Three Detroit artists share what they lost in the flood

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Stephen McGee: Detroit photographer and filmmaker Stephen McGee was one of many Detroiters who lost items in the flood that can’t be replaced. (Stephen McGee photo)

Detroit painter Olivia Guterson’s house was damaged by the heavy rainfall on Friday night. Guterson lost several early works and notebooks, some of which were in this box. (Olivia Guterson photo)

Detroit was hit with about 6 inches of rainfall on Friday night and early Saturday morning. The heavy rain caused streets, highways and thousands of homes to flood with backed-up sewage. 

As the waters rose, residents lost furniture, washers and dryers, and furnaces and water heaters. Family photos and personal belongings that can’t be replaced were ruined. Detroit artists lost their paintings, drawings, photos and journals that represented a lifetime of work. 

One such Detroiter is artist Olivia Guterson, whose home in the New Center area flooded Friday night. Guterson says she lost many of her early paintings and notebooks. 

“There were some things I was able to photograph, but most everything was damaged where even a photograph couldn’t capture it. The journals were just so waterlogged and the ink was bleeding, so I lost a lot of that,” Guterson said. 


Guterson says losing a lot of her early work makes her feel separated from her past self. She says it’s weird to know that part of her simply doesn’t exist anymore. 

“I think there’s a loss of witnessing and archiving my own personal evolution through my art,” she said. 

Guterson was planning to pass down some of her early art to her son, who is still an infant. Now, she can’t. 

Artist Olivia Guterson with her son. (Olivia Guterson photo)

“It’s a conversation I’ve been having a lot with my family about how to document our stories, and what are the little items that we do have that are of value that we can hand down. So I think I’m the generation that started thinking about it. And so now I guess we’ll kind of have to start again,” she said. 

Guterson isn’t the only Detroit artist to lose personal belongings or things precious to her family. Detroit painter Sabrina Nelson says she, too, lost a lot of her early work, including a painting she made of her now 33-year-old son when he was an infant. 

“The first painting that I did at (The College for Creative Studies) of Mario, he was only 6, maybe 7 months old. I couldn’t even paint then, and it’s ruined. It’s gone,” Nelson said. 

Nelson has three kids who came to help her move things out of the basement after the flooding subsided. Most of it was covered in sewage and water stains. Nelson says she was sad to see her early work and her children’s early work destroyed, but she’s remaining optimistic. 

“The idea is that you have to let go, you know like Toni Morrison said: If you want to fly, you have to let go of things that weigh you down. So we don’t need those things because we can make new memories. We are still here and we can make new art,” she said. 

Stephen McGee said he’s comforted by knowing that he and his family aren’t experiencing this alone (Stephen McGee photo)

Detroit photographer and filmmaker Stephen McGee, who lives in Corktown, also lost  irreplaceable pieces, including Polaroids and notebooks from trips abroad. He says he was scared to open his basement door to see the damage. 

“Opening up a door that has things that you can’t replace just on the other side of it, that you can’t get to is a feeling I hope I don’t have to live through again,” McGee said. 

McGee says he’s comforted by knowing that he and his family aren’t experiencing this alone and that they could have it much worse. 

“In times where we all have this collective suffering, it’s what you do for other people that really makes you, and I feel like that’s somewhat the anthem of our city,” he said. 

McGee documented different parts of the city that experienced flooding through a series of photos on his Instagram account. He says he didn’t expect so many people to resonate with and share the photos, but it has helped him to stay positive. 

“When you go through a struggle with other people, you almost don’t need words to describe that feeling of weighing the good from the bad. At the end of the day, it was just stuff and I know my family is good,” he said. 

Detroit visual artist Sabrina Nelson’s basement flooded Friday night. Nelson moved many of her ruined belongings, which include some of her early paintings, to the curb. (Sabrina Nelson photo)

Detroiters surveyed the damage after Friday night’s rain. (Stephen McGee photo)

Stephen McGee created a drying rack in an attempt to salvage photos from his archives. (Stephen McGee photo)

One thought on “Three Detroit artists share what they lost in the flood

  1. Actually eight inches of precipitation was measured in two locations in Detroit, the near west side. One of the readings was documented with photos.

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