arl Nielbock is a modern-day alchemist.
He transforms raw metal into beautiful things with his hands. And he’s using that talent to renew the faded beauty of Detroit’s magnificent old buildings.
Nielbock, 51, is the founder of C.A.N. Art Handworks, an ornamental metal handcrafting studio on Detroit’s east side where he and his apprentices work to restore Detroit’s skyline.
“The first thing I saw when I came to Detroit was how those beautiful buildings were just like a woman without jewelry,” says Nielbock, a tall, lithe man who speaks with a thick German accent. “I saw the need right away for my trade.”
Born in Celle, Germany, Nielbock has been bending iron since he was 14. He specialized in reproducing historical, decorative architecture, but found that hierarchy in the guilds kept him from working on such projects. “I wanted to do castles and churches,” he says with a laugh.
That frustration, along with his quest to discover his roots, led him to leave Deutschland for Detroit, then hometown of his father. His father, a black G.I. from the United States, was transferred out of Europe and away from the white German mother of his son when Nielbock was a child. They hadn’t seen each other since.
But he’d always wondered about the side of the family that made him different from those around him. “It was the search of my personal history,” he says of his journey to the States. “I was ready to find my dad. I had all these questions that had built up.”
At 24, he flew to Detroit, went to an address written on an old envelope his mother had, and reunited with a missing piece of his identity. Suddenly, he had a whole new family very different from the one he grew up with in Germany, one that looked like the part of him he always wondered about. “It was great, to the point that I stayed here,” he says. “And I’m longer with my dad now than I was without him.”
The search for this unknown side of his family led to a greater quest to discover black history and culture in general, a passion that infuses his interests, his art — his whole life. “It didn’t stop with my father,” he says. “It kept going on and on.”
In the process of gaining a family, Nielbock also adopted a city — one he loves, flaws and all. “I was mesmerized,” Nielbock says. “I loved anything, from the alley dogs to the skyscrapers to the cab driver to the bus driver. It was like I was transferred into some movie.”
He plunged right into work. His first job was a big one: the renovation of the Fox Theatre in the late ’80s. He just showed up at the work site, knocked on the office trailer door, presented his résumé, and soon found himself restoring the canopy, the chandeliers, and the intricate details of the facade. Soon after that, he was restoring the Hurlbut Memorial Gate on Jefferson Avenue, the Spirit of Detroit statue at Woodward and Jefferson, and refurbishing two massive iron cannons at Historic Fort Wayne with the help of original army blueprints.
His latest project is faithfully reproducing the clock tower that sat atop the ornate Old City Hall building, which stood across from Campus Martius until it was demolished in 1961. He hopes to install it near its original site.
Restoring his adopted city has become his personal mission. Nielbock spends hours at the Burton Historical Collection in the Main Detroit Public Library, poring over black-and-white photos of the metalwork that once adorned the city’s towering structures, gleaning clues of how to reproduce them.
Many of those decorative elements were scrapped during the World Wars for metal, or removed during ill-considered modernizations, a sad history that gives Nielbock fits.“We deprived ourselves of the eye candy, what makes a city look sophisticated and taken care of,” he says.
Joel Stone, curator of the Detroit Historical Museum, has worked with Nielbock on some of his restoration projects.
“What Carl’s doing is saving the original stuff from demolition, but second, re-creating when something can’t be saved,” Stone says. “And that’s a real important part of maintaining our history, even just so Detroiters themselves know it. They don’t know that history, they don’t appreciate their culture, and part of what Carl is doing is teaching them that.”
After working out of his father’s house for a few years, Nielbock bought a warehouse near Gratiot and Chene that was empty but for the squatters burning the wood stairs for heat. He renovated the interior, made the first and second floors into workshops, and transformed the third floor into his home, furnishing it with African artifacts, including masks and a wood throne from Cameroon.
African and black-history themes thread their way through his life and his art. Another of his ongoing projects is a goal to create statues of notable figures in local black history and station them around town. It’s an extension of his search for his own personal heritage, an affirmation of his pride in his roots.
“There are so many great people that need their place in history, which people can see and identify themselves with,” he says. “That’s important. That instills civic pride.”
Recently, he began an apprenticeship program as a way to pass along a dying craft to city kids. In the process of giving disadvantaged children a chance at a career, he’s reviving the tradition of learning at the side of a master journeyman.
“Those techniques that made all those beautiful things are lost, because they only taught them within an apprenticeship program, with a personal involvement,” he says. “You can’t read it in a book.”
Ray Ray Cottingham came to the studio two years ago, after a cousin who’d gone through the program brought him along. It changed his life. “I liked what I started doing and I never left,” the 23-year-old Detroiter says. “It gave me something to look forward to in the future.” He went from being a kid with few goals to wanting his own metalwork business.
Nielbock used to argue more vociferously for his passion, but he has learned over the years that the soft sell sometimes works better.
“I came to the conclusion that I really got to demonstrate the capabilities that I have in the best way, versus me trying to convince people to do certain things,” he says, as sparks fly from a torch he applies to an iron rod. “That way, it might inspire people to join the program, or to formulate their own way to turn this city around.