Charles McGee started his art career after World War II, when he began taking classes part-time at the Detroit Society for Arts and Crafts, which is now known as the College for Creative Studies.
The Detroit artist would become heavily involved in the city’s Black arts scene in the 1950s and 1960s, creating pieces centered around the Civil Rights Movement, according to the Library Street Collective. In 1970, McGee opened Gallery 7, named after an exhibit he curated called “Seven Black Artists.” Located at 8232 W. McNichols Road, the art gallery gave Black artists in the community a space to showcase their work, such as Lester Johnson, Henri Umbaji King and Robert Murray.
McGee eventually acquired a second studio at 8626 W. McNichols. Today, the building is now known as Design Studio 6, an interior design studio owned by McGee’s daughter April McGee-Flournoy.
With McGee’s death in 2021, McGee-Flournoy is honoring her father’s seven-decade career with the exhibit, “McGee: Urban Synthesis.” Opening earlier this month, the display features memorabilia and artifacts from McGee, as well as work from 63 local artists who were inspired by his work.
The exhibit is part of Sacred Spaces, a month-long initiative highlighting 16 Black-owned cultural spaces across Detroit, such as Design Studio 6, The Carr Center, and Irwin House Gallery to name a few. The Black History Month celebration will feature exhibits, artist talks, film screenings and panel discussions as well as artwork by more than 100 Black artists.
Sacred Spaces will close Feb. 28 with a reception at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
The initiative is presented by Detroit’s office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship (ACE).
“Mayor Mike Duggan has made clear that it is our duty as public servants to ensure opportunities for all residents to have everything they need to thrive in work, education and joy,” Rochelle Riley, the city’s Director of Arts and Culture, said in a news release. “That includes ensuring that we embrace the cultural diversity of Detroit. So, we are wholeheartedly embracing Detroit’s complete, myriad, spectacular, heartbreaking and persevering African American art and history. We want communities across metro Detroit to experience a beautiful and diverse array of arts and culture and to learn a powerful history that has often been hidden in several lifetimes.”
Honoring the life of Charles McGee
In “McGee: Urban Synthesis,” McGee-Flournoy features some of her father’s pieces from her personal collection, including a charcoal drawing of herself from 1967 when she was only two years old and an untitled painting that was found in his studio, she said.
There’s also a sketch of “Play Patterns II” a 2011 painting that features a Black woman and three other people immersed in a colorful background. McGee suffered a stroke while making the painting that was eventually completed by several assistants. “Play Patterns II” made a comeback last year when it was painted on the side of the Stevens Building Apartments at the corner of Washington Blvd. and W. Grand River.
For the local artists, McGee-Flournoy sent out invitations to artists she knew as well as discovering artists through Facebook and word of mouth. Some of the artists featured include Allen Brooks, Donna Kennedy, Marta Carvajal and Will Mandela.
The exhibit ends Feb. 25, but will most likely be extended, McGee-Flournoy said.
The interior designer said she is honored to be a part of Sacred Spaces. She said the initiative has been a way for her to become better acquainted with her fellow gallery owners.
“It’s really encouraging for us to get together and promote each other, and in a sense, it feels like a collaboration,” McGee-Flournoy said. “Even though I can’t attend every opening or every event that’s featured, I still feel interconnected. And that’s important to me because we need each other. We need encouragement because there are often challenges in what we do to promote artists and work with artists and designers. But the more we do things like this, the easier it gets, and knowing that someone can understand the journey.”
The richness of Detroit’s arts and culture scene
Irwin House Gallery Director Misha McGlown helped organize Sacred Spaces along with Asia Hamilton, the director of Norwest Gallery. After reaching out to the other cultural spaces and gauging their interest in November, the two women connected with ACE, McGlown said.
“What’s really been exciting…is just just putting all of this together and realizing the richness of Detroit’s cultural resources. I think it’s phenomenal that we have 16 Black-owned and operated and thriving art spaces,” she said. “I really don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that can say that. As someone who travels back and forth from New York and Chicago and other places, it’s not something I’ve ever given thought to, but putting this together has definitely brought that to my attention; that there’s something really unique happening here.”
Upcoming events at Irwin House include an artist talk on Sunday from 2-4 p.m. with Ivan Quinones, who has an exhibit at the space titled, “The Price of Speech.” Then on Monday from 5-7 p.m., McGlown is hosting a President’s Day “Paint and Poinot with Red” event featuring artist Quadre Curry.
The gallery is also featuring the “Red, Black and Green” exhibit, which features 20 Black artists as well as artwork from the late Detroit artist John Sims, who died in December.
McGlown said Black art is in a place that it’s never been before, with artists being recognized in the mainstream. But she added, Detroit has always been supportive of its arts scene.
“And I think that’s how Detroit has ended up with so many galleries and so many art spaces, several of them that have been operating for 50, 40, 30 years,” McGlown said. “And then you have some that have come and gone over the years and new operations that have continued to pop up and flourish, like our gallery and Norwest and Blackbird Gallery. So, the environment here is really just ripe and supportive for new and existing ventures in the arts, to coexist together and continue to feed this creative landscape in a way that I haven’t seen happen anywhere else.”