Bridge Railing is an Easel Supporting the Artwork

jthiesse[1]Five years ago, a colleague of mine announced he was moving to the plains of Nebraska to raise his family. He handed me a project folder and asked me to finish designing a bridge rail. I agreed and took the folder; simple enough…a couple hours of design, select a couple standard details for construction, and move on.

Fast forward five years. Did you know that although fired porcelain enamel is very durable, it requires specific detailing at the supports to prevent it from chipping and that direct contact between the metal railing and the enamel plates is not allowed? Did you know that the tolerance for connecting the enamel plates to the bridge rail is 1/16” around the sides and that a 200’ long bridge can move up to an inch and a half due to the differing temperatures during the year? Did you know that there are over 350 individual pieces of art in this project? Incorporating all of these requirements into a bridge rail to support this piece of art did not necessitate the use of a single standard detail. As Tacoumba stated in a previous post, “we are chasing something that is not formulated.” Everything is new!

In the last five years, I have met many talented and creative people working in concert to recount the history of the community in colorful symbols spanning over Interstate 94. I have attended meetings in unique places that I previously did not know existed. And I have been involved in a project where a standard bridge railing has become the easel supporting many individual pieces of art that collectively tell a compelling story.


John Thiesse designed the bridge railing for the Seed Project. This railing prototype was constructed to test the fit of the enamel panels.


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Seed Artists Featured At Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center

The Seed project will be featured at two events at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center (CAFAC) this month:cafac

Open (Hot)House: This is quarterlyevent that welcomes one and all. It’s an opportunity for students to show off their work to friends and family, and for the community to checkout what’s hot at CAFAC. You’ll be able to see demos and participate in hands-on activities, browse and shop in our gallery, and enjoy some snacks and refreshments. the Hothouse will feature enamel demonstrations by Seed artists. Wednesday, June 17, 2015, 6:30 to 9 p.m.

Gallery Showcase, Color on Metal. This exhibit features the enamel work of the Seed project artists and their design for a new bridge railing spanning I94, as well as the metal coloration work of artist/instructor Carol Warner.

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Our Influences, Christopher-Aaron Deanes

Deanes Enamels“There is no one form of black art.” Seitu Jones

This process has been an adventure. We started by studying African American artists; the deep creativity, culture and history of North Minneapolis; Dr. John Biggers murals and paintings; the Celebration of Life mural; and Adinkra symbols. The evolution all artists is based on a set of influences— our artistic lineage, symbolism and patterns in our heritage. Seitu Jones and Tacoumba Aiken shared with these influences to strengthen our artistic voices:

  • The Benin kingdom and the Royal Family residence, where artists only could live in the City.
  • Sungbo’s Eredo system of walls and ditches near the Yoruba town of Ljebu-Ode in Ogun state, southwest Nigeria.
  • South Carolina and Georgia’s large earth works where rice was grown in the low country near the coast. Earth works representing the continuity of human life, now used for canoe tours that navigate the canals.
  • Kongo cosmic gram.
  • The Afro Atlantic tradition of the earth diagram.
  • Haitian art verve.
  • Mud used in sculpture reliefs and images in Ghana.
  • The Sankofa symbol, which looks back on the past to create a future. A “call to prayer”.
  • Objects that were not made not only to last, but so traditions and people would last.
  • Thomas Day a noted wood worker, carpenter, and the black craftsman who built the Capital of Saint Paul, designed by Cass Gilbert, with a team of stone masons from Georgia, including Cass Blakey.
  • Phillip Simmons iron gates in Charleston, South Carolina.
  • David Drake (Dave the potter).
  • El Anatsui, the Ghanaian artist, who creates very detailed works in reclaimed metal and stainless steel.
  • In Chicago the Victory monument by Leonard Crunelle, honoring the Eighth Regiment (entirely African-American) during World War I, and William Walker’s Wall of Respect.
  • Maurice Carlton. Rondo artist. He was a Garveyite (follower of Marcus Garvey).
  • Hale Woodruff’s murals in libraries and in Hampton University.
  • Edmonia Lewis, whose sculptures portrayed Native American and African American people.
  • Richard Barthe, relief artist.
  • Augusta Savage, artist and educator, beautiful piece called the harp.
  • Aaron Douglas’s paintings at Phillips Wheatley and Bethune Elementary.
  • Charles White.
  • Romare Bearden.
  • Faith Ringgold.
  • Alvin Carter.
  • Franco the Great.
  • Cush bay (look him up). graffiti artist
  • Kerry James Marshall.
  • Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg project.
  • In 1966, the people who started tagging and writing on public spaces, in train stations and transit ways.

