Guest Blogger: Megan O'Connell

Megan O’Connell, proprietor of Salt & Cedar Letterpress, is an internationally-recognized artist and designer. Before making Detroit her home, O’Connell directed the Typography Lab at the University of Oregon for twelve years and has since taught at Maine College of Art, the University of Maine, Skidmore College, and Mildred's Lane. She is a founding member of Creative Material Group, a 501(c)(3) multidisciplinary arts collective, and the founder of two imprints whose works are archived in institutions including MoMA and Walker Art Center. She also consulted on the formation of Signal-Return and brought the storefront to fruition as board president and founding director.


Post 1 - Composition as Explanation:  A platform for an independent press

A printing press, as a shaper of culture and dispatcher of narratives, continually reflects back its context, even after the fact of its existence. It provides a portal into the ideals, structures, priorities, production modes, economies, and material assets of a particular era. Salt & Cedar – a newly-minted workshop in the heart of Eastern Market – is focused on print production in support of Detroit's creative economies. Within its 3,000-square-foot accessible space, the studio generates custom posters, books, and ephemera increasing the visibility of Detroit cultures. The press also yields new alliances and initiatives through visiting artists and educators, exhibitions, a pop-up cinema,  farm-to-table events, panels, and workshops.

This press exists as a conduit for its time and place; it actively responds to and promotes that which is suggested by those coming through, those seeking to help grow it. In an economically vulnerable, post-industrial city such as Detroit, it is imperative to engage beyond one's specialization and secure a broader platform composed of a variety of stakeholders. This inclusive tone comes from the fact that there are no a priori formulas or mandates for Salt & Cedar's success:  over the course of just four months, it has been organically built from the ground up – one printing job, binding commission, and workshop at a time.

It is a case study in the power of artistic entrepreneurship, as it sparks curiosity, invites participation, and serves various populations with the forthright messages that letterpress delivers so succinctly. No loans have been taken out or credit cards charged to the limit. For the record, there's zero corporate dollars at work here puppeteering for what would appear to be a 'start-up', nor is there an invisible partner/ granting agency subsidizing staff salaries and programming. In fact, the sum needed to open the doors and secure the first month's rent was raised through a curated show of local artists who kindly donated a portion of their sales. Only last week did the operation receive its first bit of funding: a matching grant for improvements to the façade awarded by Eastern Market Corp. Plans are underway to paint a mural and a printer's mark on the freeway-facing side of the building, at the corner of Riopelle and Fisher, to help promote visibility and assert a strong graphical identity.

Salt & Cedar is the publishing partner of Market Studio Kitchen, a non-profit organization registered in Michigan as a 501(c)(3) whose mission is to restore grace and health to the tables of Detroit by connecting communities to food, art, and culture through education. MSK is a year-round art and food ecologies lab and workshop teaching and experimenting with a range of communities. The school also features an annual Summer Intensive, Detroit Emergent Futures Lab, pairing students and scholars from around the world with Detroit Communities.  The school's founder is Leon Johnson.

Salt & Cedar's recent partners and collaborators include:

1/X 
Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here  
AnExact
Corktown Cinema  
Detroit Design Festival 
Eat Your Sidewalk 
Ex Podium 
Fritz Haeg  
Mildred's Lane;  see also 'Common Senses' at the Museum of Modern Art 
Paul Moxon 
Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning | U of M 
Trinosophes

Fast-becoming iconic and a signal of 'inventiveness' in our urban landscape, the press has already received numerous accolades. An internationally recognized writer, cultural critic, and journalist who commissioned the first books made at the press coined it the studio that says 'yes'. Archivist and filmmaker Rick Prelinger, who showed Lost Landscapes of Detroit at the press last month, observes: "[I]n just a short time you've built a wonderful home for both quotidian production and events that stand out from the everyday. I don't think I would have felt the utopian breeze blowing had you not hosted the screening."

The press flattens hierarchies and allows the possibility for the participant to become the teacher, the person on the street to be the curator, and the volunteer sorting the type to speak about the aspirations of the organization. As proprietor, I will aver that this phenomenon strengthens our case, performs what is important to us, and gives the opportunity to share ownership. There's this sense of: What might I do? What is a problem worth having? It's a mechanism that produces new alliances and conversations. And, yes, there is more than a minor strain of Utopianism at work here.


