade. A homemade bomb

made by my hands, the image of my lover and

in my head a semi-automatic

as redemption

I beg forgiveness of all of you.

The rain is too thin to stop the fire.

My legs and arms are heavy.

Behind me Santiago blazes

and bullets whiz at the sight of who we were,

ancestral pain I cannot shake off.

His body disappears from the earth into the air.

A heart spattered in the streets follows me in my defeat.

Some of the work reflects on healing, but the injury hovers just out of sight, in shadow. In “Valentine’s Day in Detroit” Ms. Griffor eludes those demons for a spell when she sheds her “coat of memories:”

A house untied to the ground,

a laundry room of nostalgia,

a window clouded by

little sleep,

a coat of memories we remove

every February,

a simple grin and a Sanders chocolate box,

then, we grow to the light like sweet peas.

Mariela Griffor, born in Concepcion in 1961, grew up in Chile during the sixties and seventies. She was twelve when General Augusto Pinochet — backed in Parliament by the Christian Democrats and the National Party, and encouraged if not overtly supported by the US government — led a coup d’etat against President Salvador Allende, who died that day at the presidential palace, La Moneda, either by murder or suicide depending on whose account you trust. (Does it matter? Allende resisted the assault for six hours with an AK-47 given to him by Fidel Castro.) For a succinct and remarkably lucid account of the events leading up to the coup, give a read to a piece Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote back in 1974, “Why Allende had to die.” Pinochet’s junta wrested power from Allende on September 11, 1973 (Pinochet formally ascended to the presidency in 1974) and ruled until 1990. During his tenure, Pinochet and his minions ruthlessly suppressed opposition; mutilated bodies of his “enemies” appeared in the streets daily. Yet the opposition persevered, coalesced, resisted suppression. In “Sunday walk, urban talk” Ms. Griffor writes:

In those days we didn’t need much.

A heavy ammunition was resting in our hearts.


None of wanted to be compared with Guevara.

Too tiring. Too much. Almost a sacrilege.

Not for what people think.

None of us wanted to leave the country

or experience any adventures.

The level of influence exerted by the US government to expel Allende from power might be debatable (although cash infusions by the CIA to support a trucker and shopkeeper’s strike prior to the coup that accelerated decline of the economy and undermined Allende’s support seem fairly well documented), but the CIA admits support for the Pinochet regime after the coup. Banks and other corporations in the US also propped up Pinochet.

A cynical proponent of realpolitik might argue that Pinochet would have consolidated power with or without US assistance, and thus it was in the US “interest” to buy influence. But that obscures the more notable opportunity missed by the US to stand up for the rule of law and the unassailable imperative of democracy. The US did nothing to roll back the coup and restore a democratically elected president to Chile’s executive branch. That constitutes a sin of omission that suggests de facto approval of Pinochet’s action, and by induction implicates the US government in the oppression, torture, and murder committed by Pinochet’s grim apparatus.

While Pinochet consolidated power and “disappeared” the opposition, Ms. Griffor passed through her formative years. By 1980, she would have been nineteen years old and witness to indescribable turmoil in her country. The extent of her participation in the resistance may now be of importance only to her, but clearly she sacrificed and suffered to end the torture, bloodshed, and economic oppression that plagued Chile during her years there. In an excerpt from “Love for a subversive,” she writes:

I remember only the

scars over your lips,

scars over your left eyebrow,

the pieces of flesh missing

around your nostrils.


The pain of your scars

wakes me up at night and I hurt

as I did giving birth to your child.


I don’t know with any certainty

what to do next.

The added pain of exile must only exacerbate the effects of that suffering and sacrifice: in 1985, age 24, she left Chile for Sweden, and in 1998 moved to Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan with her American husband. In “The Rain,” she writes:

The sound of the rain in Michigan

Reminds me of the rugged winters in my old country

the cold feet in old shoes,

the fast sound of the water hitting the ground,

the smell of eucalyptus in the air.

