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Public Portraits Honor Detroit’s Storied Writers and Poets

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Nicole Macdonald working on her portrait Philip Levine portrait (image courtesy the artist)

DETROIT — It seems ridiculous to think of a five-by-seven-foot portrait as being subtle, but that is the word that springs immediately to mind during an encounter with Nicole Macdonald’s large portraits of important figures in Detroit’s history and present. The portraits are subtle in their muted colors that nonetheless come alive with fine details and emotion; in the layered painting style that reads as blended in some places, and as loose Pointillism in others. The works are also conceptually subtle: with each addition to her portrait series, Macdonald quietly forwards her perspective, which reconsiders both history and the nature of being a celebrity.

“My interest is to champion people who represent their fellow city-dwellers, and struggle on their behalf in a certain capacity,” Macdonald said, when she took a moment to speak with me during a poetry reading at the center of the Eastern Market’s “Murals in the Market” event. The reading featured Bill Harris, Naomi Long Madgett, Lolita Hernandez, Terry Blackhawk, Melba Joyce Boyd, and acted as the official unveiling for Macdonald’s newest series within her ongoing Detroit Portrait Series, with this edition focusing on Detroit’s accomplished writers and poets.

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Poet Terry Blackhawk reading at the Eastern Market on Sunday (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Macdonald says her decision to paint lesser-known figures is in part inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. “I don’t think it’s a secret that white people have been championed more in history,” says Macdonald, in response to the observation that many of her subjects are people of color. In some respects, her portraits consciously address that inequity, and in others, they are a pure reflection of her interest in learning about a wider set of contributors than the very few, usually white men, who have been canonized and receive the majority of recognition in their fields. “I feel like I’ve gotten a good dose of Robert Frost,” Macdonald says, “but who is talking about Robert Hayden?”

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Nicole Macdonald, “Robert Hayden” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Hayden’s portrait, which hangs at the main intersection of the Eastern Market Shed 3 building’s cross-shaped interior, gazed myopically in Macdonald’s direction as we spoke — and if you’re wondering, in 1975, this Detroit-born poet received the Academy of American Poet’s Fellowship, and in 1976, became the first Black American to be appointed as United States Poet Laureate and consultant to the Library of Congress. The current portrait series, as well as much of Macdonald’s work, is sponsored by Woodbridge Co., which also helped to facilitate her “Windows to the Soul” project — a permanent installation of the historical figures in the Detroit Portrait Series that hangs in the vacant windows of 5729 Grand River and I-94, Detroit.

Macdonald wants to put faces to recognizable names, like Rosa Parks, or signal boost important names and faces, like Malcolm X, or bring people to light who may have been largely sidestepped by history, like Chief Pontiac, Ojibway Chief of the Great Lakes Region in the mid-1700s, or progressive Detroit Mayor Hazen Pingree. In this way, Macdonald is really challenging the notion of celebrity, recognition, and collective memory, installing these epic portraits in public areas and subtly making their subjects part of Detroit’s collective consciousness. Whether the crowd at the Eastern Market was there to visit local vendors, or pack the seats at the poetry reading, these champions of Detroit made a peripheral or even deeper impression upon everyone’s awareness.

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Nicole Macdonald’s ‘Detroit Portrait Series’ installation at 5729 W. Grand River Ave (image courtesy the artist)

Murals in the Market” continues throughout various locations in Detroit through September 25.

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