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Beloved Detroit artist Charles McGee has died

Detroit artist Charles McGee has died at the age of 96. His art spans a period of more than 75 years. 

McGee’s artwork is scattered across Detroit. His work includes huge murals, sculptures, paintings, and mixed-media.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The sculpture 'United We Stand' at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit.

“Charles McGee was a well-loved artist certainly here in Detroit," said Valerie Mercer, curator of African American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "He’s famous for his public art works as well as his paintings and he had had a very rich history here. His work is in various collections as well as in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles Wright Museum.”

One of the pieces outside of the Wright Museum of African American History is a 25-foot sculpture titled "United We Stand."

McGee was born to a family of sharecroppers in Clemson, South Carolina in 1924. As a young boy, he picked cotton and noticed nature — how a snake moved, how birds took wing. He said that power of observation and deduction informed his art his whole life.

His family moved to Detroit when he was 10 years old. It was there he first formally attended school, although he often said “life is school.”

He studied art at the McGregor Public Library in Highland Park, but soon had to go to work in a factory because his uncle died and his mother became sick.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A charcoal drawing titled 'Mother and Child,' 1965. Owned by Attorney Jerome Watson and Judge Deborah Geraldine Bledsoe Ford. Detroit Institute of Art exhibit, 2020.

Toward the end of World War II, he was drafted and served with the Marine Corps in Nagasaki, one of the two Japanese cities devastated by atomic bombs.

When he got back to Detroit, he went to work in a factory and used the G.I. Bill to take classes at what is today called the College for Creative Studies.

His early work was mostly charcoals and paintings.

He received a grant to spend a year studying art in Barcelona.

When he returned, he organized an art show called “Seven Black Artists.”

Mercer says while his work is important, McGee is especially noted for being a role model for other black artists.

“He is famous as a mentor, as someone who, you know, at a time when African American artists had a hard time getting opportunities through galleries, he opened a gallery. This was in the ‘70s. And it helped give a number of artists opportunities. I know it was a big boost to the careers of a number of African American artists in particular,” she said.

McGee’s Gallery 7 also offered art classes to school kids for free.

McGee said he saw the world as contrasting elements and that was often reflected in his work.

“There’s a system. Those systems as opposites creates everything in the universe and it manifests itself in different forms. And that’s what I try to do in making art. It’s sort of a didactic involvement rather than just making marks,” he explained during an interview with Michigan Radio.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The mural 'Unity' on the 28 Grand building in Detroit.

He noted that black and white is the greatest combination of opposites and he used that many times in his work. In 2017, a 118 foot by 50 foot black and white mural of his work called 'Unity' was painted on the 28 Grand Building in Detroit’s downtown Capitol Park area.

Kelly Golden and Jordan Zielke were hired to paint it. They had seen him speak at a University of Michigan event when they were students there.

“Being able to actually meet him and talk to him and try to be as true to the artist’s intention and as true to their, you know, stroke as possible. It’s humbling. It’s cool,” Zielke said.

McGee said about the piece that 'Unity' was the continuation of a basic theme of nature and our interaction that he’s talk about through teaching, through preaching, and through living his entire life.

“And it never changes. I think it metamorphosizes into other things that help to build, that is the glue to, our advancement,” he said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
A mural that McGee painted in 1974 was restored in 2019.

A mural McGee had painted in 1974 on what is now the Detroit Foundation Hotel was restored 45 years later in 2019. Hubert Massey re-painted the geometric pattern after extensively consulting with McGee who — at age 94 — was not able to do the restoration himself.

Charles McGee was honored for his lifetime of work by Michigan Legacy Art.

He was also the very first Kresge Eminent Artist recipient.

The Kresge Foundation wrote that McGee “…has emerged as an important chronicler of black life in urban American and a social commentator on the ills of war, poverty and civil unrest that are antithetical to his vision of building a better, more beautiful, and uplifting world."

“I just— I just hope that we can all get along without a whole lot of angst, you know. And that goes for the world. I mean, it’s just so much disturbance. I don’t know what it is about us. We — I guess it’s all ego,” McGee said.

Even after a stroke in 2011 that limited his ability work, he only expressed that he was grateful for what nature had given him and that people appreciated his art.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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