An important aspect of the revitalization and regrowth of Detroit is revolved around the resurgence of a city art presence.
Artists like Shepard Fairey, How and Nosm who painted murals on the One Campus Martius building, and Futura who debuted his newest solo exhibition at Library Street Collective, prove that Detroit is in the midst of an art renaissance.
However, while we love showcasing the artists of Detroit’s future, it’s vital to pay homage its past.
Artists like Robert Sestok have paved the way for the next generation of city artists. With such a long and rich history in the Motor City we had to sit down and chat with the man himself.
“I‘ve been to New York and I’ve been to Chicago,” said Sestok. “I got a lot of friends out there but I love Detroit because there’s a certain sense of freedom that we have here.”
We hope you enjoy this inside look into one of Detroit’s hidden art gems: City Sculpture Park and the artist that made it possible.
Nestled into a small, grassy lot on Alexandrine Street is City Sculpture Park, home to Sestok’s 29 welded steel sculptures.
As you enter the lot, the 8-foot art pieces tower over you, with every angle casting unique shadows and light.
“There’s a lot of diversity to the work,” Sestok began, as we walked through the art park.
“It looks like a whole bunch of different people made this but there’s a common thread between all the different variations in the work: the metal and the way it’s constructed. It’s really rough and gritty and industrial – like the city.”
He is alluding to the rich industrial history of the city of Detroit, with tales of hard working, blue-collar workers hauling steel and iron to build the downtown towers that we have today.
“I guess what I’m pursuing is the idea about organic shapes,” continues the artist. “I work with steel, which is a natural material from the ground, iron ore, and coal; although, it turns rusty. Everything needs maintenance: the bridges on the highway, the fences, and our houses need maintenance. Anything that’s made with steel needs maintenance.”
“Everything needs maintenance:” a perfect description for the city itself.
Whether you’re a born-and-raised Detroiter or a recent visitor to the revitalized city, you’ve heard of Detroit’s hard fought rise to the top.
The “rust” that Sestok refers to could stand as a metaphor for the city: that with a little maintenance, anything can be saved and restored for its higher purpose.
“There are a lot of archeological sites that excavate things that are made of metal; there’s a lot of ironwork that people dig up. Even the iron treasures at the bottom of the sea in sunken ships: they still have a value to them. People treasure them as items and they put them in museums. So I feel like I’m on the right track with what I’m doing,” he laughed.
We began talking about his diverse collection of art around the city.
“I’ve got several pieces around the city of Detroit besides having all these pieces in the park. I’ve been doing this for a number of years.
The first piece I sold to the city of Detroit. It’s on the boulevard at 3rd street. That was put there in 1986. It’s an unusual piece of artwork: a column that goes up 12 feet into the air. It took six years to get the approval. That’s how persistent I am.
The second piece I did is at Blue Cross Blue Shield. I have a sculpture there, which is a relief; like a tube that has been cut out. As you walk around and look at it you see the back side and front side and it changes as you walk around it; like a movie projector.
I also have work in front of the Hannan House on Woodward, a piece in front of Hillberry Theater on Cass Avenue, and another in the Woodbridge community.”
According to the City Sculpture website, Sestok has nearly 60 sculptures constructed since 1980. This consists of welded steel, bronze, and stainless steel.
“I started focusing on a new venue that I created with my friend from New Zealand,” he continues. “He bought a factory in Highland Park in 2012. I helped him renovate the factory. In 2014, we had an artist show with big paintings. This year, we’re doing a big sculpture show. That show is opening on September 17 called ‘Big Sculpture with The Factory.’ Then on Sept 30, we’re having a party here celebrating the first year at the park.”
I asked him about the conception of the park: how it began and where he’d like to see it go.
“City Sculpture is open every day of the week, every day of the year. It’s for people to come and sit and enjoy or for people to walk around. It’s kind of out of the way and it’s like a little hidden treasure when people find it. We get a lot of people riding their bikes coming here. People also drive by and stop.”
He revealed on his website the purpose for the park: education and inspiration. He hopes this park will become a site for classes, and workshops in sculptural art, mainly for high school and college students.
“The new sculpture I’m putting in, which will be here in another month or so, is going to be 16 feet tall,” he added. “It will be a little bigger than the pieces in the park now. You’ll be able to see it when you drive by. I’m planning in the future to build larger scale sculptures right here.”
City Sculpture is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, open and free to the public. Sestok has a passion for community involvement and enrichment, working closing with the surrounding neighborhoods.
“My involvement with the neighborhood has been mostly about redeveloping old homes. I did carpentry work and got into rebuilding homes for people. I even rebuilt my own home. I have this ability to work with tools; I knew how to weld when I was 14-years-old so I’ve always been kind of of curious about how to put things together.
My major in school was ceramics, but hey, everything broke all the time,” Robert reflects, with a chuckle. “Then I switched to glass blowing and that was even more of a disaster! So I did mixed media for a long time before I made the sculpture in 1980. I was showing my work around town. It took on a natural development to work with steel and put my ideas into steel.
I would like to work with more precious metals,” contemplates Sestok. “I have a piece in here that is bright and shiny aluminum sheet metal. It’s crunched up and assembled in a vertical format. The title of that was ‘The New Gold Standard.’ It’s hallow but it looks like gold nugget. I was making a comment on inflation.”
We began discussing his interest in the arts; where he got his inspiration.
“When I was growing up as a kid, every summer I’d go swimming and I’d be around all these sculptures before I was 14, when I started welding. I was influenced by all of the art I was exposed to and I think that had some influence on what you see here.
I don’t look at the money; I look at what I’m doing creatively and how I can advance my creativity. It’s not about how much it is.”
With such a long history in the city, I asked how he has witnessed the change in art in Detroit.
“I‘ve been to New York and I got a lot of friends out there but I love Detroit because there’s a certain sense of freedom that we have here. Lots of green space, not a big deal at rush hour. There’s a lot of diversity. People come from all over the world to work in Detroit. There are a lot of people that have moved here and are looking for affordable housing and studio space so they can express themselves. That’s the sense of freedom that Detroit offers. You know in other metropolitan areas like Chicago and New York, things are really crowded with artists.
And I think that we’re going to get there eventually. I grew up in the late 60s through the 70s and 80s and I’ve watched things grow and expand. There was only one contemporary artist in the city in 1970 and that has grown into all these galleries. I built a sculpture park here because there was no room anywhere else to put it,” Sestok jokes. “It didn’t happen over night: it was a dream I had for years. I realize now I’m part of the community and I hope to grow the park a little more.”
Check It Out
With such an exciting reemergence of a city art presence, take time to check out City Sculpture Park, a reminder of Detroit’s regrowth and revitalization.
The park is located at 955 Alexandrine and open daily from 9:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. You can follow artist Robert Sestok on his blog or website for updates on new exhibitions and art pieces, along with community events at City Sculpture Park.