“Sketchbooks keep the evolution of your craft honest.” Bing Davis

The art historical presentations that were part of SEED were quite extensive, but the sketching component was also extensive. These histories gave our team of artists a great understanding of where we needed to go next. We began to outline a story about the foundations of a seed and its growth from the inception of humanity. Afterward we began a group of sketches. Our first drafts were quite complicated, with each artist creating from their own personal view and style. The images were beautiful and vibrant and individually quite stunning. Each resembled the particular qualities of the personal work of each artist. Over time, however, through an extensive process of collaboration and revision, we have moved from these individual ideas to a series of segments that work together contributing to a strong continuum We are using deep, rich colors, taken from Dr. Biggers works, to celebrate the life of African Americans and the history and contemporary symbolism.

As an artist I enjoy this opportunity to create an orchestrated design that weaves the history of a community, the culture of a people, and the language of the two into the evolution of a future North Minneapolis.

Image: This sketches (left) and enamel works (middle and right) created for the Seed Project by Christopher-Aaron Deanes.





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Passing of Jon Onye Lockard

Jon O. Lockard

Jon O. Lockard

Lockard, Jon 1/25/1932 – 3/25/2015 Ann Arbor Jon Onye Lockard age 83 of Ann Arbor passed away on March 25th surrounded by family and dear friends. He was born January 25, 1932, on Detroit’s east side. The son of the late Cecil E. Lockard, from Marianna, Arkansas, and Lillian Jones, from Port Arthur, Mississippi. He graduated from Eastern High School in 1949, Wayne State University in 1953, and the University of Toronto in 1958. He was a professor emeritus from Washtenaw Community College where he taught life drawing & portraiture for over 40 years and at the University of Michigan Department of African-American & African Studies. He was a past president and life-long member of the National Conference of Artists, having led a contingent of Artists to Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, West Africa. He co-produced and hosted Barden Cable’s Sankofa television program. He was a co-founder and associate director of The Society for the Study of African Culture and Aesthetics and he served as a Senior Art Advisor for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, D.C. He was an amazing artist, muralist, master painter and story teller. His works speak with an uncommon eloquence, sophistication, and vibrancy and may be found in many collections nationally and internationally. Professor Lockard’s most notable masterpieces include a series of murals at Wayne State University, entitled, Continuum, and many murals & paintings at the University of Michigan, Central State University, and the Charles Wright Museum of African-American History. His mural work was featured in Walls of Pride by Robin Dunitz. At the time of his passing he was in the process of completing a series of books for students, emerging artists, and art appreciators encompassing over 50 years of insights in the arts. His mottos were “Make them hear you”; and “Think about what you think about.” His life’s philosophy was the West African principle of Sankofa, which means, “You don’t know where you are going, if you don’t know where you’ve been.” He was the beloved husband of Leslie Kamil. He is also survived by his brother Cecil Lockard (Ypsilanti), his X-wife Carolyn Barnett (Detroit), three sons John Lockard (Detroit), Jan Coulter (Detroit), Carlton Lockard (Atlanta), and his three grandchildren, Karla Lockard (DC); and Jade & Chad Lockard (Atlanta). He will be greatly missed by his family and friends and his two “dogs” Samson & Levi. A visitation & viewing will be held in his honor on Sunday March 29th from 3-7 P.M. at Nie Funeral Home 3767 W. Liberty Ann Arbor, MI. Funeral services in celebration of his life and legacy will be held at Christian Love Fellowship Church, 1601 Stamford Rd., Ypsilanti Monday March 30th at 11:00 A.M. Family hour 10:00 A.M. Dr. Debbie Mitchell officiating. Shiva will be held on Monday & Tuesday evenings. The family requests that contributions be made to the Jon Lockard Foundation which seeks to link area youth with community elders for mentorship opportunities. Many thanks to family, friends, clergy, students & the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center team for their expert care, extraordinary attention and loving support. – See more at:

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Hurry Up and Wait


Public art is a never ending story. In the Biggers Seed project, we have embarked on a journey that started on a cruise ship, but has found itself on Gilligan’s Island.

What I mean is that when a captain or crew of people charts a direction, storms may come but they do not capsize you completely, but will only cause you to change your course slightly. That takes time to maneuver.

