From Henry Ford transforming the way we move, to Barry Gordy producing hits that still move us today, Detroit has long been a haven and a workshop for those bold enough to challenge tradition in order to reimagine the world around them. Indeed, creative innovation is perhaps our most defining characteristic — one that resonates deep in the soul of Detroit and the spirit of those who call it home.
For local artist Sabrina Nelson, that spirit was galvanized early on.
“My grandmother was born in the twenties and my great grandmother was probably twenty years older than her, so I was raised by three generations of remarkable, independent women who each had their own way of being, and I soaked that up like a sponge. My grandmother was the socialite of the family. Everybody knew her because she dressed well and presented herself well, so she fit into different social groups. My great grandmother was very well-known in the church, so you've got this super conservative woman who followed traditions. My mother was probably the most rebellious in the house. She was young, had an afro and this attitude like, “I ain’t doing none of that stuff y’all did — this is the new deal.” She was down with the Black Panthers and was fighting for what she felt was right at the time. There was some serious rebellion going on when I was in her belly, so I'm sure there's a part of that energy in me.”
Those rebellious roots inspired Nelson to go her own way too. While raising three children of her own, she graduated from the College of Creative Studies (CCS) in Detroit and became a professional artist and art teacher.
Her passion for helping students find their creative voice eventually led to her current position at CCS, where she travels the country recruiting prospective students by trumpeting the unique opportunities Detroit presents to those willing to give it a chance.
“Some of my favorite conversations have been with kids in New York when I'm talking to them about moving away from what has been considered the art Mecca. Many of them are over it — over watching their parents struggle to pay the rent, or the crowds, or just not having space — and so I come in with all my Detroit swagger and tell them we have one major thing they don’t: Space. And not just physical space, I'm talking about the space to think.”
That space is critical to Detroit’s culture of creative innovation, powering a talented community that is at once tightly knit and receptive to newcomers.
“I tell them it’s really Detroit versus nobody because we are who we are, and you are who you are. It’s a big city but has a small-town feel which is great for young artists. Once you leave the collegiate environment, you don't have critiques or reviews anymore. But in Detroit, graduates have access to other artists who can mentor them. They could be over at the Detroit Historical Museum or at Chene Park and rub elbows with somebody who can change their life. They’re also able to purchase homes and still work on their craft and make it as artists by doing freelance work and teaching, where if they left for a bigger market that would be a lot harder. I find that many students go out into the world then come right back because it's just nothing like Detroit. I think there’s some kind of mystical, magical power that makes people want to come back.”
Those are a few particularly salient selling points to a new generation of artists whose brazen determination and independent spirit harkens back to that of the city’s innovation icons.
“There are always peaks and valleys, but something is happening in art. I don’t know if it's that parents are more accepting, or if kids are just more driven to follow their dreams, but I'm finding that more kids are applying to CCS. I don't hear as many saying their parents won't let them go to art school because they’ve got to go into law or medicine. I hear them saying, “This is my life, and this is what I choose. I want to go to school to be an artist and a designer.” And when I tell them about Detroit, it’s got this bad-assery about it. It offers the chance to go to school and be who you are. To be this artist or designer and know that when you graduate you’re gonna change people’s lives with whatever you create. That’s the mantra I share with students interested in CCS.”
That bodes well for the city’s present and future, because whether in the arts or in business, these young people are the progressive pedigree we need to attract as the city continues its ascent.
Nelson believes that, for the most part, that ascent has been good and that artists must simply find a way to adapt to what it brings.
“I'm afraid that some of the gentrification that's happening may push artists out, but I also feel like young artists should collaborate and buy property so that they’re not. And those who can't, really shouldn’t complain about new folks coming in and making things beautiful and putting people in empty buildings. At the same time, if developers also want customers who reflect the broader community, they should employ folks who've been keeping the lights on. They’re here because they choose to be, so welcome them in too.”
From her perspective, art presents a unique opportunity to engage both new and old Detroiters in that development.
“Murals in the market has done a good job of that. I think they've had like fifty artists each time and twenty or twenty-five have been local. I get excited when I see both on the scaffolds, then see them visiting Avalon, or Slows, or Source Bookstore. Or when the city revamped the Spirt of Detroit Plaza, all those little wooden pieces and the benches and the swing were repurposed from buildings in another city — as was the design team — then I was asked help, so I got some students from Western and CCS and we painted it. The mayor gave us the Spirit of Detroit Award, but it was really about those kids being able make their mark and feel proud and take an ownership of something beautiful they made.”
Nelson truly embodies the spirit of Detroit. Her contributions are helping ensure the creative innovation that defined our past and the shaping of our future will be not only visionary, but also inclusive. Maintaining an open-door policy is essential to our identity and our progress, so fostering a mix of homegrown and outside talent will help create a city we’re all proud to call home. And that’s a good thing, because as Nelson puts it, “Detroit is full unicorns, and unicorns want to be where other unicorns are.”
And one thing’s for sure: Detroit can never have enough unicorns.