Monday, August 29, 2011

Last day in Motor City

(A short post today so I can get my butt out the door and go paint!)

On Friday I tooled around on my bike looking for burnt-out houses to paint. Finding a burnt-out in Detroit house isn't exactly a 'Where's Waldo' experience; most blocks feature at least a couple house-shaped piles of charred lumber. The problem was choosing. Mirror, mirror, on the wall: who is the most depressingly scorched heap of rubble of them all...? I finally settled on a partially burnt-out house on the corner of Hale and Grandy Street. As I painted, a construction crew busily tore down another burnt-out house down the block. One of the workers, a stocky, muscular man with fair skin and a shaved head, walked over to inspect my painting. "I might look like just a big construction worker," he said as he approached, "but I actually really like art." He explained that there are 16,000 burnt-out houses in Detroit. (16,000!!) Burnt-out houses only become a priority for tear-down after they have been burnt three times (the fire department keeps track of the number of burnings). The house I was painting had only been burnt once.

I could paint these cremated echoes of homes for years and be happy. But, after a week in Detroit (thank you, Molly, for hosting me for so long!) I've finally pulled myself away. On Sunday I cycled from Detroit 74 miles south to Walbridge, Ohio (just south of Toledo). Today I'll paint in Toledo, and tomorrow I'll hop back on my bike.

Sunday's mileage: 74
Total trip mileage: 817

Below (from top to bottom)
Burnt-out house painting (6"x8")

Painting and house together (the boys walking on the street were very curious about my painting and visited me several times)

Another burnt-out house down the block

On my way to Toledo I rode down 'Easy Street'

Swimming break at Sterling State Beach

Flag house between La Salle and Erie, MI (thank you, house, for letting me know that I didn't somehow wander out of the U.S.)


Saturday, August 27, 2011

(Stuffed) Animal House: The Heidelberg Project

Thursday I biked over to the Heidelberg Project in Detroit's
east-side McDougall-Hunt neighborhood. Artist Tyree Guyten has costumed most of the houses on Heidelberg Street with brightly colored paint, musical instruments, stuffed animals, and miscellaneous found objects. Sculptures created from discarded shoes, old furniture, and altered 'Camel' cigarette posters perch on the grass between houses.

I wandered up and down Heidelberg Street like a magpie with sensory overload. A house covered in old records and violins caught my eye until I saw the matching pink car and bicycle partially submerged in a lawn down the street. My attention flitted from one technicolor creation to another. After a few laps around the block, I sat down in front of a house that was ornamented with weatherbeaten stuffed animals. Teddy bears erupted from windows. An overstuffed frog with a thyroid disorder hung, open-mouthed, from one side of the house. Around the corner, a bug-eyed dog in a banana suit stared blankly at the street. Two stories up, a mangled rag doll twisted in the wind, suspended by her hair from the roof. A faded 'Garfield' hung by its paws, crucifixion-style, from an eave. "I wonder if PETA has a stuffed animal division," I thought. Simultaneously delighted and creeped-out, I began to draw.

When I had finished sketching the stuffed animal nightmare, I moved my operation across the road. I set up my easel to face a house adorned with brightly-painted plywood and posters. "Taxi," said several posters. "God," said another. As I began to paint, the sun slid behind a mass of clouds, muting the rainbow-colored house. A small girl who lived on the next blocked skipped down the sidewalk to watch me. "You're painting that house," she piped, craning her head toward my canvas. "I want to paint, too!" Can you give me some of your paints?" I looked at her spotless white dress and imagined it transforming into a wearable Jackson Pollock. "How about doing a drawing instead?" I suggested, handing her a piece of paper and a Sharpie. She crouched on the cement, clutching the marker in her fist to draw slow, deliberate lines. A woman's voice echoed from around the corner. I couldn't make out the words, but the little girl's face fell. "I gotta go," she said, carefully placing her drawing at the foot of my easel.

