A Museum Grows On Kercheval; Its Founders Are Out-Of-Town Artists Who Dig Detroit

December 09, 2013, 9:48 PM by  Bill McGraw

With its boarded-up windows and predictable graffiti, the two-story building that was once the headquarters of Sibley Lumber looks empty and forlorn, like tens of thousands of similar structures across Detroit. Some of the floors inside are unsafe to walk on.

Yet Julia Solis, left, an artist and urban explorer who splits her time between Detroit and New York, sees something else when she wanders through the dusty rooms. She sees a museum. And not your run-of-the-mill museum, but an institution devoted to art, wonder, curiosity and adventure. The kind of idiosyncratic place that arises in big cities when a critical mass of artists comes together.

The museum of wonder has a name –-  the Seafoam Palace -- and it has an impressive roster of backers who have both artistic and urban-guerilla credentials: About a dozen artists, some of whom have national art-world reputations, including Monica Canilao, Dorothy Trojanowski, an artist and designer and John Law, the co-founder of the Burning Man festival who commutes between Detroit and San Francisco.

None of the museum backers grew up in metro Detroit, though four have moved here in recent years.

They have big plans: In addition to exhibits, the organizers eventually would like to hold classes and workshops on such subjects as photography, publishing, and audio. Solis mentions the possibility of a radio station. They also want to publish a small journal of eclectic arcana to accompany the rotating collections, and they’re in discussions to form an alliance of small artistic museums throughout the country to share resources and exhibitions.

The museum isn’t scheduled to open for about a year, but it already has focused creative energy on a corner – Beaufait and Kercheval, two blocks east of the Capuchin monastery and soup kitchen -- that is far from the brainpower corridor that stretches from Eastern Market through Midtown and downtown to Corktown. The museum's neighborhood is old, poor and slowly disappearing, and the arrival of a museum of wonder is bound to be a curiosity in itself.

“We’re starting to feel out the idea of raising money,” Solis said. “We want to raise money, but so does everybody else. There’s so many people coming into Detroit and doing stuff like this.”

Who is Julia Solis?

Solis is an artist, photographer, author and publisher. She also is an explorer, or “infiltrator,” who for years has investigated ruins  across the United States and abroad.

She has founded two New York-based organizations that foster exploration and renegade events, Ars Subterranea and Dark Passage, and her inquiries have led to another pursuit – stage managing clandestine performances and scavenger hunts in abandoned spaces like theaters and factories, such as a takeoff on the “Phantom of the Opera” that she and friends staged in an abandoned Jewish resort in Upstate New York. 

“It’s really goofy and absurd, and what I stove for is a kind of nightmarish absurdity that you can see in some of the great David Lynch movies,” Solis said.

Shel Kimen, the mastermind behind a project to build a boutique hotel out of shipping containers in Eastern Market, is another transplanted New Yorker who is one of the organizers of Seafoam Palace. She and Solis have been collaborating on “art antics” for more than a decade.

“Julia embodies wonder; it’s one of the reasons I think this project will be so successful,” Kimen said. “She just wants to explore everything – people, places, ideas, objects. We’ll be reading lots about her for generations to come.”

Solis is in her 40s and has reddish brown hair and a slight accent that is hard to place until she explains she grew up in Germany and Los Angeles, where her family moved in the late 1970s when her father, a journalist for a German movie magazine, was transferred to Hollywood. She studied philosophy at UCLA.

She is unassuming and laid-back, arriving for lunch one day in a 1984 Toyota Land Cruiser called Cricket and shared by several Seafoam Palace owners.

When Solis is not staying with her boyfriend, cat and dog in a six-bedroom home near the Detroit River in Jefferson-Chalmers, she lives in Brooklyn, between the Gowanus Canal and Park Slope.

Solis is not the Brooklyn artist who has followed the hipster trail to Detroit in the last couple of years. She saw the city’s possibilities on her first visit  -- in 1998 – a time when Detroit was considered by the national hipsterati to be about as fashionable as Des Moines.

She said she was invited by the Detroit Cacophony Society, a spinoff of an anarchistic-spirited San Francisco group that conducted such excursions as a cocktail party at the Uniroyal Tire on I-94 and dinner inside the then-abandoned Book Cadillac Hotel. Some guests rappelled down the walls.

It was sort of love at first sight: a connoisseur of ruins in the capital of the Rust Belt.

“At that point, Detroit really was a ghost town,” Solis said. “I loved exploring all these buildings. I loved the history. I loved the beauty of downtown Detroit, the Wurlitzer Building, the Metropolitan Building. They are such gorgeous places.”

She lives here now about nine months a year, she said. But her projects take her around the world.

“I go to Berlin and I say I’m living in Detroit and everyone is like, ‘Wow. That is so exciting.’ What they’re hearing in Germany is that Detroit is the avant garde of the art community right now.”

As an author, Solis has gained notice in the sometimes-overlapping worlds of artists and urban explorers with two books. Her most recent is “Stages of Decay,” left, a 159-page photo documentation of abandoned movie theaters and performance spaces in a variety of institutions from Germany to Alabama, including more than three dozen in Michigan, mostly in and around Detroit.

In a story about the book in the New York Times in April, the reporter wrote this about Solis: “She has been told that her images of forlorn chairs and collapsed ceilings make people want to cry.”

Solis calls decaying stages “magical spaces” that fascinate her because, in life, they are intended to be a portals to different worlds and performances; in decay, they become a performance in themselves, expressing a personality of their own.

“I wanted to capture that,” she said. “I’m interested in change over time. I’m interested in decay in general because when something falls apart it starts to reveal gaps in its structure that allow you to fill in the blanks by yourself. I wanted to capture the theaters at a certain moment that lets the theaters speak for themselves.”

