HERE’s the third and final Christine Gloss story this week. If you missed the start of her series, she started by talking with us about the yearning we all feel for meaning in our daily lives and connection with other people. Then, she challenged us to “greet the greeter.” And, today, in her final story this week, Christine writes about the complex fabric of connection through the fine arts that can weave lives together across great distances. Please, tell us what you think about Christine’s stories. We’ll be running our weekly Reader Roundup on Friday and we’d love to hear your thoughts about these stories.
Today I’d like to tell you about a place that’s fairly hopping with generative vibrations, and about a remarkable young man I met there.
The place is Artist Village in northwest Detroit. It’s a meeting place. It’s a cafe with a stage for poetry readings and musical performances. It’s an art gallery where neighborhood artists display their painting, their sculpture, their fabric creations. The walls are also filled with found art, objects that once were discarded trash, but now, transformed, invite the viewer to think, to laugh, to celebrate the good things they find in themselves.
Artist Village was born from the vision of noted Detroit muralists, Chazz Miller (at right) and his association with Motor City Blight Busters, a thriving neighborhood action group. Chazz is Director of Artist Village and one of his goals is to give neighborhood kids a positive focus.
“We all need something to belong to, he tells me, “whether it’s a fraternity or a team. We want to be part of something. That’s why, unfortunately, the gangs are so popular.”
Artist Village is definitely a place where young people can belong and where they can learn the valuable creative principle of making something out of nothing.
“A lot of children think you have to have expensive materials or famous art supplies to really do something nice, and you don’t. That’s one of the things we teach them, especially with found objects, raw art.”
As a working artist of many years Chazz Miller knows the power of art to transform — not just objects and spaces, but people. “If you can save just one young person’s life, or just inspire them to get on the right track, then we’re doing our job.”
Which brings me to the remarkable young man I mentioned at the start of this article. Tony Butler is 19 years old. He’s a person with whom it’s easy to connect because he puts up no walls or pretensions. He readily tells you who he is, both through his words and his drawings. In fact, that self revelation is an important part of who he is, as a person and as an artist.
“This is something that an ordinary person doesn’t do but would like to do — come in here and show your feelings in painting, in drawing, in clay,” Tony tells me. “I’ve been telling a lot of people, it’s good to bring out feelings of yours. It doesn’t matter how people talk about you or if they doubt you about a lot of things. Just bring it out and show them. This is how I am.”
Then he taps his heart. “This right here is me.”
By his own admission, Tony hasn’t always been doing the right things with his life. He’s faced some tough situations in his 19 years and hasn’t always handled his feelings in a positive way. The Artist Village has been an important part of his transformation.
“Coming here was good for me,” Tony says. “God sent my foster mom a signal like, this is what he needs to do. My foster mom, Miss Hicks, took me up here and I thank her. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be here right now. I thank God for that. A lot of people have helped me in a lot of different things, in my drawings, in my anger and my experiences.”
As you might guess, Chazz Miller is one of the people in Tony’s life who helped with his changes. But each agrees it wasn’t smooth going.
“We worked with him and worked with him. He was just really defiant,” says Miller.
And as Butler describes it, “Chazz was on me a lot. I was ignoring Chazz, telling him, I don’t have to listen to you.”
All of that changed over time. Here’s how Tony now describes the situation: “Chazz has helped me a lot. He’s like a father to me. He’s a great person. A caring person. A leader. It’s good to have somebody like Chazz on your side to guide you. It’s beautiful.”
Beautiful is a word Tony uses a lot. It represents his appreciation of life, his knowledge of the distance he’s traveled to a better state of mind and spirit. (That’s Tony at right.)
We are seated in a small, open-air courtyard in Artist Village. It’s a pleasant place filled with sculpture, chirping birds, and a small garden, which will supply fresh vegetables for community gatherings.
Tony is tuned in to the generative power of the place. “It feels good walking into a place where you see a lot of different talents, a lot of different colors to experience things. It’s good to bring out your colors to make things look alive.”
Tony shows me several of his drawings. They are vivid and striking, at times with bold lines and colors, at times with subtle shading. “This is my personal style.” He speaks not with brashness but with a quiet confidence in his identity as an artist.