Our intent on this journey was to have a beautiful piece that represents the North Side and the joy of a community. What we’ve learned is that the celebration needs to also be a continuous thing, not a final product. What we are celebrating now is the collaborative spirits and talents of 13 artists.

We’ve realized our team is like a family. Some days you like each other.  Some days you don’t. Some days you depend on each other. Some days you venture out your own. Whatever steps we take, we know that we take them together.

As one of the lead artists I have learned quite a lot about communication. I have learned that what comes out of one side of my mouth can be translated into many different understandings. I have had to accept this and learned techniques to fine-tune a skill that is ongoing.

My challenge, as it is for very team player, is to not give up. It is to let go and let God or Goddess.

And as some may say, release the hounds. We are chasing something that is not formulated. We are seeking something that is only myth at this time. Just like the Golden Fleece, like the Easter egg, now we have the Biggers Seed project. Once we have honed our skills more, we will find that it is not an island, we are just crossing I94.

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Blog Post by Seed Artist Loretta Day

Loretta SmallI had no idea what the process of enameling entailed. In the beginning I thought it would be easy it–like painting. Painting came naturally to me–just pick up a brush and let the spirit move me. Enamel is totally different and requires a more precise and technical approach. It has brought on a new level of energy and expectation for me as an artist.

Even though the brush application is similar to painting, the outcome is very different. With painting the outcome is exactly like what I applied to the canvas, and I stop when I am satisfied with the image. With enameling I have to be more precise in terms of stroke, thickness and color. I also have to experiment and do samples to find the effect I am looking for—particularly  with texture.  I can use the same stroke twice, and the outcome can be very different. There is a lot of mystery in terms of the outcome of the images once the panels are fired. Some of the results I didn’t anticipate–which we call “happy mistakes”–are some of the best things I have done.

As I am learning the enameling process, I realize enamel is more versatile than paint. There are many ways to apply the pigment to get the effect I am seeking–particularly sgraffito, which means to scratch out.  We use nails, steel, toothpicks, stencils, rubber tips and other rubber tools for wet sgraffito. I prefer dry sgraffito for more detailed images.

Finally, unlike waiting for paint to dry, the enamel panels are placed in a kiln to “cook” in a temperature exceeding 1400 degrees. The outcome may not be what I expect, that that is not a bad thing. For instance, when I applied a color directly on the black base coat, it appeared translucent after firing. When I applied the same color on a white base coat, it was opaque. I rely on my notes for future reference to better obtain the outcome I am seeking.

Loretta Sketchbook

(Detail from Loretta’s sketchbook with her enameling notes.)

In exploring using these techniques, I’ve learned that you need to gravitate toward what works best for you. As challenging as it is, it is benefitting me also. Just watching the other artists and their techniques, I have learned so much. Seeing their ideas and then integrating their ideas into my work makes it easier. A lot of things that I am learning are not coming from one or two people. They are coming from many people. Being part of this gumbo is exciting.

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Thanks to the Fabulous Libby Turner

LibbyThanks to Libby Turner for the enthusiastic and passionate work she has done in coordinating Seed Project events for the last year. We will miss you Libby!

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SEED Advisors Visit CAFAC!

SEED Advisors at CAFAC
SEED Advisors at CAFAC

John Biggers Seed Project Advisory Committee members met this month at the Chicago Avenue Fire Arts Center to see the new kiln in action, and visit SEED artists as they explained and demonstrated the enameling process.

Beverly Cottman gets a hands-on lesson with Loretta Day

Beverly Cottman gets a hands-on lesson with Loretta Day

Observing SEED artists Christopher Harrison, Loretta Day and Christopher Aaron Deanes that day were Advisors Naima Richmond, Sarah Sampedro, Susan Breedlove and Beverly Cottman, along with Mary Altman from the City of Minneapolis & Heather Doyle and Forrest Rossi from CAFAC (and Libby Turner-Opanga behind the camera.)

SEED Advisors discuss enameling

SEED Advisors discuss enameling

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Looking Into the Method of Enameling – contributed by Seed Artist Christopher E. Harrison

Christopher E. Harrison

       Christopher E. Harrison                              Photo credit:                        Stephanie Morris, 2014.

We (the Seed Project Artists) are creating a public art piece on enameled metal panels that will be attached to the Olson Memorial Parkway overpass bridge in North Minneapolis.

For me, one of the fulfilling aspects of working on the Seed Project is learning and experimenting with the enameling technique.

Researching the method and history of enameling helps inspire me, as well as garner an appreciation for the art form.


