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Detroit's artists on love, heartbreak, and sext messages

By now you've hopefully recovered from your Valentine's weekend.

Maybe you spent it with a hot date, or just curled up in pajamas binge-watching "House of Cards."

In Detroit, you could have checked out an art show about love and heartbreak. It's made up entirely of people's breakup emails, sext messages, tween diary entries, and love letters.

And if that sounds cringe-worthy, you're right.

A series of breakup Facebook messages on display. "I would really appreciate it if you could return my Arrested Development DVDs."
Credit Melanie Kruvelis / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A series of post-breakup Facebook messages on display. "I really would appreciate it if you could return my Arrested Development DVDs."

Anonymous submissions, from prison letters to breakup emails 

"Diaries from teenagers, adult journals, break up emails, secret admirer notes, and yeah, sext messages," she laughs.

At a small, back room gallery called Detroit Contemporary on the outskirts of the city, a couple dozen artsy types gather to gawk at other people's relationships.

Curator Manda Moran says this show is what happens when 30 Detroit artists send in something from their own love lives:

"Diaries from teenagers, adult journals, break up emails, secret admirer notes, and yeah, sext messages," she laughs.

Every submission is anonymous.

On one wall, there are prison letters, filled with longing and written on scraps of paper. Little doodles of two people, paddling a boat on rough water, frame the edges.

On another wall, a tentative sext message that ends on a bashful note:

"Would you be into that?" There's no reply.

"Would you be into that?"

There’s no reply.  

You know you have emails like this too, somewhere

Moran, the curator, says everybody has weird, personal secret stuff like this - messages where we just press send the moment we're feeling lonely or infatuated.

Or in the case of one email chain, that feeling when the amazing guy you met at a party turns out be a raging, destructive alcoholic and he emails you to say, basically, sorry, he's not sorry.

Moran says all of this is meant to make you feel like, "Oh yeah, I have been there."

"I was kind of looking through my entire love life in emails and text messages, and there were things where I was like, I don't think I'm ok with sharing this! I don't like how this is painting me!” she laughs.

“But I kind of  like that too, because we're all assholes sometimes, and it's just what happens."

When the past is too painful to share

I do run into one guy who says he just couldn't do it. He couldn't submit a love letter from his past, even after Moran asked him to.

"I just have a huge folder of years and years of letters back and forth from an early girlfriend, who I married, who's now my ex, " said Ian Saylor, who works at a recording studio in Royal Oak.

His brown hair hangs past his shoulders, framing his serious face.

He says he couldn't make himself go down to his basement and open up that folder from his ex.

The letters span more than 20 years. They start when Saylor was 12.

"It was poems, it was just nonsense sometimes. It was probably rhymes!” he laughs. “I was trying to rap at that point, so there could have been some sweet rhymes in there."

I ask Saylor why he started saving all these letters when he was so young.

"I found a huge box of letters in my basement that are from my dad and mom, when he was in Vietnam. So it just kinda made sense."

"At a certain point, when I was around the same age, I found a huge box of letters in my basement that are, like my dad and mom, when he was in Vietnam, writing stuff. So it just kind of  made sense. So yeah, I kept all of it."

Why gawking at these awkward, beautiful messages is so comforting

Strangely, somehow reading all these love letters in this show makes you feel comforted.

Because it reminds us that the feelings that are the most personal and intimate - our crushes, our heartbreaks, our tiny rejections and our big defining loves - these are actually the most universal feelings.

"I kind of like the simplicity behind expressing, not necessarily romantic love, but gratitude. Letting somebody know how you feel in the written form is, I think, kinda beautiful," Moran said. 

So whether your valentine was a handwritten poem, or a $4.99 Hallmark card, or just a friendly text about how Valentine's day is the worst,  you might want to hang on to it.  It might be art.

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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