Work Begins on Massive Detroit Mural by 92-Year-Old Artist

Charles McGee (Photo by Ray Manning​)

In Detroit, work began last week on a massive mural designed by 92-year-old legend Charles McGee.

Titled “Unity,” it will cover a 118-by-50-foot space on the side of the 28 Grand at 28 Grand River Avenue, the Detroit Free Press reports. Though McGee was responsible for a number of iconic murals throughout the 1970s, this will be his largest to date.

The Free Press reports:

Once finished, it will be a sweeping vision in black and white — a mix of polka dots, curved lines and various geometric shapes that harken to the artist’s earlier work in downtown Detroit, but without the same simplicity or vivid colors. The various abstract shapes and elements might not appear cohesive at first glance. This speaks to a larger message within the finished piece that McGee hopes translates: demonstrating community and togetherness through seemingly distinct and different shapes.

The skyline-worthy piece is funded by a public arts partnership between Bedrock, a real estate company owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, and Library Street Collective, an art gallery. 28 Grand will be a building of micro-apartments, about 260 square feet, and there are units set aside as affordable rentals.

A Library Street Collective exhibition of McGee’s work, called “Still Searching,” will open June 1. It “traces McGee’s 70-year-long career through an array of works that encapsulate two of the artist’s most enduring themes: chronicles of the black experience and a love of nature,” according to a press release.

The Free Press emphasizes McGee’s decades of influence on the Detroit arts scene through advocacy, teaching, curation and his own creations, noting that murals he did “would be dubbed ‘street art’ today, but actually pre-dated the popularization of the phrase by a decade.” Several murals by McGee and his contemporaries are fading or have been removed or covered with advertisements, according to the paper. But one of the founding partners of Library Street Collective, Anthony Curis, envisions a project that would also restore those historic works.

“These murals have been ghosted, neglected or destroyed over the years,” he told the paper. “We’re interested in working with the artists and the estates of those artists to actually re-create or repaint those murals.”

The paper also emphasizes that while McGee may be 92, he’s not exactly slowing down.

“I’m getting older and the work is getting more expressive,” he told the Free Press. “Every time I pick up an instrument to make a mark, the hunger, the dedication, the observation for me is still the same.”

Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.

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Tags: urban designreal estatedetroitarts and culture