Thu | Oct 18, 2018

Visiting Michigan and the Detroit Institute of Arts

Published:Sunday | September 20, 2015 | 12:00 AMLaura Tanna
Diego Rivera murals at original DIA entrance, note composite of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in lower right figure.
Edsel Ford and William Valentiner included in one of Rivera's murals.
Mpondo matrimonial clothing.
Krege Court staff (from left), Cedric Toles, Michael Fluegel and Damon Birden.
Seating in courtyard of Medieval Krege Court.
Detroit Institute of Arts Auditorium.
Captain's Quarters Inn bed and breakfast in Lexington.
The Windjammer Restaurant sign.
Historic Lexington main street.
Sculpture outside Detroit Institute of Arts.
Thomas Alva Edison's statue at foot of the Blue Water Bridge.

Growing up, I'd heard about my Catholic great-great-grandfather who'd migrated from Ireland to America and then married a Quaker, a member of the Society of Friends. I'd never known their history in America until I visited my cousins in Michigan.

Kathy is the family genealogist whose trove of information revealed that with the Cherokee War of 1759-60, Quakers migrated from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and Virginia to South Carolina. The passage of the Northwest Ordinance, aka the Freedom Ordinance or the Ordinance of 1787 by an act of the Confederation Congress of the US, created the Northwest Territory where slavery was prohibited. It established the Ohio River as the border between free and slave territories, setting up competition for admission of states allowing slavery versus those prohibiting slavery, ultimately settled by the US Civil War. Historian William F. Medlin notes: "In 1801, most Friends began leaving [South Carolina] for the Midwest because of their opposition to slavery." Which explains why one branch of my family ended up in Ohio and Indiana.

In 1688, a group of Friends in Philadelphia made the first public statement in America totally condemning slavery. Did you know that the mother of Jamaican-born author Evan Jones, who wrote the script for the acclaimed television series "The Fight Against Slavery," was a Quaker missionary to Jamaica? Interesting how our family backgrounds influence the work we do.

Young Edison's home

My cousins live in Lexington, Michigan, a harbour village on Lake Huron with a population of just 1,178, next to the maritime capital of the Great Lakes, Port Huron. Now, Port Huron's famous son is Thomas Alva Edison, inventor of the light bulb, film projector, and distribution of electricity. He was born in Ohio in 1847 but lived in Michigan from 1854-1864 - age seven to 17. This was the era of lumber and steamship travel, with a dozen sawmills when Edison was a boy. He quit school at age 12 to work selling snacks and newspapers on the Grand Trunk Railroad line between Fort Gratiot and Detroit. He'd take the morning train to Detroit, spend hours reading in the Detroit Young Men's Society Library, then return to Fort Gratiot in the afternoon, working on the train, according to freelance journalist Mike Connell, who has an interesting series on Edison's unfortunate family history of becoming involved in lost causes. That is until Thomas's success.

Today, an attraction on the Thomas Edison Parkway, where the St Clair River meets Lake Huron, is a statue of Edison as a boy selling newspapers, at the foot of the Blue Water Bridge, a busy transit point to Ontario, Canada. The Canadian side boasts International Flag Plaza, dedicated June 14, 2002, to all those responding to 911 calls in both the US and Canada. On the US side, across from Edison's statue is the Thomas Edison Depot Museum, featuring historic displays of his inventions with a short video on his life and a vintage train car.

One visitor found the museum truly inspirational because it demonstrated that someone who "wasn't the brightest kid on the block" academically nonetheless had the ingenuity to become a brilliant inventor and a great friend of Henry Ford, another great inventor who changed the world with his Model T Ford automobile.

Today, Lexington and Port Huron, just two or three hours' drive north of Detroit, are tranquil summer vacation spots filled with quaint bed-and-breakfast homes, parks, concerts, and a delightful lakeside restaurant, The Windjammer.

We heard about Detroit's poverty and bankruptcy with the decline of American automobile manufacturing, a shrinking tax base, almost half of property owners not paying their taxes and corruption. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was sentenced on October 10, 2013, to 28 years in prison "for turning City Hall into a money-making criminal enterprise" to quote The Detroit News of September 7, 2015, having been found guilty of racketeering, extortion, bribery, and tax evasion.

The news also reported on Detroit's valuable art collection, of which I'd never before heard. Intrigued, I wanted to see it and was pleased that mediators dealing with the bankruptcy proposed that US$816 million be secured for city pensioners and if the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) contributed US$100 million, the unencumbered title to the museum's magnificent art collection would be left in perpetual trust for the people of the city, region, and state. In the grand bargain goal, citizens and foundations, in one year, raised that US$100 million, spread over 20 years to protect the artistic legacy of a now independent centre of beauty and learning.

Located in Midtown Detroit, by Wayne State University, the DIA acknowledges being "home to more than 60,000 works, a multicultural survey of human creativity from ancient times through the 21st century."

Inspired by newspaper magnate James E. Scripps, founded in 1883 and funded by prominent Detroit citizens, the museum expanded in 1923, again in 1966, 1971, and 2007. In 100 galleries, this magnificent institute has everything from Egyptian artefacts, to French aristocratic rooms to Shango altars, a video of Nigerian masqueraders and South African Mpondo matrimonial garb. A Van Gogh is on loan to Japan. Mexican muralist Diego Rivera's finest work was created here. He produced 27 fresco panels over 11 months from 1932 to 1933. Commissioned by Edsel Ford and Director William Valentiner, the Marxist artist executed "The Detroit Industry Murals" uniquely celebrating Detroit's manufacturing base and workforce, juxtaposing positives and negatives, i.e. the production of poisonous gas bombs vs the creation of life-saving vaccinations. Detroit's development of industry and technology dominate four gallery walls.

Medieval Kresge Court is perfect for a delicious meal before venturing back to 17th century Italian art or contemporary African American, etc. There's even a bronze donkey in the lobby for people to touch one artwork. DIA's community outreach programme, Think Like An Artist, travels throughout Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties, and residents of all three counties enjoy free entry to this fabulous place everyone should visit and revisit!