With the completion of latest mural, a public art district takes shape in east downtown Dearborn

Rafi Rayes has a bunch of teenagers spray painting on the side of his building.

It’s late July and Rayes just pulled up to his east downtown Dearborn business Alanos Pizza & Subs, a quick-serve restaurant that opened in 2015. The Alanos menu is an international grab-bag of ever-popular foods, appealing to a broad range of tastes and backgrounds — perfect for a place like Dearborn.

Alanos Pizza & Subs is located at 14212 Michigan Ave. in Dearborn.“The main items are the pizzas and salads. But we have a little bit of everything,” Rayes says. “There’s a little bit of Mexican cuisine; we have a Mexican pizza and a Mexican salad. We have some of the Middle Eastern sandwiches, like the chicken shawarma. We serve a diverse menu, and we keep adding new items.”

As Rayes walks up to Alanos, he flashes a big smile at the kids painting the exterior wall and asks if he can buy them lunch. He’s not mad that they’re there, spray painting his building; he’s excited to have them. It’s not cheap to feed eight teenagers, but he’s happy to do it. And why wouldn’t he be? With the painting of the mural now complete, Alanos has become the latest site in what’s becoming a burgeoning public arts district in east downtown Dearborn.

“It’s a destination now,” Rayes says.

Pockets of Perception

Earlier this summer, Rayes volunteered his building as the latest site for the POP Project, the annual public arts program from the Dearborn Community Fund. With each cohort, the Dearborn Community Fund recruits Wayne County high school students to participate in the program. Those students not only create an original work of public art but learn how to approach businesses to ask for their wall space, how to interact with the city in acquiring the proper permission, and how to work with each other in collaborating on a concept in the first place. It’s a summerlong process, from start to finish, and when all is said and done, each student receives a $500 stipend.

“We consider it to be a kind of an apprenticeship program,” says Bob Curtis, a senior advisor and mentor on the project. “There’s a lot of lessons learned and hopefully it gives students an idea of what they would like to do later on.”

For this year’s mural, titled “Replenish,” students started putting paint to brick on July 11 and finished July 29, spending approximately three hours each morning, three days a week, on-site.
The POP Project — an acronym for Pockets of Perception — began more than a decade ago now, with its first project debuting in 2012. Students created two aluminum sculptures, titled “We Are One Community,” with one on display in west downtown Dearborn and the second in east downtown, the two sculptures meant to evoke a connection between the two downtowns. A mosaic in the John D. Dingell Transit Center would follow in 2014. Large-scale murals on the sides of Fishnet Artist Studios and Blick Art Supplies would come in the years after that.

“Our initial concept was that we have three high schools, and our biggest concern was trying to get these kids from these different communities to begin to understand each other better, and do more cross-cultural things — so they can see the commonalities they shared, rather than the differences,” says Curtis, who has been involved with the program from its start. The POP Project has since opened itself up to high school students from throughout Wayne County, and the desire to unite remains.

Celebrating people and place

For this year’s mural, titled “Replenish,” students started putting paint to brick on July 11 and finished July 29, spending approximately three hours each morning, three days a week, on-site. High summer temperatures had students finishing their work by noon, most days.

The mural is a celebration of both place and people, says Eliana Pettigrew, a 17-year-old student at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte.

“One of the things that we wanted to incorporate was our background, which is full of flowers that are native to Michigan, because we wanted to symbolize the place that we come from, and show that it's a special place. We also wanted to emphasize that it represents our community, because it's all of these different kinds of plants that symbolize a thriving community where everyone is different, but they still work together to create an ecosystem that thrives,” Pettigrew says.

“Our main figure is the girl, and we wanted her to be representative of her community. She's replenishing the flowers and taking care of them, so she's an important asset to her community. And she's holding a Kintsugi bowl, which is the Japanese art where they take broken pottery and, instead of trying to mend the flaws in a way that can't be noticed, they mend it with gold or silver.

“We wanted to show something that is a vessel that comes together. You're not trying to hide your imperfections. You're trying to celebrate them, and grow from them and become more powerful.”

Eliana Pettigrew, a 17-year-old student at Theodore Roosevelt High School in Wyandotte and member of the latest POP cohort.
The students were responsible for collaborating on the concept, and they do most of the painting themselves. Sunshine Durant, the director of the POP Design Team, guides them through the process. And each year, the POP Project hires a professional artist to serve as mentor, working alongside the students and offering helpful tips as they paint the mural each day.

This year’s mentor is Midwest Anthony, an Allen Park-based artist who prefers not to reveal his full name. Anthony’s work, however, can be found throughout the region, including murals in Detroit’s Grand River corridor. The cat eyes painted on the side of HopCat Detroit are his work, too.

As a professional artist himself, Anthony knows just how special an opportunity the POP Project presents these students.

“It’s one of those things where you wish you would’ve had this type of opportunity  when you were growing up,” Midwest Anthony says. “A lot of artists have to grind for walls to paint, so to be able to get a wall this size? That usually takes a lot of time, patience, connections, phone calls; (navigating) a bunch of laws, the hop-arounds. So for these kids to get this opportunity, like: here. Here's a wall. I've worked so hard trying to get ‘em myself. So for these kids, it’s pretty rad.”

Professional artist and POP mentor Midwest Anthony.
‘It’s an attraction’

With the completion of “Replinish,” that’s now three POP Project murals completed in east downtown Dearborn. Though not part of the POP Project, a fourth mural, “An American Exchange” by artist Brian Lacey, found on the side of Koja Sushi, was also commissioned by the Dearborn Community Fund. As the murals add up, an official-unofficial public arts district is starting to form along the Michigan Avenue corridor in east downtown Dearborn.

With an abundance of high-profile, blank walls, east downtown Dearborn presents a lot of opportunities for large-scale murals, says EmmaJean Woodyard, executive director of the Dearborn Community Fund. Those opportunities present a lot of potential benefits for east downtown Dearborn itself, and the businesses along the corridor there.

As the community watched students work on “Replenish,” Woodyard began to receive calls from neighboring business owners.

They want to know how they can get a mural, too. 

“In talking about it, we said, if we keep going, we will have a district over there that people can come and visit. It should be an attraction going forward. We see it as a positive thing,” Woodyard says.

“It’s an attraction. Anytime you have an attraction, you bring people in, and people support the businesses, the restaurants, and the shops and so on. And that's the whole idea behind an arts district. The arts can be a tool in helping the economic development and growth of a community.”

The POP Design Team Mural Dedication is scheduled for Thursday, Aug. 11, at 5 p.m. at Alanos Pizza & Subs in Dearborn.
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MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.