Charles McGee:

Metamorphosis and Kinetic Energy

an interview with
Nick Sousanis

"It's all about change. Everything metamorphosizes over time."

At 80 years old, artist Charles McGee knows a little bit about change and time.

I thought that as a new board member of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit (CAID - see companion story here) and in truth somewhat in the dark about its 25 year history, I should go straight to the source and talk with McGee, CAID's founder.

Even on the telephone, McGee's energy is immediately palpable. I couldn't help but connect McGee of today to Picasso of 1956 as captured in Henri-Georges Clouzot's documentary film "The Mystery of Picasso." At the age of 75, the Picasso on film is a robust, dynamic figure, bursting with creative energy. While McGee's joints may show some creeping signs of age, he has that same irrepressible presence - bright eyes, sharp mind, and boundless energy.

In 1979 McGee along with artist Jean Heilbrunn and others formed CAID out of a recognized need to bring the art community together. McGee described the cultural climate as containing, "lots of little pockets - we needed conglomerate thrusts into the modern sector." As he says, "Every great city has a contemporary art museum or art institution. There's no reason why we shouldn't have that kind of forum." In lieu of such an institutional solution, McGee and the others established CAID to "help create a venue for all levels of expression", a place where all things contemporary could take place. The mission of CAID was to educate, to connect to contemporary artists around the globe, and "to bring art to community rather than community coming to art." 25 years later, the organization he founded has finally found a home and is perhaps on its way to realizing the entire extent of that original mission.

But McGee did not reach this place in a vacuum, for as he states, "Everything I do is inexorably connected." This dedication to art and community is a constant throughout his entire life.

Born in Clemson, South Carolina in 1924, McGee credits his interest in creation and art to the making of ax handles for his grandfather. He took to this task so well, that he soon became responsible for making all such handles in the house. (As we shall see, some seven decades later the gentle curves of an ax handle permeate his work.) At the age of ten his family left the farm and rural life and came to industrialized Detroit. He was immediately fascinated by all the signs and the kinetic movement and activity of the city. "Everything is on the move and it hasn't slowed down yet."

At that time he had never seen the inside of a school and was only able to sign an "X" in the 4th grade. But through "perseverance" and "strong will", he managed to overcome his late start and was double promoted in the 8th grade. 10th grade was to be his last year of school as he started off to work. Despite his lack of a formal degree, he notes with no small degree of pride that he went on to eventually teach at the University level, including 18 years at Eastern Michigan University and a recent stint at the University of Michigan. He also recently received an honorary doctorate from the College for Creative Studies.

In 1943 McGee enlisted in the Marine Corps, and eventually ended up in Nagasaki shortly after the detonation of the second atomic bomb. (A recent painting reflects upon this experience.) Upon leaving the service he returned to Detroit and continued doing factory work primarily for Briggs Manufacturing. The choice to work in industry was not accidental. Early on, McGee explains that he approached his career intelligently. He planned to get a job, a menial position, in order to not spend all his "creative juices in one channel." The factory work was all physical, yet he felt he was constantly being fed intellectually, as "Life informs art." He did eventually leave the automobile plant to work as a cartographic draftsman for the Corps of Engineers in 1953.

During this period (1947-1957) McGee attended art classes at the Society of Arts and Crafts (what is now known as the College for Creative Studies.) For the former ax handle maker, this schooling "opened up new vistas." He specifically studied for those 10 years under Guy Palazzola. Although Palazzola pressed him to stick to the classical style he began his schooling with, McGee was never satisfied with staying the course, and always wanted to keep changing, venture out, try new materials, and new methods. Needless to say, McGee's will persevered, and that spirit of change and discovery continues to guide his work today.

It was in this period that he moved beyond his earlier narrative work and turned to abstraction on account of its "didactic properties." He came to find that the "narrative gets in the way, it can stop you short of understanding. This is because you look at this thing and say 'I understand it', but you don't. You simply are dealing on an emotional platform rather than dealing on the core of realism."

McGee's abstract compositions often use simple forms of straight lines, curves, and dots, to connote the passage of time and complex layers of experience. McGee credits the French artist Jean Dubuffet as a major influence. This certainly applies to his way of working. But it might more so apply to the way that Dubuffet "changed without asking."

Having retired from the Corps of Engineers, McGee was thus able to spend 1968 studying art in Barcelona. Despite not knowing the language at the outset, he immersed himself in the culture and opened himself to a whole new range of experience that would play out in his artwork. "If you free yourself, you have this kind of opportunity to have those experiences, horizons, and new vistas."

