Detroit’s Warrior Artist Goddess

I can’t stop thinking about it.

Or her.


Ever since then when I’m at a landmark now I wikipedia the building or place. Look at the date it was created. If it was before 1933 I think maybe she’d been here, seen this, was affected by it in someway. Maybe walked the same street, sat down at a bench or looked out on the river I walk every morning.

Homage to FridaThe Guardian Building with it’s golden Pewabic tile was completed in 1929. She had to have made a point to see it. My eyes have seen what she saw!

The Detroit Zoo in it’s suburban location opened in 1928. She liked animals. Painted them in her pictures. Maybe she made the trek out there on some type of trolley car and came within a mile of my house that I lay down and dream.

Or my memories from late 1990s of late nights hanging out at my friend’s Park Shelton apartment with a commanding view of Woodward facing downtown. The very place she lived! I had no idea at the time. I lost the opportunity to take it all in. The night I stayed up till dawn philosophizing with artists at the Scarab Club under her husband’s signature in the rafters. I vividly remember walking home across Woodward minutes before sunrise and thinking the city I found myself was bolder, larger, and grander than it appeared while at the same time utterly confusing and hidden. I always sensed something significant had happened here. And sometimes it felt that on top of all the people leaving so did all the ghosts.

Whether they fully left I don’t know, but somehow the warrior artist goddess who was able to transcend and immortalize herself gave me a solid dose of my own Detroit soul and insights into what the hell happened here.

What “It” was.

When I entered the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit at the Detroit Institute of Arts last week and was greeted by the initial marriage portrait painted by Kahlo something quickly and unexpectedly stirred inside me. I felt I was about to embark into a very deep story and somehow I was a part of the narrative. Part of my past was. Maybe my future. I felt appreciation and understanding what was about to unfold. It did. Confusing, haunting, contemplative, looking up build dates in Wikipedia of Detroit landmarks.

There’s so much commentary and chatter about how much Detroit is now changing. It’s a different city than the 1990s, even different than 4 years ago. This exhibit goes right to the heart of the century long transformation and reveals the story’s meaning from the ghosts that when alive changed the fabric of Detroit, civilization, and the planet. For a museum on the verge of liquidation last year because of bankruptcy I have one thing to say – thank you. With this show it’s clear the DIA has their act together.

edsel-b-ford-1932One of the surprising players uncovered for me was the Edsel Ford painting. I knew Diego Rivera as a painter of  the “labor movement” and figured him to have socialist tendencies. For decades I’d been to the DIA to take in “the mural” but never knew the story behind it. The fact the Fords were the ones who funded the mural was a profound revelation of irony. On the surface “the mural” shows the awesome destiny of man and industry, the worker, it’s hope and growth along with an undertone of warning and fear. It’s like something or someone is making this thing go and we’re actors not necessarily the directors. As time went on it sounds like Rivera and Kahlo became disillusioned with their wealthy benefactors and were eventually run out of town in New York City when Rivera’s proposed mural had Stalin. My generation grew up with the communist threat as the current generation wrestles with terrorism. The Detroit Industry fresco tackles these concepts before World War II, before The Cold War, and before Reagan and Gorbachev. The exhibit gives you the untold story behind the scenes of the dialectical drama so simply explained as black and white in schools and the media. These forces comingled at one time. Comingled in Detroit. The mural means this to me now and Kahlo was a hidden force.

The exhibit’s sketch studies for The Detroit Industry Fresco (the mural) have so much passion and energy. You sense these two forces coming alive for eternity and perhaps, because of the subject matter, you feel the presence of Ford and the auto industry that was changing Detroit forever. My generation in suburban Detroit grew up in the close shadows of “The Riot”. It’s what is used to explain all of Detroit’s issues and problems. This exhibit, this mural, goes back further and shows the beginning of an awesome journey that was so powerful and beyond our control like the blue jean workers moving engine blocks.

Which takes me to her. Frida. It’s clear she was Diego’s tempestuous muse and soul. There’s a room in the exhibit with one of Kahlo’s paintings with Ford’s name, like Diego’s portrait, but this painting titled “Henry Ford Hospital” is a deeply personal depiction of a traumatic miscarriage. Critics call it surrealist. Others call it groundbreaking for feminism and a woman owning and sharing her pain, maybe oppression. I felt pain and passion and saw Kahlo’s blood all over those white sheets on a cold unforgiving desert of industrialization. Deepening the experience for me was my twelve year old daughter under the headphones of the guided tour processing it all next to me. She’s at the age when life begins to be larger with the loss of innocence coming from heavy concepts, ideas, and experiences popping up in strange places. As I sensed the heaviness of all this I turned to my left and saw Diego’s sketch concept of the fetus that radiates today over The Detroit Industry Fresco. Whoa…is that the fetus and being that could have been? That is looking for birth today in this exhibit and in the thought processes of twelve year old girls?

So much has happened in Detroit since Kahlo was at Henry Ford Hospital. Detroit became all-powerful, fell into rage, and then cried and became abandoned. Much like Frida’s life. Now she’s a force in our culture with fashionistas emulating her style and her “selfies” monogrammed on all types of surfaces like t-shirts and tote bags.

She cracked the code, broke through the matrix for immortality and became a goddess alive today.

Belle Isle Conservatory – 1904.

Fox Theatre – 1928.

Detroit Public Library – 1921.


Our times are just as transformative. One could argue the internet is just as disruptive as new economic philosophies coming into play like they did 100 years ago. Our threats of terrorism and global climate change are real. Elon Musk’s vision for sustainable energy with the Power Wall and Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to connect the entire globe to the internet through are lofty and ambitious projects which have the ability to take humanity into new realms.

I need to get educated- Who are the artist’s today wrestling with these concepts and working with these type of people and institutions to document, inspire, build hope, and critique?

Everything written here are the views of Tim Aten and Tim Aten only. They have no relation, nor are they the views of any of my employers past or present.


  1. Awesome piece, Tim.

  2. Sandra M says:

    Tim – breathtaking post you’ve written. Makes me want to come back and look at what you saw through my eyes.

    • Thanks. Totally captivated me. Most art shows you go to are of a genre or they cover off a person’s life. This one was unlike any other. It was a story. There was love and tension and drama. And something tragic and ominous. Very deep.

  3. Really great writing.

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