Detroit artist Bakpak Durden's mural is the latest barn art in Port Austin project

Port Austin’s famous collection of (mostly) barn art has gotten bigger.

Detroit artist Bakpak Durden recently completed a mural on a barn located at 538 Sand Road and owned by Leah and Brian Hatch. The work, commissioned by 53 North, is entitled “Confronting Loneliness” and depicts two vultures surrounding a fire, set against a light blue background. It was inspired by the poems of Port Austin poet Jane Mayes.

53 North co-founder James Boyle said the organization was looking for a mural with a local connection with themes related to community poets and writers. Several artists were invited to submit a proposal for the project, and Bakpak stood out.

“The trajectory of (Durden's) career and (the artist's) interest in the subject matter was where we wanted to be,” Boyle said, “and (Durden's) work is just unquestionably quality.”

Cody SamuelBakpak DurdenDurden, 32, is an up-and-coming artist who has had recent showings at the Cranbrook Art Museum, the Muskegon Museum of Arts, The Stamps Art Gallery and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in Michigan. Durden's work has also shown in other parts of the country -- at galleries in California, Florida, Pennsylvania and others. 

The artist is known for a hyperreal style inspired by Baroque and Afro-Surrealist movements that create a deconstructed cinematic experience.

Durden is largely self-taught and grew up in an artistic family, including a grandmother who was a musician and a writer, another grandmother who was a seamstress, and a mother who also sewed and painted.

“Everyone did something, and I just was in the midst of that,” Durden said.

Growing up, Durden focused primarily on drawing and took art classes while attending West Bloomfield High School and Wayne State University in Detroit. But it wasn’t until 2018 Durden got into painting. Durden said a friend offered paint and gave them a 15-minute crash course on the “rules.” 

From there, Durden learned more through videos on the internet and by studying famous Renaissance and Baroque paintings. Of particular interest were the more emotional, raw qualities of Baroque painting -- like the work of Caravaggio -- as opposed to the more idealistic style of Renaissance art. 

Durden often portrays subjects in a transitional state, emphasizing a connection to the surrounding communities and featuring their signature Delta triangle motif, symbolizing change.

Bakpak DurdenA mural by Detroit artist Bakpak Durden.“The ability to move people off of the visual strength of something, because it is so visceral and profound, is what drew me in,” the artist said.

While both Durden and Mayes share a love of nature, Mayes’ authenticity is what attracted them to her poetry.

“There are some of Jane’s poems, that are just like, ‘damn dude, that’s really real,’” Durden said. “I’m like ‘yeah, I want to do something with that one.’”

For the barn mural, Durden was particularly inspired by Mayes’ poems “Birthday Buzzards,” “Paranoid Painter” and “Loneliness” from her “Drawn in Dust” collection. The poems represent ideas that frequently need addressing, like the tendency for good things to be twisted into bad thoughts or the blurriness between isolation and solitude. 

“I kind of make things that are sad, but that’s like life,” Durden said. “I don’t try to make them sad; I just make them very real.”

Mayes said sad feelings are often the most impactful.

“The depressing thoughts and memories are stronger really and last longer than the happy ones…” she said, “because they go so deep into your heart.”

Bakpak Durden's mural is inspired by the work of a Port Austin poet. While the poems explore themes of mortality and seclusion, Durden said there are no limits on how people can interpret the mural. 

“I want [people] to feel exactly how they’re going to feel,” the artist said. “It should definitely make you feel something.”

Leah Hatch said the work is amazing and represents the circle of life to her. She said while buzzards might not be the most beautiful animals, they serve an important purpose.

“They do all the hard work for us, and I look at them, and I have a much more appreciation of what they do and how they contribute to our lives,” she said.

For Mayes, it is a message of hope.

“Through art like this, Bakpak helps us through the darkness of bias that creeps into our lives,” she said.

Durden’s mural is the fourth piece of barn art in the 53 North series and the fifth work in total following last year’s addition of The Deity sculpture, by Hygienic Dress League. The other barns include Scott Hocking’s “Celestial Ship of the North,” which is an ark made from a deconstructed barn, and Caite Newell’s “Secret Sky,” a structurally modified barn that features an acute angle carved from its side, which projects light and shadows onto the farm. The series also includes the "Walden'' and "American Gothic '' barn murals, also by Hygienic Dress League, which inspired Leah Hatch's interest for her own barn mural.

When it was established in 2013, 53 North was inspired by the art drawn from Detroit’s de-industrialization and sought to take that concept and apply it in a rural setting, Boyle said. Similar to the economic shifts that happened in Detroit and its resulting abandoned buildings, Boyle saw a parallel with the loss of family farms and its subsequent abandoned barns. The organization aimed to unite city art with country culture to cross the urban/rural divide, and Boyle said the artists have developed close bonds with the community.

“There’s a deep [and two-way] relationship that’s kind of built as these projects get made,” he said. “To see the exchange of ideas between a community and Detroit artists, I couldn’t have imagined how great that would be.”

Erica Hobbs is a writer based in Detroit with a passion for arts and culture and travel. She has reported for numerous news outlets including the Detroit News, Fodors, Business Insider, Reuters, WDET and (now the Ann Arbor News), among others.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.