At the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club, you won’t find any fancy wines or cheeses. You won’t find any breakfast either, but you can find a community of mixed-media artists showcasing, seeking advice on, and selling their work. And it’s all uniquely Detroit.
The group started in 2009, when co-founders Henry Harper and Harold Braggs used to meet at Noni’s Sherwood Grille for breakfast and to discuss art. Not long after, others started to join their conversations, and eventually, the table for two outgrew the entire restaurant. Today, because of its size, the Breakfast Club meets on Mondays at the Marygrove Conservancy, where you’ll find emerging and existing Detroit artists, art collectors and art lovers.
One Detroit Senior Producer Bill Kubota spent an evening with the Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club for a look at the weekly experience and how it’s paving the way for the city’s Black and brown artists to become part of America’s artistic story.
Kubota talks with Harper about the growth of the Breakfast Club and the evolving business of the art world as it becomes more accessible. Plus, he catches up with several Detroit-based artists, including nationally renowned artists Jonathan Harris and Judy Bowman and emerging artists Oshun Williams and Melinda Ruth Rushing, to hear about how the Breakfast Club has improved their artistry and artistic careers.
Walter Bailey, Artist, Educator: Black expressionism goes all the way back to the founding of the visual arts on the African continent. It flowed through time into this room. It passed through many definitions and transitions until it comes to you.
Bill Kubota, Senior Producer, One Detroit: The Mary Grove Conservancy, Detroit. Most Monday nights it’s the Breakfast Club.
Unknown Speaker 1: Please give him your undivided attention. Look at that handsome face. Look at him smiling. Okay.
Bill Kubota: Artists, art lovers, collectors. Looking, talking and buying art.
Henry Harper, Co-Founder, Detroit Fine Arts Breakfast Club: I’m happy because it brings artists out of the woodwork.
Mariam Hall, Acrylic Painter: My name is Mariam Hall. I’m an acrylic painter.
Unknown Speaker 2: I mostly do line art. Portraiture is what I really dabble in and I’m really inspired by Detroit’s underground community.
Unknown Speaker 3: I was a technical illustrator for GM for over 40 years, so that was my profession, I’m a photo realistic artist.
Unknown Speaker 4: And I’m proud to say I am a folk artist.
Henry Harper: Breakfast Club started about 2009.
Bill Kubota: Henry Harper, antiques dealer on Detroit’s East Side, and art aficionado.
Henry Harper: Here is the sheepturner for Detroit and actually getting to be a national art rock star.
Bill Kubota: Art, Harper realized something to look forward to coming home to.
Henry Harper: Art just enhances one’s life.
Bill Kubota: Artists check-in, show their wares, get some advice.
Unknown Speaker 5: So, the piece is a Black narrative. And it’s ironic, you know, part of me coming here to drop it off I got pulled over by the police. So it’s just the–
Henry Harper: You did?
Unknown Speaker 5: Yeah.
Henry Harper: With this in the car?
Unknown Speaker 5: Yeah with this in the car.
Henry Harper: That should of been interesting. It’s something new in this millennial about the business of art. Art is now a business beyond what it used to be. It was reserved for the one-percenters.
Bill Kubota: The very rich. Harper has been a procurer of antiques for some of them. But this Breakfast Club that goes in a different direction.
Henry Harper: Now, what Breakfast Club has done was to make art absolutely democratic.
Unknown Speaker 6: Now as you go through life and you evolve up the state of creativity, you’re going to have to define who you are and what you are. Are you a cubist? Are you an impressionist?
Unknown Speaker 6: Along the road of life, you’re going to be experimenting with art, you’re going to be experimenting with techniques. You’re going to be looking to find yourself.
Unknown Speaker 6: Now, once you find yourself, you have to define yourself. When you make out a resumé, you’re going to have to tell people what type of artist you are. I am a Black expressionist artist.
Jonathan Harris, Artist: It’s not like this elites, like the wine and cheese critique… Art, power. Caucasian walking around.
Judge Deborah G. Bledsoe Ford, Artist: I have one work this evening. Thirty by 40 I had to up arrow.
Jonathan Harris: It’s very welcoming. It’s very home. It’s very community.
Judge Deborah G. Bledsoe Ford: It’s acrylic. It’s called Sunni The Reunion and it’s also called The Homecoming.
