One of Detroit’s most intriguing figures, artist LeRoy Foster (1925–1993) was an exceptional talent and a leading figure in the Black artistic community. Perhaps best known for his large mural at the Douglass Branch of the Detroit Public Library, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, (1972), Foster studied art at Detroit’s famed Cass Tech High School, the Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies) and, it is believed, at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Foster embodied his moniker “the Michelangelo of Detroit,” drawing inspiration from the drama of High Renaissance paintings. This passion also led him to study overseas in London and Rome, growing his deft skills in figuration. Conceived as a companion to the concurrent contemporary-art-focused exhibition, Skilled Labor: Black Realism in Detroit, LeRoy Foster exemplifies the rich local history of Black realism.
Foster was openly gay during a time of hostility and oppression towards the LGBTQ+ community and was championed by other legendary Detroiters, such as queer activist Ruth Ellis, artist Charles McGhee, and philanthropist Charles Wright. Foster was uncompromising in his artistic vision, which didn’t always fit with the larger art world’s expectations and stylistic trends, leaving him essentially unrepresented in twentieth-century art history and underrepresented in scholarship on Black artists. The exhibition’s title, Solo Show, is a nod to the fact this is his first significant recognition from a museum, but also a testament to the freedom in which he conducted his life—quite literally living and working in a former theater adorned with gold lamé—like a “solo show.”
While researching the exhibition, the mural Renaissance City was recovered from storage at Detroit’s Cass Technical High School. The mural had previously been installed in the school’s old building from the early 1980s until 2005—this exhibition will be the first time it has been on view in nearly 20 years. The work is undergoing restoration at Cranbrook Art Museum thanks to the efforts of Rochelle Riley, Director of Arts and Culture for the City of Detroit, and the Office of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship. The restored work will debut in the exhibition and be returned to the new Cass Technical High School to be placed on permanent view to the public.“Skilled labor” refers to highly trained, experienced individuals who complete complex mental or physical tasks with expertise. The term poetically speaks to these Detroit artists that perform a durational and technically proficient approach to artmaking. Skilled labor is also a rigorous intellectual process that these artists materialize through technical prowess. They are a result of generations of skilled Black labor workers, who bestowed upon the city a legacy of extraordinary innovation. The exhibition evinces the unique sense of place, community, and networks of support found in Detroit.
This landmark exhibition will feature 20 contemporary artists who have worked in Detroit over the last decade and demonstrate this exceptional skill.
These artists include Christopher Batten, Taurus Burns, Cydney Camp, Ijania Cortez, Cailyn Dawson, Bakpak Durden, Conrad Egyir, Jonathan Harris, Sydney G. James, Gregory Johnson, Richard Lewis, Hubert Massey, Mario Moore, Sabrina Nelson, Patrick Quarm, Joshua Rainer, Jamea Richmond-Edwards, Senghor Reid, Rashaun Rucker, and Tylonn J. Sawyer.
The exhibition is co-curated with Detroit artist Mario Moore, whose internationally acclaimed work exemplifies this expertise.