A Life in Art: Charles McGee at the BBAC

A new retrospective of renowned Detroit artist Charles McGee at the
Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center (BBAC) includes more than just pieces
from the 82-year-old’s body of work — it’s also proud showcase of 25
students he’s taught at the center since 1999.

Signatures: Charles McGee & Students, which opened Oct. 1, is curated by McGee himself. Three galleries showcase 79 pieces of art, with McGee’s pieces shown side by side with those of his students.

“Charles is incredibly intensive to each student’s individual needs,” says Addie Langford, President and CEO of the BBAC.  “He is not the kind of teacher that a lot people think you might find in a community setting: only supportive and encouraging. He can be very, very forthcoming with his critical feedback. And the student body that he’s cultivated really likes that.”

But student doesn’t necessarily mean amateur at the Art Center: Langford laughs that many of the 4,000 students who take classes at BBAC are “artists with day jobs.” Many of McGee’s students have worked with him for a decade. “He teaches at a very sophisticated level and takes each student very seriously,” she continues, “and in turn they take themselves very seriously, and the work that they’re doing.”

That work is apparent, Langford adds, when viewing the Signatures exhibition as a creative whole. Student and master work is shown interchangeably, each given the same respect in the galleries. “You don’t get the sense of huge shifts in quality when you’re looking between Charles or his students’ work, because of their expertise with the material and the workmanship,” she marvels.

What’s caught her eye? One student piece quickening her pulse is a 3-dimensional piece by local artist Victor Pytko of Birmingham. “That piece has an old fan head affixed to it. It’s built out of a wood box with a baby shoe and a mailbox and a very sort of impressionistic paint on the surface,” she says. “It’s a really, really wonderful piece.” Though McGee, who curated the exhibition, collected works from throughout his career, from both private regional collections and his own art, her favorite piece of McGee’s work actually hearkens back to his earlier work — a charcoal of his daughter, April. “It’s just … so exquisite to see what he can do with such a simple medium,” Langford says. “The transition of his work from the figurative to abstract. To be able to see the roots of his abstraction in that particular drawing is really exciting to me.”

For 75 years, Charles McGee has made art in the city of Detroit. His works are preserved in public and private collections across the nation. He’s also prominently displayed in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and the Broadway People Mover Station. McGee was also the inaugural recipient of the Kresge Foundation Eminent Artist Award in 2008. But he’s equally lauded for his abilities as a teacher to thousands of Michigan artists, from his Charles McGee Art School (now closed), his 18 years teaching at Eastern Michigan University, and his weekly classes at the BBAC. Now, for the first time, artist and teacher are both celebrated in one exhibition.

“Charles is in his 80’s now,” Langford says, “and he’s made multiple bodies of work, where you can see the transition, moving from one into the next. But his ability to reinvent himself through the work, and vice versa … because the work kind of reinvents him, I think he’s say … is really remarkable.” Charles is an artist who still cannot stand still. “He is more technically fearless than many people in their 20s and 30s in terms of learning new technology.” He’s not an inspiration just because he keeps on creating — but because he’s never stopped learning. “I would just grab any young artist off the street and just move them into the gallery and say, ‘look what’s possible.”

Signatures: Charles McGee & Students opens Oct. 1 and runs through Nov. 12 at the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center in Birmingham. For more information on the exhibition or classes at the BBAC, please contact (248) 644-0866 or visit www.bbartcenter.org

By: Ashley C. Woods

This exhibition and related programming is generously supported by ArvinMeritor, Comerica Bank, Detroit International Jazz Festival, DTE Energy Foundation, Patty & Ken Eisenbraun, Frank James Fisher, Inforum, Mack Avenue Records, Midwest White Glove, Oakland County Arts, Culture & Film, Splendid Plates, Joe Vaughn, Cari Vaughn & Matt Prested, and Vaughn Images.

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center is located at 1516 S. Cranbrook, Birmingham MI 48009 between 14 and 15 Mile Roads, open Mon.-Thurs., 9am-6pm and Fri.-Sat., 9am-5pm.  BBAC exhibitions are always free and open to the public.  The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center is a regional non-profit art center committed to promoting the creative process through visual art with classes and exhibitions for all ages and levels.
Each year the BBAC offers 500 year-round classes and art camps for 4,000 students. The BBAC campus features nine classroom studios, four galleries with free exhibits open to the public, art camps, special events, and a retail gallery shop featuring artisan made jewelry, ceramics and glass. 

Photograph of Charles McGee painting – © 2010 Joe Vaughn

Black Echo IV by Charles McGee; 2009; Ultraviolet inkjet acrylic on Dibond; 60″ x 12″; Photo credit: Ruffy B. Lim