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Weekday mornings on Michigan Radio, Doug Tribou hosts NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to news radio program in the country.

Detroit painter LeRoy Foster exhibition showcases mural rescued from demolition

Courtesy of the Cranbrook Art Museum
LeRoy Foster's mural "Renaissance City" is the centerpiece of the Cranbrook Art Museum's exhibit "LeRoy Foster: Solo Show." Painted in the 1970s, it measures 15 feet by 10 feet. Teachers rescued it from the old, vacant Cass Tech High School building before the school was demolished in 2011.

This story originally aired on Nov. 17, 2023. Michigan Public rebroadcasted it on Feb. 23, 2024.

"LeRoy Foster: Solo Show" closes on March 3. The Cranbrook Art Museum will screen the short film Seeing Foster before a panel discussion on March 2.

The Cranbrook Art Museum in Bloomfield Hills — about 20 miles north of Detroit — is on a campus dotted with gardens, fountains, and brick art school buildings that look like a scene from an English village.

Cranbrook’s new exhibition features the work of LeRoy Foster. Foster was a prolific painter — sometimes called "the Michelangelo of Detroit." He died in 1993, but in his lifetime, he never had a chance to have a show like this.

Underappreciated in his lifetime

Cranbrook Chief Curator Laura Mott says Foster's work was overlooked by the art establishment.

“He was a Black, queer artist doing high figuration influenced by the high Renaissance in the 20th century. That was not of interest [to] museums.”

The exhibition is called "LeRoy Foster: Solo Show."

“One of the reasons we call the exhibition ‘Solo Show’ is it's his first museum solo show, but also he lived his life like a solo show," Mott said during a preview of the exhibit for Michigan Public. "He lived his life unaffected or undeterred by what society wanted from him.”

About 30 of Foster’s paintings and sketches are on display. Many of them are vivid, richly rendered portraits of Black Americans.

Mario Moore co-curated the exhibit with Mott — and like Foster — he’s an artist from Detroit, who is also Black. The centerpiece of the show is a mural titled "Renaissance City" that measures 15 feet by 10 feet

"It is essentially about rebuilding after [Detroit's] '67 rebellion,” Moore said.

Moore saw the mural almost every day when he was a teenager. But then it was nearly destroyed and no one saw it for almost 20 years. There’s much more to that story — and we’ll come back to it — but there’s also much more to LeRoy Foster’s story.

Classical training, local support

Foster was born in 1925. He studied art at Cass Tech High School in Detroit, then later at what is now the College for Creative Studies, and in Europe. But Mott says his studies and talent didn’t translate to financial success.

“The art world was not conducive to LeRoy's kind of work. Detroit was not on the map as it is today," Mott said. "LeRoy was someone who painted throughout his life, but was pretty destitute for the majority of his life.”

Doug Tribou
Michigan Radio
Foster often featured actor and singer Paul Robeson in paintings. Robeson, best known for his performances of the song “Old Man River,” was a prominent civil rights activist. Cranbrook curator Laura Mott believes Foster may have seen similarities to his own life in Robeson "[S]omeone who was very independent, someone who who lived freedom before freedom was granted to him."

Mott says Foster had some benefactors who bought his works or accepted paintings instead of cash, including one woman who owned a cafe.

“She had 14 of his works because he used to paint for food. And she sent him off to do additional study," Mott said. "We know at the end of his life a lot of his work ended up with doctors because Black doctors would support LeRoy's health issues, and he would pay them in paintings.”

Another of Foster’s champions was LGBTQ activist Ruth Ellis. Like Ellis, Foster was gay and open about it at a time when few people were. He also had a reputation for never compromising his work to chase commercial success.

“It wasn't about being a famous artist. It wasn't about being the most known,” Moore said.

Painting Frederick Douglass

One of the pieces in the exhibit is a painting of a young Frederick Douglass with his arms fully stretched out. Douglass is shirtless, looking back over one shoulder. His glare is intense, almost as if to say, "Are you seeing this?" Moore loves the way the piece shows off Foster’s skill at figuration.

“His muscles are bulging everywhere. He looks like a superhero. It's almost like he's holding a cross,” Moore said.

The image is striking, but it’s only part of Foster’s vision. The painting was just for practice. Foster later painted the image of Douglass again as part of a much larger mural.

