Artists ask questions, whether they know it or not. Some artists begin their craft with a desire to say something. Some begin with a desire to ask a question. Some artists are concerned purely with abstraction, and some purely with emotion. Cedric Tai has the rare gift of being able to move towards his craft with any number of these directives, whether he knows it or not. He’s a triple, or quadruple-threat.
The emotional artists often have a hard time talking about the questions their art raises, and the overly technical artists often have a difficult time talking about the emotion their art elicits in the viewer. Cedric Tai’s background in art education is clear when he talks about his craft. He has a fine understanding of the evolution of art from the idea or kernel, to public reception. He’s also capable of understanding everything in between.
Working and living in Los Angeles, Tai was home for the holidays, and I sat with him at the Bottom Line coffee shop on Third Street.
TL: You’re from Detroit?
CT: I would say no, but I always tell people I’m from Detroit because both of my parents went to Wayne State. I could say I was born at Mt. Sinai in Detroit, but I grew up in Northville.
All of my friends went to CCS. I went to the Cow College at Michigan State. I didn’t go for art; I went for art education.
TL: Cow College?
CT: Yeah, agricultural school. The three things they’re known for are art education, packaging majors and farming. I never really had a plan but I told my parents I was going into art education. I went through the whole thing and got my degree in art-ed. All of my ideas come from being excited about the critical nature of pedagogy that’s part of art-ed. And then, what happened is my art took off. I graduated there in 2007. I did my teaching certification from 2007-2008, and by that time I lived in Detroit, in the Iron Street Lofts. They’re the ones who own the Russell Industrial Center. I had a studio out of there for years. Then, there was a scare of being priced out.
TL: What’s your connection to Woodbridge, and how did the two pieces come about?
CT: I know Larry John. My dad went to school with him. He first commissioned me do a mural. I immediately wanted to do one with my friend Ian Swanson, so we did this piece that was slightly inspired by our mutual love of ‘hot wheels’ stores, where you can see all the rims in the windows. And, they have that part where there’s like a matrix — there’s all these guns and they show up along the sides. The difference is that you can spin all the rims and run up and down the aisles. The other component of that mural is the neighborhood-watch eyes. We kind of made a secret code with all of the eyes and dots. I don’t know if anyone ever thought that might be a code, but it’s basically S-O-M-E-T-H-I-N-G U-P-L-I-F-T-I-N-G. This is before there was this craze about putting murals up everywhere, especially in Eastern Market. The whole idea is — secretly putting up public art that says “something uplifting.” But it’s made out of some of this counter-cultural stuff — the neighborhood-watch eye has this feeling of being aware of this kind of duty, or maybe more aware than people who grow up in other cities. Then, there’s also something quite interesting about this idea of self-policing.
The second project we did was the “Brixels.” I feel like that’s what most people know me for because it was connection with ArtX, which was in connection to me being a Kresge Fellow. At that time, I thought it was something that wasn’t going to work out. I had to rely on the idea that somehow someone would be able to program a website that could make tessellations, for free, combine them all, and put them online. And, somehow I thought that would be easy to do. I got a teaching job that year, and met up with Dan Marchwinski, and he just made it in about a week. The website is called makebrixels.com. I was seeing a lot of what people call street art, and what some people call tagging. I don’t necessarily think that destruction is the point of it, as much as people are just trying to create a kind of ‘cred,’ which is not necessarily something I’m against because it’s something artists do anyway — their form of branding. But, what I was disappointed in was, I’d always here these stories of people coming in to Detroit to do all of this. So, then I was thinking, regardless of the fact that Detroit has a hang-up with insider vs. outsider, which is very overblown, I still thought that there was an interesting conversation about the concept of blank walls. Even if it wasn’t just taggers, there were all these developers who saw Detroit as an opportunity, as a blank slate. So I wanted to create a metaphor for something that’s technically not blank, and if I highlight the bricks, it would prove that it’s made up of something
TL: So, which came up first, the website or the concept on the wall behind the gas station?
CT: The whole concept had to come first, and then I asked my friend Dan to make the website. The thing I had to do, which I still enjoy, was create a paint-by-numbers based on what the computer program figures out. I can’t do what the program does, but I can at least be like six blocks over is this color; four blocks over and up, this color. And when I did it with the kids, that’s when it’s super accessible. I think there was a religious family that lived next door to it, and they had two little girls. They were wearing these masks that were falling off their faces. They were holding one can together and spraying as hard as they could and I thought: This is it. I’ve made this so much more subversive. All these kids were spray-painting a building they don’t own, having fun with it. So, this concept of ownership, a place, especially in terms of going over other peoples’ graffiti with the design they chose or the colors they like kind of created this effect that they were actively doing something creative with another artist, but with their goal which is to have more ownership of where they live.
That makes me feel better as an artist. I’m not just like I’m here to save you. This is my project. You’re welcome.
TL: Here’s the message that is going to change your life.
CT: Yeah, which is part of why I did the “Something Uplifting” piece. It’s one thing to put abstract art up and say you’re welcome.
TL: Because of what’s happening now in the city, how is it different to look at your art as opposed to five or ten years ago?
CT: I was talking with a friend who now lives in LA, Ben Hernandez. He’s in his forties. A lot of people in his generation remember leaving around 2003. Someone had just written an article about how Detroit’s art scene was dead. Someone wrote a response to that; I wrote a response to that. There were all of these feelings that people would need to hold down as much as they could because there was going to be no public funding. Not that everyone was against them, but with the feeling that people want quality work, we’re going to have to higher expectations, in a way. When I look back at all of this, I actually feel like we’re starting to see who was full of talk, and who actually did things. I think that’s interesting. It’s a little tumultuous.
The nice thing about coming into Detroit around 2003 was that it was constantly DIY. Now that that’s the way it is, it’s as if everyone knows how DIY looks, but I’m not sure if everyone understands the different generations’ versions of DIY. The generation of people in their forties now, their version of DIY was The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. My version of DIY was smaller – shows with friends.