Post 2 - Anecdoted City: Mapping Objects, Stories, and the Present Moment

ANECDOTED CITY, a crowd-sourced collection of objects of Detroit, is a recent collaboration between 1/X and Salt & Cedar Letterpress in Eastern Market. In the first post, I claimed that our press "exists as a conduit for its time and place; it actively responds to and promotes that which is suggested by those coming through, those seeking to help grow it. In an economically vulnerable, post-industrial city such as Detroit, it is imperative to engage beyond one's specialization and secure a broader platform composed of a variety of stakeholders." The interactive exhibition, part of the Detroit Design Festival, held its opening reception during Eastern Market After Dark, a happening featuring 18 venues that attracted over 1,000 visitors. The unfolding event meshed gracefully with our goal of engaging the public, as our storefront gallery space was kitted out with a display table threaded with a roll of non-photo blue grid paper onto which objects were set, tagged, traced, and photographed. A logbook placed on a station in proximity to the table invited contributors to record the story of the object. If desired, people could jot down a story and indicate its presence by filling out a numbered tag that corresponded with the page number. These 'objectless' tags were added to the mix along with everything else to create a convergence of visions and voices.

Droves of the curious poured into the space from shuttle buses and by foot. A grasshopper arriving atop a bouquet of wild flowers leapt from surface to surface. The smell of South African street food, prepared by Market Studio Kitchen, served just outside the entrance, pervaded the air. People filled the space from front door to the alley, interacting in the front gallery, taking in the exhibition of books and printed broadsides, and exploring the kitchen and workshop area at back. We could not have anticipated such a celebratory launch!

"We're not dictating the story that's being told, we're just creating a system for that story to be told," avers Sara Dean of 1/X.

A letterpress printed call for participation had been circulated a month before the show opened. The crispness of its design and its texture/color invoked the 'fact' of the table and conveyed the serious tone of this undertaking. Area merchants from whom I had solicited items proudly loaned 'just the right thing' from the family vault or archive. The offerings represented personal connections, daily rituals, anecdotal associations, subjective histories, and favorite spots. Once the project was underway, and more Detroiters came into contact with the evolving collection, more wanted to be a part of it. Some drove to a particular site to retrieve an item, others scoured the immediate vicinity, and others still plumbed handbags and pocket to retrieve something so 'banal' we might not take notice of it otherwise: Visine and Chapstick being two such examples.

Although there was an expectation that items should fit on the display table, people with premeditated ideas about what to bring asked advance permission to submit large-scale pieces. These included an impressive 'Soviet-inspired' potato chip sign direct from the factory, a hardness tester mounted on its own cabinet used during WWII, a meat hook, and a vintage three-speed bicycle. The last item on the list [tag #007] is described here: "My grandfather went to night school for years while working full time to earn his degree in engineering. When he finally finished, he purchased this bicycle and shipped it from Michigan Central Station out to Yellowstone National Park and biked around in the park for about two weeks as a way to decompress and celebrate his achievements."

The presence of other lively urban characters, now deceased, could be sensed in the display. They included the last living horse-shoer [read: 'blacksmith'] in the city and an entrepreneurial immigrant from Berlin who introduced rye bread to Detroit by starting up a small franchise of bakeries in the city. One of the objects stewarded through the doors was a small wooden ironing board covered in muslin fashioned for pressing sleeves. The board had travelled to various cities, including St. Louis and Chicago, with its caretaker's family members. The story of its locales and the people who used it was uttered with such reverence that it became impossible to separate the story from the narrator from the object and its provisional place on the map. The very first submission happened to be a form requesting recording time at Motown studios from 11:30am-3:30pm on 12/29/70 for Marvin Gaye, who is listed as both artist and producer [tag #001].

As objects were accreted, items shifted position, some being clipped to wires lining the periphery of the gallery, others leaning up against the walls, the index of the table changed. At times they were ordered, but most often freely dispersed. The self-assigned curators resisted the impulse to create groupings of similar objects and to editorialize --"democratizing the practice of characterizing the city", to quote 1/X collaborator and contributor Jono Sturt.

The index included:

Item: Hand-picked Detroit wild apple | Location: Secret Tree [tag #061]

Item: Three Canadian Goose breast bones and two throwing stones  Location: Belle Isle [tag #015]
"An invitation to forage and gather food to live off of for one week became a hunt for more substantial food.
Day 1 – spotted two mourning doves, one rabbit, two pheasants, one goose
Day 3 – two geese
Two Rocks + Three geese/Food for ten"

Item: Engine No.4 Log Book June-July, 1967 | Location: 18th Street @ Lafayette [tag #055]

Item: Seed [milkweed pod] Location: Motown [tag #064]

Item: Terra Cotta Decoration | Location: Sanders Building, Woodward and Henry Street [tag #002]

Item: Ledger entry | Location: Detroit "Detroit is where we hone our craft – art, cars, making things" [tag #017]

