casting a legacy.
Long before Avalon took over the lease, 422 Willis Street was home to the Willis Art Gallery. One of its resident artists was sculptor Robert Sestok, who was one of the many makers — from poets and painters to writers and sculptors — who defined the most influential artistic era in Detroit History.
From the mid- ‘60s to late- ‘70s, artists of the Cass Corridor Movement — deemed “deconstructionists” — drew inspiration from the post-industrial city that was crumbling around them and used it to create moving work that made the world take notice.
“The artists coming out of Wayne State, The College for Creative Studies (CCS) and even Cranbrook, didn't have a lot of money, so they utilized found objects and materials from the lumber yard or hardware store, rather than the art supplies store. But ‘de-constructivism’ didn’t just mean the physical way of creating art — it was a conceptual idea as well. It was the decision to say, ‘I'm going to be unconventional about the way that I'm creating and thinking about art. I'm going to tear this up and nail it back together and see how it looks.’ That attitude was synonymous with being a de-constructivist and fueled the movement.”
After growing up in the suburbs, Sestok ultimately moved to Detroit to attend college.
“I was born in Detroit. We lived on 8 Mile Road. My grandfather sold Henry Ford all his office furniture. When he died, my mother moved us to Birmingham. Then in 1965, I went to art school at the College for Creative Studies, which was called the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts at the time. That was my first my first real introduction to the city.”
It wasn’t long before he found himself at the heart of the Cass Corridor Movement.
“In 1967, I moved into a studio in Cass Corridor inside the old Convention Hall, which was also the Vernors bottling factory. It stretched from Woodward to Cass Avenue, and our studios were on the Cass Avenue side. There was a group of artists there from Wayne State University and CCS, and together we started the Movement. I was really proud to be part of that.”
But he was also involved in other aspects of the city’s art scene.
“I was painting murals around the city for people and companies, as well as doing exhibitions at the DIA, The Flint Institute of Arts, Macomb Community College, the Preston Gallery and the Fisher Building — which was formerly the Fagan Rosenstein Gallery. Jackie Feigenson and her husband, who owned Faygo, were very supportive of the arts... It was a really exciting time.”
In addition to exhibiting his work, Sestok began curating shows featuring other Detroit artists. “In 1971, I moved into a vacant warehouse near Wayne State’s campus. Within a year, seventeen other artists moved into the building, which gave me my first chance to curate a show of my own... We had the MC5 play on opening night, which was a lot of fun.”
He spent the following years exploring a variety of mediums from painting to mixed-media, before turning to sculpture in 1980.
“I was always mechanically inclined... When I was a kid, I took a class where I learned to do some art welding, but I didn’t take it further than that. I picked it up again around 1980, but it wasn't until 1985, when I built a studio behind my house on Willis, that I started to do it on a regular basis. Today, I've made probably close to a hundred sculptures.”
Over the years he has earned his share of praise for his work in sculpture and beyond — including the admiration of another homegrown talent.
“A while back, I had friend reupholster a couch for me, and when I went to pick it up, I met Jack White. Years later, when Jack started Third Man Records in midtown, he remembered a mural I had painted at the Duffy Company in Southwest Detroit that he would walk by on his way to school, and he asked me to create a mural for the shop. The first design I did was Jack playing guitar, and he said, ‘That’s not what I want… I want an abstract mural like you did for the Duffy Company.’ So I went back to the drawing board. He loved the new version, and it’s still there today.”
More than 50 years after starting at CCS, Sestok remains committed to bolstering Detroit’s art scene.
“Building the house, having the studio, and continuing to curate shows have all been part of my involvement in the art community and Detroit as a whole… Around 2013, I renovated an 18,000-square-foot factory in Highland Park for Robert Honest, who had moved here from New Zealand. After renovating the building, we threw a party where I curated a show of giant paintings by local artists… That just about did me in, but I still curate shows today.”
His most recent contribution is City Sculpture Park — a free public exhibition located on West Alexandrine Street in Detroit — which has become a permanent exhibit for some of his prized pieces.
“The park has been an important experience for me. It’s great to have so much work I’ve done over many years on display in one place. I also recently returned from taking five sculptures to the Legacy Art Park in Cadillac, Michigan, and I have another one at Marshall Frederick's Museum in Saginaw, so I’ve been moving things around like men on a chess board. I think when you share your work with people, there's a responsibility to moving what you create. It’s definitely keeping me busy.”
With so much change in Detroit over the last five decades, he says the city’s art community is different but still strong.
“When I was coming up as an artist in Detroit, there was a little bit of camaraderie, and that’s really how the movement started — everybody looking at everybody's work. We were in a sort of nucleus, whereas today people are more spread out… There are satellite groups of people all over town that are doing their thing and sharing ideas, so it's more diverse. But a smart curator should see that as an opportunity to bring groups together. We had the ‘Kick Out the Jams” show at the D.I.A. in 1984, and I think it helped centralize the art movement because it showcased many artists in the community at once. We still have artists here making really great stuff, and I think they deserve recognition for their work.”
Despite his prolific body of work and the opportunities it has presented over the years, Sestok has remained faithful to the city where it all started. In doing so, he has cast a legacy in Detroit as both an artist and a committed member of the community. And, lucky for us, it sounds as though he’s here to stay.
“I kind of feel like we're surpassing New York as an art capital, in a way… I used to think New York was really cool — and it was for a period of time — but today I go there, and I'm just so glad I live in Detroit.”