Henry Harper: It’s really very therapeutic because they get to talk about in front of a crowd on top of that. And then there’s like an African culture, there’s the caller response and African traditions and culture.
Damien Deyonte, Artist: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Damien Deonte.
Henry Harper: So, you put a call out and get a response back. That is exactly what happens at Breakfast Club. Some artists are showmen. Andy Warhol was a showman.
Damien Deyonte: Some years back I did the first one in 1989. You had to be there.
Henry Harper: Picasso was a showman.
Damien Deyonte: It was in Australia. You had to be there. I threw rocks at wild parakeets. You had to be there.
Henry Harper: The showman, showman, showman.
Damien Deyonte: And for hours, these parakeets attacked me every time they saw me. You had to be there.
Henry Harper: And a showman’s rise to the top.
Damien Deyonte: It’s 36 by 48 Untitled right now because it’s untitled right now.
Henry Harper: The art is a byproduct of the showmanship.
Damien Deyonte: On acrylics.
Henry Harper: You’ve got to stay with your craft. Stay with what you believe in and really get it out there. And now it’s easier now. In the old days, Art Dealer and really happened here in Detroit. It was sad. It happened all over the country. Nobody wanted Black art. They saw it as Black art rather than part of the American story.
Seydehwon, Artist: I would say I’m an abstract artist.
Henry Harper: However, now, Brown people, Black people all got an American story to tell. And the way you tell it is by executing beautiful works of art.
Reggie Singleton, Artist: So these two pieces here. First one is… they’re both ink. So that is ink on paper and that one is ink on wood. So that style I feel like I’ve been developing that for the past 20 years. Because I spent the first ten years mastering ink and then I spent the next ten years mastering wood. So I wanted to bring them together.
Lynette Gibson, Artist: If you look closely, you will see that this is a Nigerian woman and she has a scar on her face. Her… the scar comes from marauding people who came to her village because of her religion. But her attitude is I’m still not turning back. So that’s why I called it No Turning Back. And this piece is 250.
Bill Kubota: Some fine eating can be found here. But for newcomers, the Breakfast Club, that name might be confusing.
Henry Harper: I hear people say, “Well if you don’t have dinner in the evening, why do you call it the Breakfast Club?” So, I have to explain the history to all.
Bill Kubota: It’s when Harold Braggs and Henry Harper started meeting regularly for breakfast.
Henry Harper: And then we start talking and people would overhear us at that restaurant talking about art. And then people will start joining the meeting. And that first Judy Bowman painting was the real Breakfast Club. Mr. Bracks told me a long time ago. He said, this is going to be historic. And I said what two old guys meeting talking about art. How cold that be historic?
Bill Kubota: Artist, art collectors with coffee, bacon and eggs.
Judy Bowman, Artist: I started going and meeting with these people because I didn’t know any artists. I didn’t know anything about the Detroit art scene. I didn’t know any of that. We would bring our work in and talk about it and more and more people started hearing about it and it just started expanding. And then it exploded.
Bill Kubota: They moved meetings to evenings but kept calling it the Breakfast Club. After COVID, they grown so big they moved to the Mary Grove campus dining hall.
Henry Harper: With my interest or my background in antiques and art, going to auctions, what do they say at auctions? Sold! They don’t ring the bell. They say sold. Well, I went and found an antique cowbell, and every time you sell something, it just adds to the spontaneity of the evening.
Oshun Williams, Artist: This one right here is 18 by 24. That one actually sold already.
Henry Harper: Did it sell here?
Oshun Williams: Yeah, it sold.
Henry Harper: Sold! Artists will never know how to price their work and how work is priced is very difficult. Online they’ll tell you per square inch. That doesn’t work. But they tell people that.
Jonathan Harris: I had no idea that you could sell stuff for $10,000. I had. I never thought that me, a Black man would be able to do something like that. Never. Ever.
Oshun Williams: Like pricing-wise… I don’t know how that kind of goes, honestly. So yeah, I’m just starting to figure it out. But I feel like if you keep applying pressure to your art, your prices just keep going up so yeah. Just stay busy with it. You can tell they’re pretty much my pieces.