Below (from top to bottom)

(Stuffed) animal house drawing

Painting of the colorful house (6"x8")

Painting with the house

Little girl's drawing

(Stuffed) animal house

Musical instrument house

Pink bike and car

Found object house

Altered camel cigarette poster fence

"War is Antichrist"

Dr. Dee

Friday, August 26, 2011

Michigan Central Station (a.k.a. Detroit Historic Train Station)

On Wednesday I ventured to Corktown, on the west side of Detroit, to have a look at the Michigan Central Station. I parked my bike and sat down in the park across the street. The hulking mass of brick and stone greeted me with a looming shadow. A barbed-wire fence braceleted the bottom of the station, and a few backhoes and cranes sat nearby like toys. Almost every window in the eighteen-story goliath is broken (apparently a popular hobby is to shoot golf balls at the few remaining intact windows). The last train departed in 1987, and the depot has been vacant ever since.

Slack-jawed, I gaped at the colossus and began to draw. Robust swirls of wind snatched at my sketchpad and I braced it with my arm, swearing at the relentless gale. After several blustery hours spent intently peering at the station -measuring its various angles and counting its many (so many) windows- I felt slightly cross-eyed. And I had to pee. Badly. The park had no restrooms. I cursed the people milling about nearby: if not for them I could semi-discreetly relieve myself without an audience. I squeezed my legs together and continued drawing. Half-an-hour later a Salvation Army 'bed and bread' truck pulled up at the edge of the park. The people who were milling about swarmed the truck. One guy walked past me on his way, and looked over his shoulder to shout, "Hurry up man, or you'll fuckin' miss the truck!" Apparently I blended in.

Twenty minutes later the Salvation Army truck pulled away and the park emptied. Finally I could pee! I dropped my sketchpad and ran the thirty yards to the only bush. At least one other person had used the bush for a similar purpose: a brown coil (too large to have been pushed out of a dog) lay on the ground gathering flies. "Hmm," I thought, "maybe this is one of those times that I should be wearing shoes..."

Below (from top to bottom):

Drawing of Michigan Central Station (9"x12")

Same drawing, partially finished

Michigan Central Station

King of the Ruins: The Packard Plant

On Monday I rode to the Packard Plant, an automobile factory left over from the first half of the 20th century. The doors closed in 1958, launching a creeping tide of disintegration. About forty buildings link to form a crumbly, mile-long labyrinth of decay. Cavernous rooms that once housed thousands of workers and vast networks of clanky machinery now collect old tires, mismatched shoes, beer bottles, and empty spray-paint cans. Fragmented cement walls buckle tenuously under caved-in roofs and sagging rafter beams. The factory sits forlornly on its 35 acres like a discarded snake skin.

I unpacked my easel at a parking lot on Concord Avenue next to the Plant. Crickets chirped in the uncut grass. The wind sighed through the buildings, swirling debris and rattling the few remaining spiderweb windowpanes. A car rattled by every five minutes or so. A few people poked around in the distance.

As I unpacked my brushes, a police car pulled up, crunching over gravel and broken glass to stop beside me. The driver's side window hummed down to reveal a beet-faced officer with an over-stuffed pillow body. "Hi there," he said through nearly motionless lips. "What are you up to?"
"What do you mean 'painting'?" He moved an imaginary spray-paint can in a loop-de-loop. "Are you gonna do graffiti?"
"No," I said, looking over at the cement walls of the plant, technicolor from decades of tagging (would it even matter if I did?)
"Are you sure?"
I glanced down at my painting supplies to check if I had packed some Rustoleum I had forgotten about.
"Yeah I'm sure."
"Okay...well you might want to change your painting location. Sometimes people get dragged into these buildings and..." he drew his finger across his throat. The window rolled back up and the police car drove off, stirring up a confetti mixture of dust and trash. Slightly spooked, but unwilling to change venue, I finished setting up.

Halfway through my painting, a figure emerged from a vast hole in the wall of a building 100 yards away. The figure ambled jerkily towards me, bringing into focus a weatherbeaten face and a tangle of red hair.
"Hi," said the face.
"I seen you from way over there so I come over. Name's JoJo."
JoJo walked around behind me to check out what I was doing. "Well holy shit," he coughed, "here I thought you were takin' photographs but you're paintin' a god-damned picture!" I mixed a blue-gray and laid it on the canvas to indicate a distant building. JoJo looked from my canvas to the plant, and back to the canvas. "Well fuck, you know all about perspective and shit. That's pretty fuckin' good." He caught sight of my bike: "Nice ride. I used to have a bike. But then it got taken away when I went to prison. Yeaahh, I went to prison. Not for nuthin' violent. Got twelve DUI's, two of 'em on my bike. So they put me in the clink." "Ohh..." I said, scouring my brain for an appropriate response. "Whereabouts you bike from?" interjected JoJo, saving me from certain awkwardness.
"You BIKED from Wisconsin?!?"
"All the way?"
"Holy fuckin' shit!"
He thought for a minute and then squinted at me: "Hold rode ALL the way from Wisconsin? And your paintin' stuff? Shit girl, you're my hero. Wanna get married? First I gotta get a divorce from my wife..."

