PORT AUSTIN, Mich. — The lakeside town of Port Austin, Michigan, is not what you’d call a bustling cultural center — more like a humble and self-assured farming community off the beaten track, where, as everyone likes to tell you, over and over, you can see the sun rise and set over Lake Huron all in the same day. Being a peninsula within a peninsula, and “on the way” to absolutely nothing, this tip-of-the-thumb town would not typically be considered an art destination … until now.
Van Dyke (aka M-53) runs for approximately 110 miles, directly north from Detroit into the thumb, and Port Austin native and longtime Detroiter Jim Boyle has lived on one end or the other of this road his entire life. When I heard that Boyle was engaged in a project to commission “art barns” from notable Detroit artists up in Port Austin — and that the second project in progress was conceived by artist Scott Hocking, who creates sometimes unsanctioned monuments that represent a staggering investment of personal labor — I had all I needed to excuse a road trip. As with all his work, Hocking draws from the available materials — in this case, the barns in various states of use and decay that Boyle is seeking to inject with renewed purpose in the face of the waning family farming industry that has supported the Port Austin area for decades. From what I understood, Hocking was in the process of rebuilding a barn into a boat.
The straight-shot drive from Detroit to Port Austin via Van Dyke is a perfect core sample of the economic strata of Michigan, sourcing at the Detroit River waterfront and moving through one of the most up-and-coming neighborhoods, before plunging through a section of northeast Detroit that is the poster child for the desolation most people wrongly associate with the entire city. Emerging in the strip-mall culture and truck-stop doughnut shops of Warren, the scene quickly gives way to affluent suburbs like Rochester Hills, and then to rural farmlands; first the quaint U-pick apples and antique shops in Romeo, cultivated for tourism, and then real heartland farming — dairy, cornfields, and working barns. The drive is visually rich, and an excellent opportunity to consider some big questions: what is an “art barn?” What does it mean to build a barn into a boat? Will I know it when I see it?
Yes, I did. Hocking’s “ark” — because the association is absolutely impossible to avoid — stands above the surrounding beet fields, equally part of the landscape and anomalous to it, and entirely beautiful. “The thing that drew me into this barn, when Jim suggested that maybe I do a project with a barn up North, was that the barns, like buildings, are kind of being taken apart by nature and reclaimed,” said Hocking, “And for me, there’s always been something really beautiful about that transition. I like transitions, I like transformations — even if it’s death, I think there’s beauty in that — and it’s just a rural version of the industrial landscape that I’ve been working with in Detroit.”
What was once a working barn on the property of Bill Goretski, and subsequently served a turn as, according to Hocking, a bathroom for all the raccoons in Port Austin, has now been demolished and reconstructed into an aerodynamic vessel of sorts — Hocking calls it “Barnboat,” but concedes that it could also be read as a yonic wooden spaceship. As I drove up, Hocking was attending to business from aloft a scissor lift, sun-scorched and hair wild in the wind. The words “mad hermit-prophet” flitted through my mind, and I can’t help but muse that people probably thought the same thing about Noah.
This is the second installment in a conceptual “art-barn tour” of Port Austin that Boyle has been developing, on and off, since 2012. After lunch, Hocking took me to visit the first site, a two-sided mural on the barn belonging to local farmers of corn and livestock, Hank and Jeanette Ziel, and executed by conceptual art duo Hygienic Dress League (HDL) — also known as Steve and Dorota Coy, underneath the gasmasks. Coy describes this project as, “one of the best opportunities we’ve had,” to further the pair’s post-graffiti commentary. While many street artists execute public art as an end, for the Coys is it a means to propagate “advertising” imagery for their company, the Hygienic Dress League (HDL) — an anti-capitalist business entity that has no purpose other than to exist as a concept. HDL essentially pushes the idea of individuals as corporations to its conceptual borders.
“I love the unsuspecting audience,” said Coy — in this case, the entire population of Port Austin, which can see the barn from one of the main two-lane highways leading into town. On the highway-facing side, a giant pigeon and old-fashioned lettering mimic the archaic advertising that adorned barns around the early and mid 1900s; on the opposite side, a giant HDL take on Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” overlooks a field of waving cornstalks. The subjects’ gasmasks — a ubiquitous element of many HDL works — were a point of contention for the barn owners, not because of the implied relationship between toxicity or pesticides and commercial farming, but because their livestock farm has been locally controversial for emitting unfavorable odors that are the natural byproduct of methane-producing creatures.
These reconciliations between the artistic concerns of conceptual artists and the practical considerations of rural townsfolk add another layer of richness to an already fascinating project in Port Austin. Boyle speaks of Ann and Ken Mikolowski, a married couple comprised of a painter and a writer, respectively, who came to Port Austin in the 1980s to house their ongoing publishing project, The Alternative Press. Boyle found their acquaintance deeply influential to his developing sense of possibility — art being perhaps a little hard to come by in this location remote from any cultural center — and seems to be in the process of paying that forward to a new generation of Port Austinites by arranging for HDL to speak at Bad Axe Middle School, and generally working to bring Detroit artists to create interventions in a place that, in his mind, is struggling with many of the same issues of economic decline as Detroit itself.
“I think we’re drawing attention to these barns in a way that’s positive,” Boyle said, though determining what qualifies as preserving a barn versus destroying it is a highly subjective issue. Will the Port Austin barn action blossom into a full-fledged trend? Is the point to bring more people through this out-of-the-way place, helping it to find new life in art tourism? Or is this more of an inside job, sending a beacon up for creative spirits who, like Boyle, might be deeply inspired by creative role models coming to small towns, and leaving behind highly visible installations?
“That’s a good question,” said Boyle in response to what will become of the project, as Coy nodded in agreement. “Whatever would happen, I would want it to happen naturally.” What seems to be happening so far is deeply promising, and it’s worth hoping that Boyle finds the funding and opportunities to bring more artists to Port Austin and continue to implement his vision.