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Jose Mertz
Jose MertzCourtesy of the artist

The art programme hoping to bring new life to Detroit

Over the summer three artists, Jose Mertz, Felicia Forte, and Steve Kim, temporarily moved into the city’s East Market to create a series of new works

Detroit is experiencing a cultural Renaissance. A city with a history marred by racial tensions, unemployment, a heavily decreasing population, and bankruptcy is now dubbed a place “for regeneration”. Red Bull’s House of Art is just one programme helping to inject life back into Downtown. Turning the gallery into a live-in residency programme, the House of Art acts as an incubator for local as well as national artists by providing accommodation, studio space and materials to create. Each residency then culminates in a free exhibition – curated by Matt Eaton. Over the summer, three artists, Jose Mertz, Felicia Forte, and Steve Kim temporarily moved into Detroit’s House of Art in the city’s East Market to create a series of works that were unveiled in August. As the exhibition closes and House of Art prepares to launch its next show, we catch up with Mertz, Forte, and Kim about their experiences with art and their impressions of Detroit.


Can you tell us about the works you've created for the show?

Jose Mertz: The work created for the show was based around Eastern philosophy and images that are usually associated with Kung Fu and zen. I put my own twist on it, and embedded my own personal perspective on the mythology behind the work. I have images of dragons, praying mantises and tigers.

You have a fascination with animals – are the creatures you choose symbolic? Or are they more used for aesthetic reasons?

Jose Mertz: More symbolic than anything. Although they are incredibly fun to draw and flesh out, it's the particular creatures that I end up using are ones that have meaning to me. The dragon represents the unseen world. The tiger is more the world of matter and the cardinal world. The mantis is a spiritual guide through reality in a nutshell.

Where do you draw your inspiration from when creating art?

Jose Mertz: To this day, I still find inspiration in science fiction and the mystic arts. Things like sacred geometry, extraterrestrials, old tribal ways, manga animation... all kinds of things. I absorb from all directions and then try to make sense of it in my personal life and how it can translate to the general world through images.

You're based in Miami, but spent time in the Red Bull Studio in Detroit for this residency programme. Tell us about your impressions of the Detroit art scene and what you learned?

Jose Mertz: Detroit was a great experience for me. I was not sure what to expect but I came in town with an open mind and with the intent to create new work, which worked out great. It was a very hard working, down to earth vibe in Detroit, and I got to explore and create with no pressure and to take my time in a great facility. The art scene is very solid in Detroit. I saw amazing murals by artist friends of mine and when exhibitions came around, it was always a packed scene.

What's next?
Jose Mertz: Right now I am preparing for Art Basel Miami in December. I will be showing with Thinkspace at Scope Miami and I will also be possibly working on a new mural. I also have some other illustration projects coming for next year in the world of film as well as music.


Can you tell us about your works in the show?

Steve Kim: I had about 30 works, half based on personal photos and half based on film stills. I worked on large-scale oil paintings for the first time in several years ,as well as smaller pieces in watercolour and coloured pencil.

You have said you enjoy working with 'byproducts' – can you tell us more about how you came to work this way?

Steve Kim: I seem to have trouble coming up with things from scratch, such as creating or inventing. It’s easier to modify something that’s already there. So working from photos is important in that respect. I don’t have to think too much, I just need to observe and copy and wait for the inevitable disappointment and disenchantment that follows. The feeling of having seen it all, of having been there... that’s when I feel there’s something to do, something to modify, edit or fix.

Tell us about how film inspires your work – and how you worked with it for this residency?

Steve Kim: The original idea was to do some paintings based on horror films set in Detroit. A few years ago there were several that were set and shot in the city. One in particular, It Follows, left a lasting impression on me. However, once I was scrubbing through that movie and the others set in Detroit nothing really grabbed me, and I ended up working from other films more or less at random.

Aside from film, where else do you draw your inspiration when creating art?

Steve Kim: The figure.

You're based in Mississippi but spent time in the Red Bull Studio in Detroit for this residency programme. Tell us about your impressions of the Detroit art scene and what you learned?

Steve Kim: The street art scene is very cool. It was nice to walk around and see all the murals and public art especially.


Can you tell us about the works you've created for the show?

Felicia Forte: My paintings are all things from my life. Many from intimate or in-between moments taken from my phone’s camera. Sometimes recreating time spent or spotlighting an object for a still life. But all things that hopefully resonate calm, or the idea of home. In a contradiction in terms of it's an intuitive process, that I spend a lot of time thinking about. Looking for that combination of personal nostalgia, intermixed with my interest in graphic shapes and colour. However, it's not as simple as subject matter and design. A large part of my painting is exploring a certain way I want to paint. The actual physicality of my brush, paint, and canvas, and how I want to apply them. A simplicity in the moment, of the moment. 

You have said you work with 'vulnerability' – can you tell us more about this?

Felicia Forte: Some of the vulnerability is right on the surface. Being that I am painting from my own life in all it's un-glamour. My boyfriend napping in our bedroom, notes to myself – usually about paintings – my messy living room, and televisions. I have painted a few televisions. It is all very unsexy. Which definitely gives me that 'cat on a limb' feeling. Not knowing if something could, or should become a painting. I have no assurances that people will have any interest in my work, but I create work that needs to be seen; “visual art”. It is all this belief in myself. Which again, applies to both subject matter and execution. Coming from a more academic, or realist, background, painting them more abstractly seemed scary at one point. It's what I wanted, and knew I should do, but it was against what was conventional around me. However, it is in this pocket that I believe that good work is made. 

You've said you focus on three words when creating, ‘integrity, instinct, and economy’, how did you come to work with these words?

Felicia Forte: Building an art career is ambiguous and complicated. I use these words to remind myself what is important to me. Instinct comes first. Instinct to choose what I want to paint. Integrity is making sure I paint it. And economy – along with instinct and integrity – is a note on how I paint.  

Where else do you draw your inspiration from when creating art?

Felicia Forte: I looked at the residency as a real opportunity. Freeing me to experiment further with what I had already been doing. It ended up being 20 paintings in three months. Elements of one painting would excite and inform the other. Often leading to new and different paintings. Even upturning previously crafted ideas. There are a large self-portrait and a painting of a snowy Hamtramck street that may never see the light of day because they were usurped by explorations of coloured light on knitted afghans. 

How did you get involved with the residency programme at Red Bull Studio in Detroit?

Felicia Forte: Red Bull finds artists they like and admire, and then invites them. I had time on my schedule and the curiosity. Painting is a very private experience for me. The idea of painting in a new space, one much more public was a new challenge. I wanted to see if it was good for my paintings or not. It was.

You are from LA but now based in Detroit, can you give us some insight into what the Detroit art scene is like? Have you seen it evolve, or is it evolving now?

Felicia Forte: During the two years I have been in Detroit I have been travelling a lot for shows and workshops. So, I haven't spent enough time in the scene here to comment on it with sufficient intelligence. I can say that I don’t know many artists in Detroit – I’m a bit isolated at the moment. However, a part of why I moved here is to have more time to myself, to focus inward and create some art. Since being in Detroit I have painted over 50 paintings, that aren't studies, but fully realised paintings. That's quite a tick up from what I was able to do in San Francisco. 

What's next?

Felicia Forte: Next, is getting a studio that will allow me space to paint larger work. After working on large paintings at Red Bull House of Art it is hard to go back to smaller work. Then it's more shows. More teaching. More of everything really.