I returned to the Packard Plant on Tuesday for more painting and drawing. I asked JoJo if I could take a picture of him and he said, "No, you're just gonna put that on the internet, aren't you?"

Below (from top to bottom):

Inside the Packard Plant (8"x6")

The Packard Plant (8"x6")

Inside the Packard Plant, looking up

Walkway over Concord Street

My bike at the Packard Plant

Inside the Packard Plant


The Packard Plant

Inside the Packard Plant again

More graffiti

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Beautiful Wreckage

Sunday morning a heavy rain washed through Detroit as I slept off the miles and days of cycling. At 11am, the sun poked through the clouds and reached through the window to pry open my eyes. Creaky with rest, I mechanically peeled the bedsheets from my body and roboted into my clothes.

After a coffee and sweet roll infusion, I tooled around to gape at burnt-out houses, abandoned factories, and boarded-up warehouses. "Ruin porn" it's apparently called. After several sketches, I felt primed and ready to paint. I set up my easel on a quiet block of Chene Street across from a meek-looking white clapboard house. Apron tied, sun hat secured, and shoes kicked off, I dipped my brush into a pile of ultramarine blue and started painting. As I scrubbed colors into the canvas, a voice echoed from down the block: "Hey! What do you think you're doing? Painting pictures of my house?" "Uh-oh," I thought, and turned to see a man wobbling toward me on a rusty green bicycle. "Well there," he panted, dropping his bike to the sidewalk and peering over my shoulder. "Hey that's pretty nice. I just bought that house a year ago and now I'm fixing it up. That one over there's my house too," and he waved towards another white clapboard house down the block. "Lived here on this block all my life. Fifty years." He sighed and rocked back on his heels. "Well hey, you be careful. This neighborhood's full of cracky heads. Anyone gives you trouble, you just knock on my door and me or my mama will help you out."

I did talk with a few cracky heads during the course of my painting, but they turned out to be the harmless kind who wandered away when I said I didn't have any money. So far, Detroit is my favorite place to paint. The people are (for the most part) friendly and welcoming, and the subject matter is endless...

Below (from top to bottom):

The white clapboard house on Chene Street (8"x6", oil)

Another house on Chene Street

House with a collapsed roof

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friday: Biking into the Apocalypse

I fell asleep Thursday night to a campground symphony of firecrackers, stereos, screaming children, and barking dogs. Five hours of tossing and turning and ear-plugging later, a sharp cry from a nearby campsite wrenched me out of my half-sleep. I jack-in-the-boxed out of my sleeping bag and listened: a high-pitched "cock-a-doodle-doo" pierced the dewy six-o'clock air. My alarm settled into anger...who the HELL brings a rooster to a campground?

I zombied through my morning routine: coffee-drinking, breakfast-consuming, lunch-making, tent-folding, route-planning, tire-inflating, chain-lubing. When all was done (or done enough) I grumpily mounted my bike and pedaled out of the campground and towards Detroit.

David Byrne, author of 'Bicycle Diaries' (and 'Talking Heads' frontman) says biking into Detroit is like biking into the apocalypse. It is. And, as it turns out, once inside the apocalypse the cycling is lovely...but getting into the apocalypse from the suburbs (at rush hour on a Friday) is a hellish battle against high-volume traffic, pot-holes, construction, and shoulderless roads. I jack-hammered over miles of craters and cracks in the pavement. Cell-phone wielding suburbanites driving with their knees zipped by in SUVs, inches away. I squeezed my shoulders together and rode the white line on the edge of the road like a tightrope.

In Pontiac Michigan (about thirty miles outside of central Detroit) my route put me on a 'bike trail' along an old railroad bed. The trail was paved with golf-ball sized rocks, and littered with empty beer cans, broken glass, and the occasional hypodermic needle. Dense brush and trees hid it from view of the road. Very safe. I slowly rode one bumpy mile, and then turned around, frustrated and spooked.