Fig. 1: Medallion St Demetrios  Enamel on metal Louvre Musuem Artist Unknown Cloisonné enamel plaque, Byzantine Empire, ca. 1100

Medallion St Demetrios Enamel on metal                Louvre Musuem Artist Unknown
Cloisonné enamel plaque, Byzantine Empire, ca. 1100

Enameling is the process for coloring and ornamenting the surface of metals by fusing brilliant colors over it that are decorated in an intricate design. Powdered glass is fixed to a surface by firing, usually between 750 and 850 °C (1,380 and 1,560 °F). The powder melts, flows, and then hardens to a smooth, durable coating on metal, or on glass or ceramics.

This technique was chosen for the Seed Project for its brilliance and durability under adverse climate conditions. (Hello, Minnesota!). Enameling has been developed over thousands of years, tracing back to the ancient Persians. The Iranian craftsmen of the Sasanied era invented this art, and Mongols spread it to India and other countries. The ancient Egyptians applied enamels to stone objects, pottery, and sometimes jewelry (Wikipedia). The ancient Greeks, Celts, Georgians, and Chinese also used enamel on metal objects, and the technique reached a high point of artistic development in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, beginning with the Late Romans and then the Byzantines.

 Vines Study 2 Enamel on metal (sgraffito) 2014 Artist: Christopher E. Harrison

Vines Study 2
Enamel on metal (sgraffito) 2014
Artist: Christopher E. Harrison

My primary artistic discipline is that of a painter, so I see enameling as a way of “cementing” my strokes, making them permanent. I love the gloss that is created from reflecting light on the surface. This will make for a beautiful visual experience as viewers pass by the final installed piece. The unpredictability of the medium is also exciting; I like the feeling artistically of never knowing what the fire will bestow until retrieving the panel from the kiln.


Fig 2: House covered with sgraffito in the village of Pyrgi, Mastichochoria of Chios Artist: Kostisl Traditional house at Pyrgi of Chios

House covered with sgraffito in the village of Pyrgi, Mastichochoria of Chios. Artist: Kostisl Traditional house at Pyrgi of Chios


There are various techniques that we Seed Artists have been exploring, from stenciling to printing.  Sgraffito has been a technique I have appreciated. It consists of an unfired layer of enamel that is applied over a previously fired layer of enamel of a contrasting color, which is then partly removed with a tool to create the design. Sgraffito on walls has been used in Europe since classical times, and it was common in Italy in the 16th century.  It can also be found in African art. The technical procedure is relatively simple, and the procedures are similar to the painting of frescoes (Wikipedia).  I plan to combine brush painting on my panels with the sgraffito technique.

Tree Study Enamel on metal 2014 Artist: Christopher E. Harrison

Tree Study
Enamel on metal 2014
Artist: Christopher E. Harrison

Enameling is an exciting as well as challenging medium. My goal, along with my fellow Seed Artists is to create a wonderful public piece that contributes to the great lineage of enamel artistry, and presents a long-lasting gift to the community that also honors the memory John Biggers’ original Celebration of Life mural.


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John Biggers Seed Project: Large Scale Enamel Fabrication Underway

On October 24 and 25, the John Biggers Seed Project celebrated a major milestone: completion of a large scale enamel kiln created just for the project and an intensive enamel training by expert David Berfield from Bainbridge Island, Washington.

The 3 x 6 x 6.5’ enamel kiln was constructed at the Chicago Avenue Fire Art Center (CAFAC) and is one of the largest enamel kilns in the United States. David Berfield is best known for fabricating enamel murals by renowned African American artist Jacob Lawrence.

Seed’s13 mid-career artists, and artist mentors Seitu Jones, Tacoumba Aiken, and Bing Davis worked together refine the final design for the 470’ artwork, which in 2015 will be integrated into a new railing on the Olson Bridge spanning Interstate I94. They also practiced enamel techniques under the guidance of Berfield, while Heather Doyle, CAFAC’s artistic director, fired their test panels in the new kiln.

Tacoumba Aiken, the new kiln and Christopher Aaron Deanes working at CAFAC.

Tacoumba Aiken, the new kiln and Christopher Aaron Deanes working at CAFAC.

A major emphasis of this groundbreaking project is to build the careers of the next generation of African American public artists and position CAFAC to fabricate enamel public artworks, serving public artists throughout the Midwest. The 13 mid-career artists are also participating in two-year professional development program to learn the skills needed to embark on successful careers.

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