"As an artist, what's exciting to me is to see what came before the mural," Moore said.

Side by side paintings. One up close of Frederick Douglass. Another of a mural featuring the same image at a larger scale.
Caoilinn Goss (left) / Kathryn Dowgiewicz (right)
Michigan Radio / Detroit Public Library
The Cranbrook exhibit includes a practice portrait of Frederick Douglass (left) that Foster painted to prepare for his larger mural (right) that now hangs at the Frederick Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library.

If you want to see that finished mural, it’s always on display at the Detroit Public Library’s Frederick Douglass Branch. But finding that other mural, the one hanging in the Cranbrook Art Museum, wasn’t so easy.

"Art-saving superheroes"

“Mario and I have been talking about this show as Indiana Jones-style curating because it's just so many twists and turns," Mott said during an interview in her office. "So, we hear that there there's this mural, which most people think is destroyed because only four people knew that it was still in existence.”

"It was crazy. A good crazy, though," Moore added, laughing.

Doug Tribou
Michigan Radio
The mural "Renaissance City" features several Detroit landmarks, including the Belle Isle fountain. The painting also depicts blue collar workers rebuilding after the 1967 rebellion. "It's about restructuring, rethinking about what Detroit can be," co-curator Mario Moore said, "which I think is really pivotal right now in today's time as everything is changing."

Like Foster, Mario Moore went to Cass Tech High School in Detroit. The mural hung there for decades starting in the 1970s. But then in 2005, the old Cass Tech building closed. It was torn down in 2011, but not before four teachers stepped in.

“These teachers break into an abandoned building, save the mural like art-saving superheroes, bring it back to the new Cass Tech, [and] roll it up to preserve it," Mott said. "But then it stays there untouched. No one has seen this mural in 20 years.”

After the rescue, the mural just sat rolled up on top of some cabinets. Moore heard the story from a friend and arranged to be at the school to help unroll the painting. For him, it was a trip back in time.

"But it was also like new. Because as I'm unrolling it, I'm like, 'This is the most incredible thing I've ever seen,' We're slow unrolling it and to stand there and see the students, also standing around it, and going, 'Oh, my gosh,' you know? They're taking pictures and they're excited about it.”

The City of Detroit’s Office of Arts, Culture and Entrepreneurship paid for the mural to be restored. And now it’s here at Cranbrook.

“I'm still discovering new things about it. First and foremost, I start to identify some of the buildings that I recognize. I see the Renaissance Center, I see the Fisher Building," Mott said. "Then we have the phoenix rising at the top, as sort of a phoenix slash angel, kind of orchestrating all of the scene we see below, which is Detroit rebuilding itself after the 1967 rebellion."

“I think who whoever stands in front of this painting, they're going to get something different out of it. I would much rather everybody ... to come see it, versus me ruining it by my description,” Moore said with a laugh.

Echoes of Foster

For Moore, Foster’s works carry echoes of the past that resonate today, but he also sees another connection to his own paintings.

“People would say, when I was younger, 'Your work looks like LeRoy Foster.' And I'm like, 'Why are people comparing me to somebody? I want to be my own person,'" Moore said. "And then as I got older, I was like, 'Oh, wow, this is really amazing. That's a really great compliment.”

Mario Moore
Provided by The Cranbrook Art Museum
The companion exhibit "Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit" includes two paintings by co-curator Mario Moore. The Cranbrook recently purchased "Thornton and Lucie Blackburn in Canaan" for its permanent collection. Moore said the painting alters time, blending references to the Underground Railroad and the Blackburn Riots in Detroit and with the city's current skyline and modern-day people. "We think of it as this bygone era, but we're walking through history every day," Moore said.

"LeRoy Foster: Solo Show" is paired with another exhibit called "Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit," also co-curated by Mott and Moore. It features works by 20 contemporary artists, including Moore, who has two paintings in the show.

"Solo Show" and "Skilled Labor" will both be open at the Cranbrook Art Museum until March 3, 2024.

Doug Tribou joined the Michigan Public staff as the host of Morning Edition in 2016. Doug first moved to Michigan in 2015 when he was awarded a Knight-Wallace journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Caoilinn Goss is the producer for Morning Edition. She started at Michigan Public during the summer of 2023.
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