Once out of the 'bike path' I white-knuckled on the car road for a few more miles, but finally swallowed my biker pride and switched to the sidewalk. The sidewalks mimicked a Frank Gehry building, the cracked cement bulging and jutting at unexpected angles. Curb-cuts were mostly nonexistent, so at every street-crossing, my bike oomphed down on one side and needed to be lifted up on the other.

As I cycled on, houses shape-shifted from pristine display-model-worthy suburban McMansions to average Joe houses to caved in collections of lumber. Stores transformed from Nordstrom and Target to corner liquor stores and check cashing operations. Traffic thinned from vicious piranha mob to a few wandering fish.

I had arrived in Detroit.

Moral of the Story: There are no good bike routes into Detroit. There are no bad bike routes into Detroit. There are only god-awful bike routes into Detroit. But it is well worth tackling in order to see the city hollow itself out like a candy-shell egg and crumble to dust.

I am now in Detroit for a week of painting, drawing, and staring open mouthed at my apocalyptic surroundings.

Coming soon: paintings, drawings, and writings from the Packard Plant.

Friday's mileage: 59
Total trip mileage: 743

Below (from top to bottom):

Foreclosure billboard
Guillotine Property Management (in Detroit)
A restroom near the sketchy 'bike path'
Another restroom...
My first beer in Detroit: 'Steel Reserve' seemed appropriate (cost me $1.09)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Thursday: Flint

I had planned an early start for Thursday morning so that I could bike the fifty miles to Flint, paint, then bike twenty more miles to the Holly State Recreation Area campground. I woke up, ate breakfast, and packed up camp as fast as I could...which was not especially fast. (I still haven't quite mastered the art of efficient camp set up and take down.) As I was simultaneously drinking coffee, trying to roll up my sleeping bag, and deflate my thermarest, a 7-year-old boy and his grandfather walked up. "Hi," said the grandfather, "we have some questions about your bike. Are you taking a bike trip?" "Yes I am," I said, swallowing a mouthful of coffee. "So, you just tie your tent and all your stuff to your bike?" asked the seven-year-old.
"Pretty much."
"Where is your bike trip taking you?" asked the grandfather.
"New York City."
"New York City!?!" shrieked the seven-year-old, "can you even last that long? You might die first."

Risking death, and my gear all packed, I headed towards Flint. Four hours of pedaling and one lunch break later I reached Flint's western margin. I ducked into a beat-up Seven-Eleven to refill my water bottles and buy some M&Ms. "Hey bike shorts," a voice behind me said as I paid for my candy, "is that your Surly bicycle sittin' outside?" I turned around to face a skinny man with mangled yellow teeth and beef jerky skin. An unbuttoned leather vest revealed a sparsely-haired birdcage chest. "Yes it is," I said. He shifted the chew in his mouth. "I got some Surly hubs on my mountain bicycle. They're nice. So where you goin' to with that thing?"
"New York."
"Holy fuckin' Jesus! By yourself?"
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Are you fuckin' crazy?"

I rode northward because I had heard that the north side of Flint had the most factories and industry. I biked through neighborhoods where half of the houses were boarded up. Check cashing stores sat glumly on street corners. After a couple hours of riding though increasingly collapsed neighborhoods, I finally found some factories (this with the help of my dad, who was examining 'Google Earth' views of Flint and acting as my GPS-over-the-phone-industrial-heap-locater). I drew for a while, but never did I feel safe enough to set up my easel and paint. (Painting is a 2-3 hour project, which in Flint Michigan felt like too long to be standing still without a bodyguard.)

After several sketches, the increasingly jumpy-stomach-flippy feeling told me it was time to leave Flint and head for the campground. I pedaled south on the bicycle route highlighted on my map. The 'bicycle route' turned out to be a four-lane undivided road with no shoulder hosting a car rally (the 'Back to the Bricks Rolling Cruise'). The road was clogged with people showing off their fast cars and their big cars and their loud cars. A slow, small, quiet bicycle (me) was an unwelcome addition. Lawnchairs full of car fanatics lined the sidewalks on either side of the street. Periodic LED signs flashed: 'No Burnouts, No Public Alcohol'. Both prohibitions were rampantly ignored. "Hey Lance Armstrong," a slurry voice yelled, "this ain't the Tour-de-fuckin'-France." Ten miles of similarly witty comments later, I finally reached the end of the car rally.