Bill Kubota: Oshun Williams started as a graphic artist. He put applicators on clothes, he sold.
Oshun Williams: The flower patch.
Bill Kubota: The applicates is now part of his painted work inspired by his daughters.
Oshun Williams: I said I haven’t seen my kids in a couple of years. So like, that’s why I paint little girls and I paint pictures of them and stuff. Basically, I’m self-taught, pretty much. I never went to school for it. With that picture, I did that one because you always got to be positive. Yeah, that’s about it. Thank you. I never sold my stuff because I didn’t know how to price it. That was like my biggest thing. I never was really selling art. Like, I’ll probably sell maybe two, four pieces a year. Now I’m selling a couple of pieces a week.
Henry Harper: It’s very important for artists to collect, collect, collect. You guys got the ability to build collections by trading. So collect. See art as an asset glass because it is. And I knew that Monet and I knew that Picasso and all those earlier greats, they owned art because they traded with other artists. And as a result of that, they built up tremendous collections.
Jonathan Harris: The title of this piece is called Night School. I heard a story about Frederick Douglass being taught to read illegally. For Black people there are anti literacy laws going around.
Bill Kubota: Jonathan Harris. His studio is in Corktown. He became a national sensation a couple of years ago with his painting Critical Race Theory.
Jonathan Harris: And even when I was in school, like, I studied graphic design and I was just told, Oh, if you really want to succeed, you have to go to California. I’ve still had a pamphlet of the different companies in California, in Chicago or New York that the teacher gave us. And now it’s like, well, I’m not even in that world and I’m able to do what I want to do in the city of Detroit. At home.
Melinda Ruth Rushing PHD, Artist: I saw how this really was something unique that Detroit has. I don’t know if it’s anywhere else in the country.
Hi, my name is Melinda Ruth.
They’re bringing emerging artists and it’s a direct connect to the art world. And I have two pieces. The first, the smaller one is actually a mixed media line of cut.
Bill Kubota: Melinda Ruth Rushing from Texas with a Ph.D. in the health science field, arriving in the midst of COVID.
Melinda Ruth Rushing PHD: And I moved up here for a post-doc fellowship at the University of Michigan. Black print ink overlaid with India ink. Before coming here, I was in a show in a gallery in Chicago, and they had mentioned how there’s a big art scene in Detroit. Instead of moving and living in Ann Arbor, I wanted to live in Detroit because I wanted to pursue this art. And it was actually like a black-and-white study that I was working on.
I think artists, especially for Black artists, it’s hard getting into this industry and it’s hard like finding where you kind of fit in. But this one brings people that are more seasoned, that are vets in the industry. I’m asking for $400. With the line cut, it has already been sold.
Henry Harper: Did it sell here?
Melinda Ruth Rushing PHD: Yes.
Henry Harper: Sold.
Judy Bowman: When I first came to the Breakfast Club, they asked me what kind of artist did I want to be. And from the very beginning I said, I want to I want my work to be in museums. I want my children and grandchildren to come and say, that’s my grandmother’s work. Or that’s my great-grandmother’s work.
Bill Kubota: Judy Bowman, collage maker, retired educator, and original Breakfast Clubber, says she got serious about her art seven years ago.
Judy Bowman: They start telling me, guiding me towards that venue that I wanted to be in. And sure enough, my work is now in museums.
Henry Harper: Detroit artist Judy Bowman was in the Armory Show, which was the most important art exhibition in New York City, and she sold out. And then she went to Basel this year and she sold out.
Judy Bowman: And so, I guess I came at the right time because people were really surprised how quickly my career went. I am. It’s like, wow, this is a lot.
Oshun Williams: With me, I kind of just want to compete with the best because that’s what I do. I paint. So I just want to like, be around the best because I want to be the best.
Judy Bowman: I think it is the least expensive art school in the world.
Jonathan Harris: And that’s why I always tell artists, you know, just show up. Even if you don’t have nothing, you’re going to learn something. You’re going to see something that’s going to inspire. If you show up with an open mind, you definitely going to leave different.
Henry Harper: I have not heard this kind of vitality is anywhere yet. People always say, why don’t we brand it. Why don’t we do all.. I’m not doing all that. I don’t want to do all that. It’s just encouraging artists to do their best and be the best that they can be.
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