Item: Newsboy Cap | Location: Corktown "Hat acquired at a clothing swap @my loft." [tag #021]
 
Item: Framing Hammer, Rusty | Location: Russell Street "Please return me to the streets from which I come." [tag #024]

When picking up the copy of The Flivver King: A Story of Ford America by Upton Sinclair [first published by the UAW of Detroit, 1937] that was loaned to the show, I happened upon this passage and offer it here as a non-sequitur:

"I am greatness, I am power, I am pride, pomp, and dominion, said the fortune of Henry Ford…"

In the city the automobile industry built, our aspiration here was to lightheartedly capture the complexities and exuberance of Detroit. Together, we crafted something that used artifacts at hand to illuminate the present. No bells and whistles. No tour guides or didactic labels. No slogans or visual tricks. Anyone could submit. No one was turned away. I can't help but wonder what Ford's reading of our methodologies might be, as they are devoid of the metaphors and symbols necessary to propel 'empire' forward. This exhibition sheds light on the many facets of what it is to make a home in a city rife with struggle without obscuring or erasing its layers. It remains an open proposition we hope to see continue evolving. Gratitude to all of its authors!

Click here for further reading. Also, chroniclers of the region's people, sites, sounds, and stories include:

The Book Beat
Broken City Lab 
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History 
Collision Works 
Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit 
Curbed Detroit 
The Detroit Hub 
Detroit Institute of Arts 
The Detroit Journal
Detroit Lives 
Detroit Sound Conservancy 
Detroit Summer
Detroit UnReal Estate 
The Heidelberg Project 
The Henry Ford Museum 
Hour Detroit 
Huffington Post Detroit 
InsideOut Literary Arts Project 
Market Studio Kitchen & Detroit Emergent Futures Lab
Model D 
The Motorless City 
Motown Museum 
Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit 
The People of Detroit 
Ponyride 
Prelinger Archive 
Transmat Records 
The Yes Farm 


Post 3 - Parallel Universes: Collectors of the City's Cultural Cache

We have seen paperwork and vinyl flying out of the offices of Motown's studio as the building was bull-dozed; rain-soaked crime records sagging from open filing cabinets in a police station; a Beaux Arts façade indelicately morphed into a parking garage; late 19th-century vernacular signage – uncovered briefly – as a neighboring building came down, only to be tagged almost instantly; 'heritage' architecture chipped away at or covered over by cinder blocks, wood, or plastic bunkers; antiquarian maps and plans racked and dangling in the architecture and planning offices; slogans assuring us that something's 'coming soon'; libraries too broke to buy storage boxes discarding collected materials; decommissioned factory floors filled with machinery and tools;  printing plants pillaged, torched, and flooded; yards of 'new' shoes still stacked in their boxes; moldered velvet seats, carpets, and curtains; and the list goes on and on. [And, if these vignettes happen to conjure the luxe coffee table book of Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, so it goes.]

Because of this fact of life, many have direct access to surpluses and collections in varying conditions. 'Urban adventurers' are able to pair the needs of an artist, activist, educator, filmmaker, or entrepreneur with sites that will help them with which to build or stabilize a practice or business. Some don't rely on the help of others – they explore on their own to claim what they most need. Creative practitioners, as Elizabeth Anderson-Kempe notes, "are drawn to the city by cheap housing, lots of space to get work done, and the potential inherent in a strong DIY culture. They work with the raw materials available in the city – abandoned houses, industrial buildings, empty lots – and reshape them into something new and useful. Their collective project is Detroit and its resurgence, or at least its transformation from what it is now to what it might become in the near future. Some members of this group are recent Detroit transplants, while others have been living and working in Detroit for years. Importantly, they  have chosen  to be in Detroit. They are joining other hard-working, resourceful Detroiters who have stayed in the city in spite of social and economic problems; many of these residents have remained not by choice, but because they don't have the resources to leave."
 
"Everybody, myself included, who has been making artwork in the city hasn't had resources to do anything but making with what you have," artist Scott Hocking states in a Bad at Sports (BAS) interview with curator and journalist Sarah Margolis-Pineo.

In another BAS conversation, Leon Johnson, an artist, educator, and founder of Market Studio Kitchen/Detroit Emergent Futures Lab, muses: "…Detroit, past, present, and future, and the opportunity to participate in reinvention and innovation in a field I love. Regarding location, the  potential of place  has always been a compelling force for me. What can I make of the past, of material history? What is just beyond the visible? What is the space of potential between the claims of the past and the demands of the future? I have made the acts of reading, walking, and sensing place, priorities – I was born in Cape Town, remember… complex, volatile, vivid. Detroit looms very large for me."