Completely wiped out from dealing with Flint and biking 79 miles, I rolled into the Holly State Recreation Area Campground. The 'campground' was a hot, treeless field littered with campers full of vacationers and family-reunioners. I set up my tent in my assigned spot (#149) next to a christmas-tree-light-bedazzled 'Dutchman' trailer. The inhabitants of the Dutchman sat in folding chairs around a TV hooked up to an extension cord, and contributed regularly to a quickly-growing beer can pyramid.

After dinner, whiskey, and a few phone calls to friends to complain about Flint and the football field campground, I headed to the bathroom for a shower. Twenty minutes under a stream of hot water would surely make things better. As I hung up my towel on the hook next to the shower door, a small sign caught my eye: "Showers: 25 cents per minute". Below the sign was a coin slot. I dug through my pockets. I only had one quarter.

Mileage for the day: 79
Total trip mileage: 684

Below (from top to bottom):

Burnt-out house
Boarded-up house
Pawn shop
Industrial rubble heap
Moore Street!
'Bring It Fest' (?) bus
Flint window-cling at the car rally
Dog sculpture made out of car parts (at the car rally)

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wednesday: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (state park campground)

On Wednesday morning I rode from Ionia State park into Lansing (Michigan's capital). I settled on a view of the capitol building and set my easel up on a sidewalk next to the community college. School was out of session for the summer, so I had relatively few visitors during the course of my painting. A couple people did wander by, though. One woman questioned my choice of subject matter:
"You're painting the capitol?"
"Why'd you put those telephone poles in?"
"Cause they're there."
"But those telephone poles are ugly, and paintings are supposed to be pretty."

After I'd finished painting, I headed east out of Lansing towards my destination for the night: Sleepy Hollow State Park Campground. The campground (like all the Michigan state park campgrounds I've experienced so far) was overwhelmingly populated by Winnebago-style campers and trailers. I wheeled my bike into my campsite, and, drained from 67 miles of biking, guzzled the 'Red Stripe' made lukewarm from an hour in my handlebar bag. As I teased the last few drops out of the bottle, a man walked up tentatively. A faded green 'Mountain Dew' t-shirt stretched itself around his pear-shaped torso, and a half-moon of white belly spilled out over his jeans. "Hey," he said.
"Where's your car?"
I pointed to my bike.
"Shit...well you're welcome to come sit by my campfire if you like."
He turned and ambled back toward his trailer, hitching up his pants every few strides in an unsuccessful effort to cover his yawning plumber's crack.

I considered his offer for a few minutes, and then, throwing caution, good sense, and everything else a solo female traveler is supposed to have, to the wind, I joined him. He unfolded a second chair and tossed me a Corona, apologizing for the lack of lime. A tiny, walleyed pug bounced over to sniff my ankles. "What's your dog's name?"
"Why Org?"
"Cause he looks like a caveman."
We sat staring at the popping flames. "I'm Jen," I offered. "Mike," he coughed, lighting a cigarette. Mike didn't talk unless I asked him questions. So I did. Turns out Mike was on vacation from his job as a trailer park lawn mower in Owosso, MI. He'd lived his whole life in Owosso, except for one year living in Florida with his first wife. "Didn't like Florida," he said. "Too swampy. Too hot. But gators are kinda cool". In the fall Mike hunts deer and squirrel. I said he must be a pretty good shot to nail a squirrel. "Yup," he said. He hoisted himself from his chair and turned to pee in a bush three feet away. When he had finished he wiped his hands on his pants. "Well," I said, "I'd better get going. I've got an early morning tomorrow. Thank you for the beer." "No problem! It was really good to meet you," and he grabbed my hand for a damp handshake.

Wednesday's mileage: 67
Total trip mileage: 605 (not doing decimal places anymore)

Thursday: went through Flint (Wow. Just wow.) Will blog about this but I need a solid 2-3 hours to get it all down. Coming soon.

Today (Friday): biking into Detroit, where I will be staying for a few days. David Byrne, 'Talking Heads' frontman and author of 'Bicycle Diaries' (read it, it's good), likens biking into Detroit to biking into the apocalypse.

Painting of Lansing's capitol building with "ugly" telephone poles

Lansing sign

Doctor "available" in Lansing