The conversation quickly takes a serious turn. His art, he explains, “tells you how my lifestyle has been as a young person, coming up around different people. My life was messed up.”
One drawing features a heart, pierced by a rose. “It tells you that something bad is going to happen. The heart is leaking. It’s basically telling you that my life has been a river of blood.”
I don’t know if he’s speaking literally or figuratively. It’s clear that his pain and his struggle have been real. But don’t get the idea that Tony’s stuck in any “poor me” attitude. “It’s been hard. That’s basically how it is. You’ve got the sweet, you’ve got the sour.” He pauses to reflect, then adds, “It’s been lovely, though, since everything good started to happen for me.”
Many of his drawings portray the classic battle between good and evil. He calls them cartoons, and the figures in them, his characters. Two of his most important characters are twin brothers, one good, one bad.
Tony tells me right away that the brothers represent both sides of himself, and his personal struggle to do the right thing. “These brothers are similar to how I am. One side is good, one is bad. But you’d rather keep the good side out.”
One drawing shows the good twin in an Eden-like setting. He’s on guard though, Tony explains, since he knows the forces of evil would like to enter and take over. “It’s a portal.” But even so, “he’s meditating and thinking about his brother. He’d like to bring him back to the good side.”
In another drawing, which Tony has named, “Darkness Has No Face,” we see the bad twin, along with thunder, tornadoes, and a skeleton face. “He’s thinking about his brother, too. They talk to each other in their mind.”
I think about all of the drawings Tony has shown me. I’m struck by his openness in putting his truth on display through his art. “It takes courage to put your life in a picture,” I tell him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says emphatically, pleased that I get it.
Not all of Tony’s drawings are about the tug of war between good and evil. He shows me sketches of characters that portray his two younger brothers. He has put things in the drawings he knows they enjoy. Tony explains that this is his way of saying, “I’ve been thinking about you all. I got you all with me.”
He pauses. “This is what I have to do for them.”
Tony’s love for his brothers is clear. He wants them to receive the same benefits from artistic expression that he has. “I try to get my brothers to come here so they won’t be on the streets and all that, so they come in and show their experiences in paper and pencil. They’re just playing video games. I told them, how about y’all come up here with me and draw?”
He has also encouraged his friend, Jay, to do the same thing — to deal with his life’s challenges through art. That’s Tony, passing on the wisdom and support that he’s received from Chazz. A nice hand off.
So now Jay comes to the Artist Village on a regular basis and creates designs for a video game. In still another demonstration of Tony’s generosity of spirit, he makes sure I get a chance to meet Jay while I’m at Artist Village and record some of his friend’s comments on video. The two of them talk about collaborating on a video game. They shake hands.
Tony’s goal is to create an animated version of his cartoons. “A couple of years from now you’ll see my name, my cartoon on TV. A lot of people think it’s kiddish to draw cartoon characters, but I don’t. I draw cartoon characters to bring out the experiences of my life. As life grows, our characters grow too.”
Yes, he is.
CARE TO READ MORE?
ARTIST VILLAGE: Visit Chazz Miller’s Web site to learn more about his innovative program.
BLIGHT BUSTERS: The Motor City Blight Busters group has experienced some on-and-off problems with their Web site. Currently, the site seems to be down, but we’ll include their URL because these online stories at ReadTheSpirit have a timeless shelf life. At some point, you may find them at: http://www.blightbusters.org/
PRAY FOR YOUR CITY: Most of our readers don’t live in Michigan; many of you don’t even live in the U.S. However, many readers have told us they plan to participate in the August 24 kickoff of “LIFT (YOUR CITY) IN PRAYER.” If you missed that series of stories, jump back and learn how your prayers can help strengthen your urban areas, wherever you live.
THANKS! Photos today are by ReadTheSpirit publisher John Hile.
PLEASE, TELL US WHAT YOU THINK!
Like many of the Guest Writers at ReadTheSpirit, Christine Gloss is sharing these stories with us “live” this week as she shapes her voice and her future work as a writer. We’d love to hear your reactions and suggestions. And, please, pass word of Christine’s stories to a friend who might enjoy them. Click on the “Comment” link below — or send an Email to the Home Office of ReadTheSpirit.