Reflecting upon the notions of transformation and legacy in Detroit, Gregory Holm observes: "It's calling for a new style of everything. If we're going to reinvent the city, it's going to be done in a very different way, and everyone is looking at a lot of the resources that are here. You can't do anything in this city without having an investment in what is the fabric of the place. The idea of creating this situation so children 10-20 years old can be a part of it… Just imagine what they could do in another ten years. That's where my head is at the moment. It's not real thought out – I don't write about it or really try to investigate it, the process is just very natural."

A related phenomenon took hold at Salt & Cedar early on. Piano movers who transported salvaged oak type cases, paper, press furniture, and galley racks from a defunct shop on 7 Mile gifted us their labor. A refrigerator, washer, and dryer arrived unannounced and were swiftly offloaded through the back alley on the day of our opening. Slabs of marble for bookbinding, church pews, drafting tables, tools, paper, envelopes, display cases, and chairs – all essential to our workspace – have been donated or saved from the landfill. Their past lives point to our role as stewards. Our subject matter and tools are imbued with the history of this place. An expert in vintage machinery has stepped up to recondition items that might otherwise be lost to obscurity. He, like many others working with Salt & Cedar, offers skills pro bono.

Antecedents to our press, built because of what could be gleaned in the 'blighted' city, include Ken Mikolowski's Alternative Press, which complemented the Detroit Artists' Workshop, a multimedia collective that formed in November 1964 in the Cass Corridor. The unbound printed work was packaged and sent out as early 'mail art'. Mikolowski kept the press going for 30 years. He proclaims: "We lived in 'one of the worst cities in the history of the world' and we were survivors, but more than that we reveled in it, and we swaggered when we walked. We didn't own much, but we owned this, and we made art with it."

Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, activist, artist, and poet, founded Ogun [see below] more than 30 years ago. Ogun was "an unsanctioned art project in the streets of Detroit […] named after the Yoruba orisha of iron, hunting, politics and war." Pitts also formed the local press Black Graphics International, Kcalb Gniw Spirit, and Band Unit #10. He was also a member of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Charlton Burch, another designer/publisher connected to the vitality of the city, offered far-reaching content and unconventional formats in his periodical, Lightworks, that ran for 25 years. His cache is comprised of a special issue on Ray Johnson [a native of the city] that he worked on for several years, to MC5 handbills, comics, 'zines, posters, and artist's books. One can find shared concerns between his archives and those of Cary Loren, a musician, writer, bookseller, and collector. His recent curatorial collaboration with MoCAD's deputy director, Rebecca Mazzei, "Vision in a Cornfield" [now, through 30 December at Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit] energetically fuses "distinct creative communities in Detroit: the psyche/art rock band Destroy All Monsters, the urban arts group Ogun, and the electromechanical art collective Apetechnology. […] The centerpiece of the exhibition is the ceremonial transformation of abandoned autos into African fetishes known as 'Urban Monumentz'. They have been decorated by the artists of Ogun and set in motion through robotics engineered by members of Apetechnology. An artist's multiple, in conjunction with the exhibition, is BOX #1, an homage to a short-lived quarterly by the same name produced in the late 1970s. BOX is comprised of works by local and national artists, musicians, and writers whose work relates to the exhibition's purview.

Others who have built something here out of what's at hand include Michelle Andonian, a denizen of Eastern Market for two decades. A recent exhibition, "Detroit Revealed", at the DIA provided a portal into her long-term research on the city. Friso Wiersum, who had a residency last fall through Expodium, based in Utrecht, frames the city philosophically through photographs, journal entries, and blog posts, then compares his perceptions to those of his father, also from The Netherlands, who happened to live in Detroit as an exchange student in 1964. Over time, the two narratives were laid into Clearly Not All About Detroit, pt. III, a piece of ephemera. 

Public engagement artists from Broken City Lab, not so very far from Detroit, recount their perceptions and responses about our city from just across the Canadian border: "From there, we started thinking about Caesars Casino – how there's this massive neon sign that can be read from all points in Detroit as well as here in Windsor, and we wondered how we could send a message of that scale to Detroit. The concern with borders really relates to the reality that being a Windsorite, whether you like it or not, we are totally shaped by what is happening in Detroit. Growing up, I watched more Detroit news because that's what was available."

Around the world, culture emerges from the matrix of artifacts, ideas, and activities that surround us, and while regulations, intellectual property laws, and censors inhibit the free exchange of what might be shared, material – itself – is loose in Detroit.


Salt & Cedar is having a fundraiser/silent auction on Saturday, October 13 at 6pm to benefit Market Studio Kitchen and Detroit Emergent Futures Lab. For tickets, click here.

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