Faina Lerman, “Rainis Park (Last family photo taken before coming to America, 1980)” (2017), oil paint on canvas (all images courtesy the artist)

Let’s conjecture that the world of fine art is best geared to recognize and promote those artists who approach artmaking as a career. Careerism among artists enables MFA programs, blue-chip galleries, auction houses, annual and biennial art fair circuits, and other institutions that inextricably make artistic means meet capitalist ends. There are other kinds of artists, however, and Faina Lerman is one of them. If others are “career” artists, Lerman is a “living” artist — not in the basic sense of being alive, but in the sense that her artistic means are inextricable from her life, rather than motivated by the desire to make a living.

Maybe the story begins in 2004. That’s when Lerman, identifying primarily as a painter, graduated from her undergrad program at College for Creative Studies — not only the sole undergrad art school in Detroit but in all of Michigan. In 2005, she married the largely self-taught sculptor-engineer Graem Whyte, and in 2007, they bought a big, mixed-use building at the northern border of Hamtramck, a city-within-the-city of Detroit.

Popps Packing main building, purchased by Lerman and Graem Whyte in 2007
Installation shot from the most recent show at Popps Packing, a snake in the grass (October to December 2022), featuring the paintings of Julia Callis and pottery and sculptures by Virginia Torrence
The 2018 Pinewood Derby and art car auction, a recurring fundraiser that puts an artistic twist on the Boy Scout tradition of Pinewood Derby cars

“The intention was to create a space where we could live and have studios, and we knew we couldn’t live in a proper house, because we had too much stuff,” said Lerman, in an interview with Hyperallergic. “It was kind of like, go to grad school or buy the building — so I think we chose wisely.” The purchase took place at a time when Detroit was still languishing in decades of obscurity, slightly ahead of the first waves of interest that would culminate, over the intervening decades, into a tsunami of redevelopment characterized, with varying degrees of sardonicism, as the “comeback.” In an environment largely bereft of resources, but likewise lacking much in the way of oversight or censure, Lerman and Whyte’s artist residence morphed into a gathering point for their artistic community, a neighborhood hub, and eventually a formal exhibition hall and residency program called Popps Packing.

“We both had really robust practices,” said Lerman. “At that time, we were having lots of shows, and I was really active in the studio — anytime we had a show, it would require me to clear my studio out, reset, have a show, and then put it back. Then once our daughter was born in 2011, I wasn’t really working in that way, so it just turned into a pretty much full-time gallery and artist residency program.”

Portrait of Faina Lerman, 2023 (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

This was one of many pivots for Lerman, in a life marked and made possible by a timely pivot. Perhaps this story starts much further back, in 1980, when then-four-year-old Lerman emigrated from Riga, Latvia, in a family unit that included her two maternal grandparents, her parents, her sister, and an uncle.

“That [region] was all under Communism, it was hard to leave,” said Lerman. “You were blacklisted, though I think the Soviets at the time were allowing a certain amount of Jews out — they kind of were just like, we’re done with you, right, go ahead. They had wiped out 99% of the Jews in Riga already. Between the Germans and the Soviets, we still don’t know who killed my grandpa’s family.”

A series of works in progress from Lerman’s studio, 2022
The artist’s daughter, at play near an installation of signs by artist-resident Vincent Fagnani and Tanna Torr, 2017

One might assume that art appreciation was not the highest priority for a freshly Americanized immigrant family, just getting established in Detroit during the nadir of its hard-luck decades, with professional roots that included garment factory work, barbery, housecleaning, and an endless whirl of side hustles — but Lerman emphasizes that art was part of her development from the youngest of ages and the scarcest of resources.

“The arts were so valued in the Soviet Union, like composers, ballerinas — they had opportunities,” she said. “My mom really loved art, so we would go to museums, we would see symphonies, and they would take loans out so I could take ballet and have piano lessons. Now I’m paying for my kids to do all their stuff, right, I’m like how the hell did you guys manage that? And she says, ‘I took out credit cards. I borrowed money from your grandpa when we needed, you know, it was important to me.’”

In 2017, Lerman presented a solo show of new paintings for the first time in almost a decade. Family Album, which opened at CAVE Gallery in the Russell Industrial Center, reminded come-latelies to the scene that Lerman was more than a gallerist and residency coordinator, and more than one-half of a hilarious, award-winning performance art duo, the Tzarinas of the Plane — she is also an accomplished painter.

Performance still of Tzarinas of the Plane, “Bag Animals (ready for flight)” (c. 2009) (Lerman on right, Bridget Michael on left)

“I got obsessed with the family albums, and how all my baby photos are black and white, because somehow — this is 1975 to 1980 — there wasn’t a reason to have color anything in the Soviet Union. They were so beautiful, because it was like the one moment when somebody was there with a camera. It’s not like we had a camera where things were documented all the time.” What was once an abstract and gestural painting practice has become figurative and obsessively iterative, focused on family and Lerman’s shifting place within it, as she stairsteps up through the generations.

“Now, it’s like, why am I still painting my children — all I want to do is paint my kids or flowers,” she said. “You know, there’s been lots of trauma and things, and there was a time when I felt like I was painting in my darkest mood or my darkest place. And now I paint the joy.”

Conventional wisdom might caution against the cultivation of a painting practice, along with a performance art practice and the artistic and administrative commitment of converting a family home-art-space into a thriving nonprofit art organization and international residency program. Careerism would dictate that having children and making sacrifices to give them advantages is a setback to an art practice, and a chorus of mommy bloggers will insist that letting your children show up late to school because they are having fun making waffles is a precursor to their social degeneracy. Through all that noise, Lerman stays agile and responsive, continuing to pivot, dancing to the beat of her living art.

“I feel like artists are like the bravest people I know, in a lot of ways,” she said. “You constantly have to take these chances — with yourself, with a material, with an environment, with how you live your life — because there’s no written rules.”

As living artists, we can have mentors, but role models are almost impossible, because no one can tell you the best way to live your life.

“You’re a person that’s willing to open things up for yourself, but it’s all unprecedented,” said Lerman. “Because every art life is different. Every art life is totally different. You know?”

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...

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