He came back to Detroit and curated "Seven Black Artists" at the Detroit Artists Market in 1969, which along with McGee himself, included Lester Johnson, Henri Umbaji King, Robert Murray, James Lee, Allie McGhee, Harold Neal, and Robert J. Stull. This immediately led to him opening the artists' collective Gallery 7 at 8232 West McNichols and the Charles McGee School of Art. The gallery would run at that space until 1974 when he closed the school and moved the gallery to the Fisher building where it stayed until 1979. The school functioned entirely as a volunteer organization run by McGee. People rallied around it as a community project, with such teachers as artist George Rogers who worked with the children and Allie McGhee and others, even their supplies came as donations from local institutions. McGee states emphatically that, "People participated because we had created such a dynamic place in the community, people couldn't ignore it."

During this time, McGee also taught art at Eastern Michigan University. He directed the gallery there in 1978 (while continuing to maintain Gallery 7) and eventually retired from the University in 1978. At this point he also closed his own gallery and retired to himself to concentrate on his own work.

But McGee did by no means retreat into himself, as it seems his desire to form community is an integral and inescapable part of who he is. (Also, it should be pointed out, over all this time he was serving on the boards of numerous arts commissions and related organizations, including one that developed Hart Plaza.) It was at this point that he helped found CAID, responding to a perceived void in the community and to encourage discourse on contemporary thought and contemporary motion. As it came about out of need back then, he hopes that today's efforts represent a fulfillment of that need.

In the winter of 1994 and lasting through the spring of 1995, McGee was honored with a one man show at the Detroit Institute of Arts. "Seeing Seventy" consisted of 103 pieces covering 5 rooms, showcasing his "Noah's Ark" series from the 80s and 90s. These pieces allowed him to weave his earlier experiences with both tame and wild animals back on the farm in South Carolina into his existing vocabulary of art making.

For McGee, his entire lifetime has been about learning. "I've had 8 decades and I've learned a lot in each one of them and I'm still learning." "I like the fact that I'm 80 years old, because it gives me a freedom I couldn't experience earlier. Like, I'm not persuaded by opinion." While he may not be influenced by opinion, McGee is by no means shy to share his own opinion, which he justifies by saying, "That's why I'm so opinionated - I think I've earned it."

His nearly 80 years of creating art has allowed McGee to forge a strong opinion about what art should be. "Art that lives has to speak the language of the day or it's not worth its salt. I'm moved by the fact that I can get in the right vehicle and be in Europe in three hours. I'm moved by the fact that sometimes I'm awakened by the noises from the pavement on the expressway in the middle of the movement. All I heard back on the farm [in South Carolina] was the sound of the crickets." For McGee art comes from a "keen observation of nature and the reality of mankind" and from being "keenly aware that we are all breathing the same breath."

This outlook bleeds out of his art and into his life. Reflecting on the particular elements of his own home, he stated: "Make your environment to your aesthetics so that you can breathe free." This aesthetic idea extends to the treatment of our bodies. McGee expressed that it was "essential to me to understand what food is about" and thus came to understand the meaning of good food versus bad food. As a result he became a vegetarian in 1971 and laughingly declared that, "I lived happily ever after."

For McGee, "Every minute is precious." Even on the telephone he is always sketching, putting together new ideas. As an artist, "I am always reaching beyond where I know." This energy and constant exploration shows, as today McGee is making work continually, with exhibitions at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, Sienna Heights University, and the CAID exhibition all this month. His work is included in the recently published "Art in the Stations: The Detroit People Mover" by Irene Walt with photographs by Balthazar Korab and published by Wayne State University Press. In this past year, he also completed "Progression" an enormous polychromed black and white aluminum sculpture commissioned for Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. ("Progression's" multi-layered aluminum forms contain so much of the rhythm and energy seen in all eras of McGee's work. Stripes and bars become markers of time, witnesses to change. One cannot but help connect the curved forms to the snakes of his "Noah's Ark" series and perhaps even more so to that little boy whittling ax handles. And while it may seem a bit of distraction (and certainly made taking a photograph difficult), the red-lit "Exit" sign directly in front of this piece seems an appropriate homage to McGee's first encounter with Detroit.)

McGee reduces his approach to art to this, "Take it to them - let art become part of the culture. When it becomes part of the culture, we all are enriched. … Art should be just that simple." His life's work is a testament to that enrichment and that simplicity.

Always moving, always changing - one can only look forward to what McGee will learn and share with us in the next decade. - Nick Sousanis

Among other places around Detroit, you can find McGee's work in the People Mover's Broadway Station and in the show Metamorphosis at CAID.


© 2002