An earlier book, “New York Underground: Anatomy of a City,” chronicled the explorations of Solis and her friends in New York’s vast infrastructure of tunnels, aqueducts, sewers, bridges and abandoned subway stations. A reviewer in the New York Daily News called it “as good an evocation of New York’s substratum as I know.”

New York’s most magnificent ruin, Solis wrote, is the remnants of the Croton Aqueduct, a winding masonry tube from the 1830s that travels through the Bronx and into Manhattan.

“Most of the tunnel section from the Bronx to the High Bridge contains an uncomfortable amount of stagnant water, which at one point reaches a depth of three feet,” she wrote.  “The constant prospect of slipping on a layer of gray mud makes walking through this tube all the more interesting. An underground hike through the Bronx is by no means monotonous. Bats and stalactites line the ceiling, and the masonry is perforated by roots resembling anatomical diagrams.”

On one outing, Solis and a friend swam through pooled rainwater in a tunnel beneath the teeming streets of Manhattan.

Solis said she became interested in exploring while growing up in Europe, surrounded by old cities and ruins. She wanted to be a writer, and was drawn to what she calls “kind of weird fiction,” by such authors as H.P. Lovecraft and Jules Verne.

She said: “Buildings go kind of hand–in-hand with that. They are kind of like playgrounds where you can imagine any kind of scenario. I’m interested in the personal stories behind the ruins. I like finding letters left behind, and photos and some of the clothes, and making up your own story about who lived there.”

New York, tightly policed by the enormous and aggressive NYPD, is a tough place for guerilla explorers, especially in the post-9/11 world. Solis relishes the freedom Detroit offers.

“In 2005, I was walking out of the Michigan Central Station and across the street to Slow’s, which had just opened, and getting Charles Bronson salad,” she recalled.

“I said to myself, ‘this is a quality of life that I like.’ I mean, it’s dangerous, and I’m not blind to that, but you take the risks. No one is impeding your regular movements through the city. I love New York, but I love it here, too.”

This appreciation for ruins strikes some Detroiters, even Detroiters with an artistic bent, as disdaining the city as an abstract art project. Critics have assailed people, especially out-of-towners, who seems to enjoy themselves too much while grooving on the blighted landscape.

Solis tries to consider the bigger picture.

“People in Detroit who call something ‘ruin porn’ – it’s kind of a knee-jerk reaction by people who are upset that their city is being seen as in decline and attracting these kinds of tourists,” Solis said.

“I totally understand that. But it doesn’t mean anything. Ruins have been valued for aesthetic reasons for the last 2,000 years. So I think it’s almost two different things. People can debate as much as they want. It really doesn’t change anything. Whatever I and my friends are doing, it’s not for exploitation.”

The Seafoam Palace

The full name of the museum is the Seafoam Palace of Arts and Amusements and Dead Things in Jars.

It has a mission statement, which reads in part:

“As a modern 'Wunderkammer,'” – “wonder room” or cabinet of curiosities – “the museum's exhibitions will encourage visitors to investigate their own sense of the marvelous while playing with the frontiers of art, science, history and adventure. What are the new outer realms from which we bring back our mysterious artifacts, what are the puzzles that enchants us?”

The name “Seafoam Palace” comes from the idea of ships as metaphors for voyages and explorations. A wooden rendering of a small boat, left, hangs from the ceiling at the entrance.

“With all the beautiful old wood inside, the neglected building seemed a bit like a ship lost at sea that we're now turning into a vessel for discoveries,” Solis said. “The original paint is seafoam colored and we're going to preserve that.”

Officially known as the Frederic M. Sibley Lumber Company Office Building, the future museum has a red brick façade with limestone trim and is considered an example of Neo-Classical style. It was built in 1917 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Solis and friends bought it last year for $26,000. It contains 13,000 square feet of space; they’ll renovate about half.

The broken interior looks like the inside of many other old buildings in Detroit, except for the high-quality wood and a couple of rooms that have been turned into galleries, such as the one at right, by Canilao.

Solis said organizers are applying for non-profit status and expect to start fundraising activities in early 2014. Solis estimates it will cost roughly $75,000 to prepare it for visitors.

“I'm hoping we can have an ‘open house’ event next summer to introduce the building to the neighborhood, even if we probably won't officially open until late in the fall. It really does depend on funding. On the positive side, we're already working on exhibitions and it won't take us long to fill the space.”

The neighborhood already includes a number of interesting elements, including Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, several blocks to the north. Two blocks to the east are two of Detroit’s oldest cemeteries, Mt. Elliott and Elmwood, and the ancient stream, Bloody Run, that flows amid the elaborate tombstones and mausoleums. 

There is even a museum almost next door -- the gallery of artifacts and audio visual features inside the Solanus Casey Center  that is part of the St. Bonaventure Monastery. This museum tells the story of Casey, the famous Detroit-based Capuchin friar, right, who is on the road to becoming a Roman Catholic saint.

The 131-year-old monastery, which includes the landmark soup kitchen, also has spawned some of Detroit’s most advanced urban farming, and its plots will be the Seafoam Palace’s neighbors. Across the street from the future museum is Gleaner’s Food Bank.

Delphia Simmons, founder of Thrive Detroit, who has lived in the neighborhood for 18 years, said she was thrilled to learn the old Sibley Building had been purchased and that the buyers saw its beauty and historic value.

“I'm not sure of Julia's target population for the project but if it truly inspires curiosity and wonder there should be no shortage of a diverse group of customers,” Simmons said.

She added: “Curiosity and wonder definitely cross racial, cultural, and economic lines.” 

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