Interviews

“I Would Be Devastated to See It Destroyed”: An Artist Sues to Protect Her Detroit Mural

Artist Katherine Craig in front of her work "The Illuminated Mural" (photo by Trilogybeats)
Artist Katherine Craig in front of her work “The Illuminated Mural” (photo by Trilogybeats, all images courtesy the artist)

DETROIT — Michigan kicked off 2016 with all kinds of breaking litigation news. Leading the pack, before the horrific revelations of Flint’s water crisis and the Detroit Public School shutdown, artist Katherine Craig filed suit in US District Court in Detroit against Princeton Enterprises, the owner of a building at 2937 East Grand Boulevard that hosts her 2009 public artwork “The Illuminated Mural.” The building went up for auction last summer and was purchased by Princeton Enterprises with the intention of redeveloping it as multifamily or loft housing — a project that would potentially threaten or outright destroy Craig’s artwork. Craig is seeking an injunction against actions by the developer that would compromise or destroy her iconic mural, which is comprised of 100-plus gallons of paint and is a signature piece in her oeuvre.

Her suit epitomizes one of the fundamental tensions of the use of art as a spearhead for gentrification: developers are more than happy to accommodate artists when their interventions bring new interest and value to properties or neighborhoods — and Craig’s mural has inarguably become one of Detroit’s best-loved works of public art — but once these holdings have sufficiently appreciated, little consideration is paid to the sweat, material, and professional equity that went into the works, from both the artists and surrounding communities. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Amy Keller, part of Craig’s legal team at Wexler Wallace LLP, pointed out that this is not strictly an issue in Detroit: one of Chicago’s most cherished public murals, William Walker’s “All of Mankind,” was unceremoniously whitewashed off the face of the Strangers Home Missionary Baptist Church in December to pave the way for a development deal.

“I grew up just outside of Detroit,” said Keller. “Witnessing its redevelopment over the past few years has been incredibly exciting. Just like any city, responsible and mindful development is paramount to ensuring good community relations. This is especially important when redeveloping a neighborhood, as developers should respect the rights of current residents, businesses, and artists who have shaped the fabric of those communities.”

Craig took time out for an interview with Hyperallergic over email, discussing some of the ins and outs of her situation.

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Katherine Craig, "The Illuminated Mural" (2009) (click to enlarge)
Katherine Craig, “The Illuminated Mural” (2009) (click to enlarge)

Sarah Rose Sharp: Can you give me a bit of background on the creation of “The Illuminated Mural”? Was it commissioned? 

Katherine Craig: In 2009 I was awarded a community+public arts:Detroit (CPAD) grant, chosen from among a roster of 50 artists selected by the North End community. This means “The Illuminated Mural” was a noncommissioned work but received community support from the very beginning. As part of the competitive proposal process, which required the work to be highly visible, I conceptualized “The Illuminated Mural,” prepared drawings, and secured a location.

After winning the grant, I began planning for a major, long-lasting project. I secured insurance, purchased materials, and arranged for equipment, including the lifts that were on-site for two weeks. So much went in to this artwork: I had to paint nonstop, sometimes even throughout the night. I used industrial painting methods and worked to make sure that the mural would survive. I applied a protective coating on the work, harnessing myself on to the lift and spraying the mural with two solid coats of ultraviolet protection. It was a test of endurance.

But it was also an amazing opportunity to make my mark on the city and its arts scene — for example, I also used the mural as a home base to launch North End Studios, a space for local artists within 2937 East Grand Boulevard, the site of the mural.

SRS: How did the surrounding community receive the piece, initially and over time? 

KC: The response of the community was inspiring. The community praised the mural, and people who knew I had a studio in the building would stop by just to take photos of the work. I attended many community meetings while creating the mural, informing neighbors of my progress and making sure they understood the plans. I remember particularly the excitement, especially from the young people I worked with, at one of my last required community meetings. Since the mural was finished, community groups have hired me to teach classes on mural art in the North End and funded more of my projects.

Beyond the immediate community, I received attention locally, nationally, and internationally for the work. It’s been featured in music videos, on television, and in film documentaries. “The Illuminated Mural” created an economy for my work, and I was able to use it as a bridge to my graduate program. More broadly, I’ve been proud to be part of a moment of resurgence of mural art in Detroit.

Katherine Craig's "The Illuminated Mural" on the side of 2937 East Grand Boulevard in Detroit (all images courtesy the artist)
Katherine Craig’s “The Illuminated Mural” on the side of 2937 East Grand Boulevard in Detroit (click to enlarge)

SRS: I am interested in the idea that in contributing art to a neighborhood, an artist is given a stake in the equity of the building where their work is located. Too often, the work of artists paves the way for developers, but as the spaces they have altered increase in value, their work is destroyed. Can you speak to your experience of this process, and what it means for you emotionally and professionally to have an important work at risk of destruction?

KC: People often don’t realize how much investment goes into art. “The Illuminated Mural” reflects the time, effort, and money I’ve put into my career — most obviously, a bachelor’s degree from the College for Creative Studies and a master’s degree in sculpture from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. I was young, 25, when I painted this work, and it was a major turning point in my career.

I’ve capitalized on the mural’s existence, and it’s not surprising that other people have found ways to do the same. The building is a local landmark, and I know the mural could be something that stands out in the mind of potential buyers. 2937 East Grand Boulevard is now the “Illuminated Mural” building, and this could attract potential developers to the site. The possibility that my work could be destroyed as a result is extremely frustrating. Art can be a major force for good in a city, but I worry that developers and the larger forces of gentrification often exploit it.

And personally and professionally, the threat of having my work removed poses many obstacles. As a direct result of the mural’s reputation, I’m currently included in a new CPAD roster, which other neighborhoods can use when choosing artists for future projects. “The Illuminated Mural” is a central part of my livelihood, and I would be devastated to see it destroyed.

I believe that public art and urbanism go hand in hand. There should be more art in Detroit. But that can’t happen unless we protect the rights of artists.

SRS: What is the ideal outcome in this scenario, as you see it?

KC: I’ll leave this one for my lawyers, except to say that I hope to prevent the destruction of the mural and set a precedent for other cases.

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