As my readers will remember, last November marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Detroit Artists Workshop, a seminal collective of cultural workers I’m proud to have been a part of.
This coming June will mark the 50th anniversary of the Artists Workshop Press, which published my first books of poetry. And to celebrate my half a century as a poet and writer I have collected 25 poems & 25 writings for Its All Good: A John Sinclair Reader, which I hope to see published in an American edition this year, and hopefully by the publisher of this magazine for which I’ve written a column each month for the past four years.
Now I’m in the process of presenting excerpts from It’s All Good in this column, and this week’s episode is a look at the Detroit Artists Workshop by two of the founding members several months after its creation. This article has been edited from its original appearance in a magazine called New University Thought.
In the context of this column, it’s worth while to note that the Detroit Artists Workshop was a hotbed of weed smoking. We were breathing together to forge a creative conspiracy in the decrepit city of Detroit.
As we’ve seen in a previous installment of this column, the Detroit Narcotics Squad pinpointed the Artists Workshop and this writer as dangerous factors opposed to their utter control of the life of the city, and they caused us a world of pain but we continued to make our art and organize ourselves for effective cultural action.
Finally, I gave the two joints in my famous marijuana case to an undercover policewoman—at the Artists Workshop.
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GETTING OUT FROM UNDER
The Detroit Artists’ Workshop Society
By Robin Eichele and John Sinclair
Detroit, despite all its pretensions, has been artistically “dead” for longer than most people here want to admit. Young artists of all disciplines have made it a necessary point in the past generation or two to get out of Detroit as soon as possible for the vital centers of U.S. kulchur—New York, San Francisco, even Chicago.
Detroit has really been nowhere, as the saying goes: one halfway decent theater, one museum, a decaying jazz scene, no community of poets, painters, writers, anything.
A group of young Detroit artists—at first primarily poets and musicians, most of us students at Wayne State University—got together in the late summer of 1964 and decided to do something to make Detroit a viable and vital place to live and work.
A number of us, having found Detroit an inhabitable urban environment, had made various efforts to provide a focal point for Detroit artistic activity in the past: poet George Tysh’s “Touchstone” was a storefront gallery and meeting place that failed to survive due to lack of strong support, and more recently Tysh and painter Carl Shurer operated the Red Door gallery, a center of avant-garde film showings, exhibitions of paintings, and general “hanging out” that ceased operation with Shurer’s departure for Greece in June 1964.
The people who had been active in these ventures formed the nucleus of a new group, the Artists Workshop Society, a totally cooperative organization designed and structured to draw upon the resources of every participating individual in order to perpetuate itself—and promote community thinking on an artistic and personal level—through its own cohesive community nature.
Two artists who would play a key role in the establishment of the Artists Workshop met in June of 1964 and immediately began looking for ways to draw the artistic community together into an effective working group. Charles Moore, a musician, and John Sinclair, a poet and writer involved in the Detroit jazz scene, were at first concerned with providing a place for musicians to rehearse and present formal concerts of the new jazz music.
As the members of the core group talked to more and more people about our concept of a Detroit Artists Workshop, we found a large (although rather cynical) interest, and our original conception grew broader as more of our friends and associates offered ideas and support for its implementation.
On the 1st of November, 1964 the Artists Workshop Society presented the first in what has become a series of free weekly open Sunday afternoon “events” that integrate jazz, poetry readings, and exhibitions of visual arts.
Moore’s group, the Detroit Contemporary 5, donates its time and talent for free concerts, the readings are done by Workshop members and supporters, and Detroit artists and photographers display their work—all for the benefit of the community rather than financial remuneration.
The group wanted more than this surface unity, however: Our goal was (and is) to pull together the active and potential artists in the Detroit area into a working, cooperative community of human beings that would offer to each individual an open, supportive artistic environment.
We saw Detroit as essentially virgin ground—there was everything to be done, the raw material was at hand, and we started working to exploit the situation in what we saw as the best interests of every artistically-oriented individual in the community.
With the physical forces in operation, a spiritual focal point quickly evolved. The Sunday programs began to draw upwards of 100 people weekly, almost wholly from the peripheral student-“beatnik”-artist community that already loosely existed.
No “outside” advertising was done: people were informed of the Workshop’s doings by mimeographed flyers announcing each week’s program, passed out hand to hand by Workshop members to likely looking persons in the immediate vicinity.
Our intention was to attract like-minded people to the Workshop, which we regarded as an emergency measure to help salvage the salvageable; “outsiders,” e.g. entertainment-seekers and “culture-vultures,” would have defeated the group’s purposes.
Cooperative “self-education” classes in jazz history and music appreciation, practical film-making, and contemporary poetry were organized and “taught” by Workshop members to supplement the WSU’s meager programs in these areas and as a means of educating members in the community in the artistic disciplines in which they were involved.
Soon the Artists Workshop Press was organized to mimeograph weekly bulletins and other propaganda, with the ultimate goal (soon to be realized) of printing books of poetry and prose by Workshop members for local and national distribution.
We are operating on what is truly a “grass-roots” level—dealing with people, people who still can be saved—and the success, however large or small, of such a venture depends entirely on personal, individual, immediate direct action in the radical sense of cutting to the root of the problem and working from there.
We have come from nowhere—powerless, no money, with only our personal visions and energies to keep us working at what we believe is useful—and we have made a dent in the huge mountain of ignorance and greed looming high before us in the dark.
We at the Artists Workshop believe that if enough of us are willing to start at the bottom, stop beating our heads against the walls that society has put up for us, organize, and GET TO WORK, to avert the “total disaster now on tracks.”
We don’t claim to have the “only way,” or the “true way”—these labels are not relevant—but we do have a way, and we are following it. And we do mean business.
You can buy John Sinclair books and music in the Iron Man Shop