I close my eyes and make a wish:

wish I could see, for just a moment, your hair

dancing over your face

trying to escape the weather.

At home in Michigan, her thoughts drift back to recollections crystallized in her consciousness by chaos induced adrenaline, ready to surface with heedless insistence when triggered by signal events like the whispering patter of rain, reminiscent of The Narrator in Proust’s “À la recherche du temps perdu.” And the poems in this volume propel you through time, backward and forward, with the lyrical grace of Ms. Griffor’s delicate phrasing. Her suffering as well as her joy, hope, idealism, fear, doubt, and thrill saturate these pages like a stain. If you read “The Psychiatrist,” you will feel what she feels, and that’s the amazing feat of finely polished poetry: the sensations conveyed are visceral and involuntary; sensations transcend literal interpretation of the words on the page. But pay attention, those sequences of words are artful and melodious; like songs, you can read these poems over and over and they continue to satisfy. That they appear in a language not her first passes understanding; they represent a Nabokov-ian achievement of language facility.

While Ms. Griffor’s poetry stands on its own apart from the context of her life and the political atmosphere in Chile that influenced it during her early years, the context seems worth emphasizing for its relevance to the situation the United States and other western industrialized countries find themselves in now: growing wealth inequality, decline of the middle class, expansion of the ranks of working poor one bad day away from the streets, the obliteration of labor unions and social safety nets, the rise of religious fundamentalism and right-wing intolerance of anyone near the margin of society, and the growing influence of corporate money in political decision-making.

All of these afflictions were endemic in Chile in the 1970’s when Allende finally achieved election to the Presidency after many previous tries. He sought to undo the economic and political inequity in Chile, and thus represented a grave threat to the status quo, both in Chile and abroad. The entrenched, comfortable right felt as much fear of Allende as the disenfranchised, restive left felt gratitude for him.

Perhaps it stretches credulity not much at all to imagine that social upheaval on a similar scale might grip some rich industrialized nation in a decade or two if the pendulum of political influence wielded by the oligarchic right does not soon reach its apex.

Opposition does exist. Some might judge the Spanish Indignados movement followed by the Occupy movement failures, but these might be the first groans of a sleepy giant awakening. Certainly the Occupy movement gained traction much faster and wider than anyone anticipated, even the inspired crew in Zuccotti Park. While any sane citizen hopes for a gentle political solution to untenable inequality, the danger posed by a fearful right should not be dismissed. The right reacted instantly to the Occupy movement with fear and loathing, i.e. “smelly hippies.” Fear often motivates irrational behavior more forcefully than anger. If the reaction of the right in the US to the election of the timid, compromise-seeking Barack Obama offers any insight, imagine the corporate-financed reaction to the election in either Western Europe or the United States of an all out Socialist modeled after Allende. Chile’s past might be prologue for any number of nations that find themselves drifting toward the unknowable tolerance threshold of the poor for obvious, pernicious inequity. Greece recently spun unnervingly near to anarchy. It would be deliberately obtuse to ignore instability of the system we’ve created, or allowed others to create as a result of our indifference and passivity.

With Ms. Griffor’s personal reminder of the depths as well as the summits human compassion and aspiration can reach, those of us pre-occupied with “first-world” problems might pause for a moment and reflect on the fragility of our existence: economically, politically, and environmentally. History marches on indifferent to the quiet wishes of passive bystanders; history heeds only the demands of the forceful. Surely there will be resolution to growing inequity; the question will be how do we achieve it? Acute pain often yields fine art. If we pause and read a bit of poetry, listen to the murmuring oracles in our midst, we might manage to vote our way toward collective sanity, if we scoff at wisdom we might again see rockets falling on the palace roof. Mariela Griffor’s The Psychiatrist offers a good place to start.

From “Sunday walk, urban talk:”

Ignacio, what happened?

We were almost sure we would make it out alive.

What kind of country is this that falls in love

with death every time freedom disappears

from its core?


What kind of country is this

that kills its own sons and daughters




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