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A museum in Michigan honors artist LeRoy Foster

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Curators were researching Black realist painters for a new show at an art museum outside of Detroit when they decided that one of them, a mostly forgotten artist, needed their own separate show. They went to some lengths to make that occur. Ryan Patrick Hooper of member station WDET has the story.

RYAN PATRICK HOOPER, BYLINE: When LeRoy Foster's lost mural appeared on the floor of the Cranbrook Art Museum for the first time, people stopped what they were doing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is the LeRoy Foster mural (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, my goodness.

(LAUGHTER)

HOOPER: The mural shows Detroit rising from the ashes after the 1967 rebellion. Foster called it "Renaissance City," and for years, it hung at a local high school. Curator Andrew Ruys de Perez.

ANDREW RUYS DE PEREZ: In "Renaissance City," you'll see sort of these faces, which are Black and white, and they sort of - represents racial prejudice, violence, discrimination.

HOOPER: If Foster is known at all, it's for this mural and two others that were hung in public buildings around the city. But Foster really isn't known, even though he was once called the dean of Black artists. Another nickname he picked up in his heyday - Detroit's Michelangelo.

MARIO MOORE: Just the way he approached anatomy was so specific.

HOOPER: That's curator Mario Moore who helped put this exhibit together. It's the first solo museum show on Foster ever, 30 years after his death.

MOORE: People going to get mad at me, but I'm telling you...

HOOPER: And it does sound a little crazy, but Moore, an accomplished artist himself, argues that LeRoy Foster was a better painter than Michelangelo.

MOORE: ...LeRoy, like, he's really painting. I think it's the way that he deals with broken colors and puts them together in a very painterly way.

HOOPER: In Foster's Michelangeloesque (ph) paintings, the faces and bodies depicted were often Black faces modeled after people he knew. Moore says Foster's a master of his craft, but he's not remembered like that. Valerie Mercer says that's not surprising.

VALERIE MERCER: A lot of it has to do with the art world, but a lot of it really has to do with racism.

HOOPER: Mercer is the head curator of African American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

MERCER: I don't see any of this that's happening now as rediscoveries. I mean, this is the first time it's happening for them. LeRoy, yes, he was active in his lifetime, but then he was definitely forgotten.

HOOPER: So forgotten that tracking down his paintings proved a challenge. It was like a detective story. Curators had to make a lot of calls, talk to a lot of people. One guy even had to break into a building.

Was that your first time going into an abandoned building to rescue art?

SENGHOR REID: No. You're trying to make me incriminate myself, man.

(LAUGHTER)

HOOPER: Senghor Reid is a painter himself. His work is in a show on Black realist painters running at the same time at Cranbrook with LeRoy Foster's show. He saw the "Renaissance City" mural at Cass Tech High School as a kid. And about 20 years ago, he heard it might be tucked away, forgotten about. And so he rescued it.

REID: I mean, in the moment, we felt like we were being called to do something that was larger and greater than ourselves.

HOOPER: Painting by painting, drawing by drawing, finding his artwork has given curators a fuller picture of the type of person LeRoy Foster was. Laura Mott is the chief curator at the museum.

LAURA MOTT: He lived such a big, unapologetic life. He was like, out and queer, like, in the 1940s and '50s.

HOOPER: Foster was living as an openly gay man at a time when it was rare and dangerous. He associated with activists and performed in drag under the name Martini Marti.

MOTT: His studio was, like, covered in gold lame and with - like, with carpets and cats and paintings everywhere.

HOOPER: Mott and her staff have been working on the show for years, talking to the few people who knew him.

MOTT: Dolores said that LeRoy Foster would throw parties that would make Andy Warhol blush.

HOOPER: This museum show is cementing Foster's legacy as a titan of realist painting. But just as importantly, Foster inspired generations of other Detroit painters, even though they didn't realize that's who they were looking at at the time.

MOORE: I didn't know much about him in high school at Cass. I would see it, and I would look at it and be like, wow. And then, you know, just go about my business. I didn't spend any time trying to take it all in.

HOOPER: Mario Moore was a little offended, he said, when people first started to compare their styles.

MOORE: Right after high school into undergrad, people would look at my work, and they'd be like, you ever heard of LeRoy Foster? You know, your work kind of reminds me of LeRoy Foster. And I'm like, no, it don't.

(LAUGHTER)

HOOPER: Now he's proud. And after LeRoy Foster's solo show wraps up at the Cranbrook Art Museum in March, the restored "Renaissance City" mural will be displayed once again at Cass Tech High School. So a whole new generation of artists can take it in, like Mario Moore did when he was young. For NPR News, I'm Ryan Patrick Hooper in Detroit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ryan Patrick Hooper

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