The Way It Was — Charles McGee, 1975

His work is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and more
charles mcgee
Photograph courtesy of the Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University (The Detroit News)

In the art world, outdoor murals are referred to as “fugitive,” which means they’re fleeting. Subjected to the elements and faded by the sun, murals are eventually robbed of their original color and the paint begins to peel. As they decay, many are covered by ads or painted over. 

Charles McGee’s untitled geometric mural on Pontchartrain Wine Cellars (now the Detroit Foundation Hotel), shown here with the artist, could have easily met that fate. In fact, it was heading in that grim direction when the proprietor of The Foundation Hotel decided the colorful 60-by-40-foot mural on West Larned in downtown Detroit should be preserved. The nonagenarian McGee was too frail to complete the task, so with McGee’s blessing and guidance, artists Hubert Massey and Henry Heading revived the 1974 work. McGee lived to see the vivid result upon its completion in 2019; he died this February at the age of 96 at his Detroit home. 

At the time of his death and for much of his life, McGee, who was born in South Carolina in 1924 and came here a decade later, could be considered the dean of Detroit artists — not because of his longevity, but because of his accomplishments. His paintings, sculptures, and murals are on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, and his work has been exhibited in shows nationally. His animated “The Blue Nile” adorns the Broadway Station of the Detroit People Mover, and the black-and-white mural “Unity” injects vitality into downtown’s Capitol Park. McGee also organized the landmark 1969 exhibition Seven Black Artists at the Detroit Artists Market, founded Gallery 7, and co-founded the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit. He molded young minds through his teaching at Eastern Michigan University, University of Michigan, and the Birmingham-Bloomfield Art Center. McGee won boatloads of accolades, including being named as the first Kresge Eminent Artist, in 2008. His art was even showcased on the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, when a Cleveland collector brought a McGee charcoal drawing in for appraisal.