What MFA means in Detroit

Over the past two years that I’ve been working toward my MFA at the Cranbrook Academy of Art, my standard (hackneyed?) retort to artists, critics, friends, janitors, anyone who wants to talk-about-art-in-Detroit, is that artists are going to have a hard time being self-sustaining here, and for reasons we’re all aware of. Some have countered this, or have said, you know, that attitude isn’t what this city needs right now. And I balk at that, because�and this is another story�the last thing the city needs is a bunch of people who care more about the art scene than the very real social and economic problems the city is facing.

 From Cranbrook: Lauren Satlowski, Anxiety, 2011, oil on canvas, 22 x 28 inches. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Several universities in the area boast highly-ranked graduate programs, but only Wayne State University, University of Michigan, and Cranbrook offer MFA degrees in Fine Art. Even the College for Creative Studies, a private art school near Wayne State, grants only interdisciplinary and ‘transportation’ design MFAs, a testament to the lingering prominence of the automotive industry in the region. All of this is to say that, based on the ambition seen in the work of these students, I think many will end up pursuing their art practices someplace else.

Nearly all of the painters I surveyed of these three schools have returned to painting, so to speak. Many are working traditionally�paint on fabric or paper�and often abstractly, in many cases with an attention to materials and process. This isn’t always the case, though. Wayne State had three painters out of six graduating�the work was shown in one group show�and none of them are making work about process. U-M had a number of solo and two-person shows, with two painters of the six MFAs.

Painters at Wayne State:

Channeling Lichtenstein…?  
Stephanie Henderson 
at Elaine L. Jacob. The Big Bang, 2012, oil on linen, 34 x 67 inches.  Photo courtesy of the artist. 
Jennifer Thrift at Wayne State’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Jennifer Belair at Elaine L. Jacob. Photo courtesy of the artist.
At the University of Michigan, MFA candidates were thinking very much about materials and process:  
Jessica Joy Goldberg at John Paul Slusser Gallery. Photo by James Rotz. 

Bernadette Witzack at Work�Ann Arbor, coupling paint straight from the tube with, well, others, and a number of process-based techniques.

Bernadette Witzack at Work�Ann Arbor. L to R: Curdle, 2012, acrylic, screen printing ink and carving on panel, 20 x 24 inches; Betty, 2013, acrylic and spray paint on canvas, 24 x 30 Inches. Both photos courtesy of the artist. 
Like MFA degrees procured from the other Midwest flagship, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Cranbrook‘s graduating students are thrust into one space: the school’s vast art museum. It’s hard to say how effective this method is, as MFA shows often end up looking poorly curated as opposed to the smaller rotating group shows, a logic used in many programs. The result at Cranbrook is that students are given a radically small space, roughly 8 x 8 feet, and they generally show only one or two pieces. 
But, despite the diversity of the work in the exhibition, as a whole there are cohesive groupings  in the museum’s gallery spaces. A conversation about class and taste dominated the work of many painters, of which there are seven total, and nearly half of them showed work other than paint on canvas, panel, or paper.
 Brian Kavanaugh paints on Levi�s. All My Moves. Acrylic, oil, and denim on canvas.
“…things we understand become hosts for the unknown,” describing the work of Lauren Satlowski, who showed paintings and a short (but hilarious) animation. Count Lloyd Out. Oil on canvas. 

 Like the tiles in your bathroom. Anna Breininger, sourcing geometric patterns from domestic settings. From Kiltering (series). Acrylic on Panel. 

“What makes feelings feel?” One of Justine Lai’s haunting watercolors.  From Untitled (5 paintings total). Watercolor and dye on fabric. 
Brian Ratcliffe and Erica Mahinay both work in a space where material-as-metaphor is especially prominent: 
 Brian Ratcliffe. The reflection is sunlight shining through the 2-way iridescent acrylic, no lightbulbs necessary. Introduce: Container, Retainer. Found vitrine, acrylic, plaster, sand, pumice stone, rocks, glitter, dielectric Plexiglas mirror. Gar�on Star. Acrylic, wood, Masonite, foam, sand, glitter, and rocks.  
Mahinay‘s thesis piece, two paintings and a sculpture. Sunbathers (Thin-Skins and Threshfolds). Oil on canvas; oil and acrylic medium on translucent synthetic fabric; mirror, foam, silicon, resin, synthetic hair, ink, plaster, casters, and rotting fruit.
All photos at Cranbrook Art Museum by Michelle Mantua. 
Even though Cranbrook’s graduating class, roughly 75 students, is much larger than that of Wayne State or U-M, Cranbrook is a tight-knit community, and students agree that there is very little competition within the student body. Because of the support we’ve developed for each other over the past two years,  I’m looking forward to seeing how my classmates’ work and lives evolve. I hope the same goes for the other MFA grads in the region. As we move to New York (where I’ll be next month), Los Angeles and other less economically depressed areas to set up studios, we’ll undoubtedly begin to see how meaningful the isolated years we’ve spent in the Midwest have been.
Good luck, everyone.

Stay in touch: Receive Two Coats of Paint’s DAILY POSTS via email
and subscribe to the new WEEKLY UPDATE.


  1. Midwest "isolation" seems to have produced a sense of midwest optimism.
    Hold onto it as long as you can.

  2. I htink you are all missing the point here which is that is does not matter whatsoever WHERE you work. My work is sold nationally and it is a rare event that I do any meaningful business within 200 miles of my studio. Come ON – how provincial can you be? The internet connects you to everyone so here is a little common sense advice- Make great work, use good materials, get good photos and sell sell sell and have a great time doing it. Do NOT waste your time wringing your hands about where you might live. It no longer matters. Mariella Bisson, Woodstock, NY

  3. In response to the idea that it's difficult to be self-sustaining in Detroit – I got bad news for you – it's difficult to be self-sustaining as an artist anywhere. It's just considerably more difficult in a place like Detroit.

    – John Kinkead

  4. The work looks great! I bet if you just change the location to Brooklyn all these paintings become hyper contemporary. Congrats

  5. Sounds a lot like Milwaukee except there is even less MFAs offered in fine art.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *