I’d like to take a turn away from our usual conversation to commemorate the once-in-a-lifetime experience I’ll enjoy next month when we celebrate the founding of the Detroit Artists Workshop 50 years ago.
This month I’ll celebrate my 73rd birthday on October 2nd, so I was 23 when we started the Artists Workshop as Detroit’s bohemian outpost and gathering place for a renegade artistic community that was creating a new way to make art and live and work together with other fellow seekers like ourselves.
The Detroit Artists Workshop was a beautifully organic thing that grew directly out of the nexus of a wildly disparate group of creative individuals in their 20s who came together, one or two or a few at a time, in the neighborhood around Wayne State University in the spring and summer of 1964 to form the Artists Workshop Society.
Centered in a rented house at 1252 West Forest, the Artists Workshop became a beacon of contemporary art and creative fellowship for people who were trying to find a different way to make a life and express our ideas and feelings outside the structures of conventional society, academia and the oppressive industrial machinery of working-class Detroit itself.
Along with a common hunger for knowledge and new mental horizons, we shared a quest to find a place where we could live, work and make our art in the middle of the city of Detroit. We were attracted to the intense energy of the city, the African American music and culture that pulsated everywhere we turned, the cheap rents and—for most of us—the welcome accessibility of marijuana and other illicit substances we had somehow managed to encounter in our pursuit of consciousness expansion.
We wanted to get high and live without having a real job, meet and mingle with people like ourselves, and make music or poetry or painting or other art forms of our own devise and share them with kindred souls wherever we could find them.
Some of us were into jazz and entered the world of Detroit through its jazz clubs, coffeehouses and after-hours joints where we would meet the musicians and fellow music lovers and smoke weed with them between sets.
Some, like myself, came from small cities and towns in outstate Michigan and migrated to Detroit to find the intellectual and cultural stimulation we were desperately seeking. Some came to college to study literature and other disciplines and turned into poets and painters and photographers and film-makers determined to make some kind of expression of what they saw and how they felt in the heart of the city.
There weren’t so many of us, and we kept to ourselves, hopefully well out of the way of the squares. There weren’t really any designated centers of what we were looking for, no place to go to find out and be part of what was happening unless you were looking for jazz, and you had to find that in little inner-city bars and underground art spots.
So we found each other organically, person to person, in no particular place except the one we were blessed to inhabit at that moment, alert to the possibility of encountering another interesting person of the underground persuasion.
I was a voraciously inquisitive individual who came to Detroit without knowing more than a handful of people, and I was always looking to find my way into what was happening if it had anything to do with jazz, poetry, painting and other arts activity, social justice, intellectual fellowship and access to marijuana.
This was my experience: I came to Detroit from Flint in March of 1964 to attend graduate school at Wayne State University and seriously investigate the jazz, poetry and arts activity available nowhere else. I took an apartment in the Forest Arms at Second & Forest.
I had two epiphanies in Detroit that spring. The first came when I attended a screening of “underground films” at the Detroit Institute of Arts, where I found the first large-scale manifestation of the avant-garde arts community I knew was there but could never locate. Here were a couple hundred people in beatnik and intellectual garb milling around collegially and then filing in to watch a program of experimental movies from film-makers never before heard of. I didn’t really meet anybody that night, but now I knew they were there.
The second came one sunny afternoon in late spring as I was walking down Second Avenue from the Wayne campus with a copy of the new Coltrane Live At Birdland album and the LeRoi Jones book of poetry called The Dead Lecturer under my arm. A guy called to me from behind and wanted to talk about the Coltrane side and the kind of modern poetry so beautifully represented by the LeRoi Jones book. We walked along talking and gesticulating wildly when he introduced himself as a poet from Monteith College at WSU named George Tysh.
This was my initial contact with the gang of poets and creative individuals who hung out together at the Monteith Center (an experimental college inside Wayne State University) and established a little storefront operation called the Red Door Gallery just off the corner of Second & Prentis. Now Tysh wanted to get together soon—maybe later the same day. I showed him where I was staying and invited him over.
That night Tysh came by my pad at the Forest Arms and brought his friend, the cornet player Charles Moore, because he thought we might like each other. We sat up for hours smoking joints and listening to music. Charles left early in the morning, only to return that afternoon with his cornet in a paper bag and the clothes on his back.
Charles moved in with me right then and we stayed together for the next two years, developing our command of our respective art forms, exchanging ideas and concepts, growing together as artists and human beings, and dreaming up what would manifest itself as the Detroit Artists Workshop.
Now I was where I wanted to be, right in the middle of a network of creative renegades who were starting to hook up in wider and wider circles of friendship and collaboration.
We had the idea that several individuals could live together in sort of an urban communalism set-up, split the rent and utilities six or eight ways and live for a monthly housing cost of less than $100 each, with plenty of room to live and work and no restrictions on how loud you were playing your record player or your trumpet or drums. Everybody in the whole complex smoked weed, so nobody was going to turn you in if they saw a roach on your floor or smelled something nice coming out of your room.
Well, that was 50 years ago, and it worked like a charm at the time, and now quite a number of us have survived and prospered as creative artists if not as tax-paying citizens, and we’ll be celebrating what we think of as our glorious history in Detroit that strated on November 1, 1964. There’s not a person among us who could have seen this coming when we got together in 1964, but here we are, and it’s a beautiful thing. Just as then we still be saying, 50 years later: FREE THE WEED!
September 17, 2014
© 2014 John Sinclair. All Rights Reserved.