Last Saturday night in the Motor City, a different type of “end of world” celebration was taking place. Hidden behind the Russell Industrial Center -- a sprawling factory converted into workspace for Detroit artisans -- an 8-ton steel dragon was the life of the party. In fact, this two-story tall, 70-foot long “art car” was actually breathing fire as hundreds of patrons watched on. Of course, the whole thing was mobile, could carry up to 12 passengers and boasted a DJ booth at the peak of its steel spine.
The artist behind this vicious assault on folk art is Ryan Doyle, a 6-foot-6 Burning Man graduate who recently decided to call Detroit home. As Doyle and his crew made adjustments, the curious crowd stood in awe of the massive artistic expression nearly scorching the hair off their heads.
Undoubtedly it was something to be seen, but it wasn’t the only attraction. A few feet away, the Regurgitator loomed in the shadows. Built onto a spinning base, this mechanical nightmare housed a small engine on one end and a crudely fashioned seat on the other. Once a passenger was buckled in, the engine began rumbling, propelling the piece of machinery at such high speeds that the rider can experience up to 5Gs worth of pressure. The idea was that the rider would become so disoriented and ill that they would vomit all over the captive audience.
The whole evening was less of an art show and more of a twisted take on a Midwestern carnival. Fireworks were constant, often blasting off so close to the crowd that some scurried for cover. Drinks were flowing; bum bonfires were built out of metal canisters, sending sparks into the night; and live music (including one awesomely group of greasy crooners by the name of Tornado) blasted off the walls of the Russell.
And as soon as Tornado spun through their last track, a 15-plus person marching band rammed their way through crowd for an impromptu five-song set. The gang was sharp -- uniforms pressed and clean with an old English Detroit “D” sowed on the right breast of each uniform, bass drums shoving through the crowd, trombones and snares bringing up the rear. Consider it a flash of New Orleans lightning in the back alleys of Detroit.
The whole night was turning into something only a rust belt version of Salvador Dali could dream up.
If the evening’s festivities were proving too much for the average consumer, you didn’t have to walk far to restore your sense of sanity at the Russell. Just a building over, activities hummed on as usual. CAMP Detroit was busy building art installations for Movement 2011. A handful of artists worked away in their studios. After bouncing around the juggernaut facility, we stumbled into Drew Kups, a resident of the Russell and one of the glass blowers behind local outfit Urban Pheasant Glass.
Kups has 15 years of experience under his belt and, since 2001, Kups has kept that talent at the Russell. Working with Pyrex glass (think pedants, smoking utensils and more shaped and designed using flaming hot table torches), Kups has endured the early days of the Russell when things were admittedly “way rougher.” Today, his studio is home to seven other lamp workers and his studio neighbors include legendary rock poster artist Mark Arminski and nationally renowned graffiti artist Kobe just to name a few. Like the rest of the artists here, Kups came for the obvious reasons -- “cheap, raw space and an amazing artistic collective” -- that type that supports rapture-style parties featuring large quantities of fire and booze.
Someone could be working on a post-apocalyptic motorcycle or a massive piece of sculpture.
“You never know what’s going on behind closed doors,” says Kups. “Someone could be working on a post-apocalyptic motorcycle or a massive piece of sculpture.” The networking has kept him here. “I’ve developed a lot of art mentors -- people who lead by example.” Toss in a super concentrated array of artists in one area and Kups was sold.
The diversity of the center is shocking. It’s like jumping from one alternate universe to another, never knowing what you’ll find or -- even better -- become part of. Hundreds were celebrating the end of existence just a few hundred feet away, but operations like Kups and others are the reason Detroit is becoming a haven for young (and seasoned) artists. The city is no stranger to landscape that looks more than post-apocalyptic, but to the artists that make up the Russell Industrial Center, this is only the beginning of the next chapter in Detroit’s illustrious history.
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