Classical training meets urban roots in Tylonn Sawyer’s paintings, which examine politics, race, history and pop culture
By Katherine Martinelli
Featured photography by Lamar Landers
Tylonn Sawyer’s art has been shown around the world, from New York and San Francisco to Italy’s prestigious Venice Biennale exhibition. But the artist — who is known for creating powerful paintings that explore the intersection of politics, race, history and pop culture — says his heart will always be in Detroit.
“When I was in New York for graduate school I was homesick a lot,” says the Highland Park native, who earned an MFA from the New York Academy of Art (he also studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London). “I came back to Detroit every chance I had.”
Now Sawyer is back for good in the city that shaped him as a person and an artist — and it’s clear he’s making an impact. Last year, he was awarded a Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship for Visual Arts, as well as the Alain Locke Award, presented by the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Even if you don’t know Sawyer by name, you’ve likely come across his murals around Detroit. From a stairwell at the Wayne State University Mike Ilitch School of Business to the side of the city’s first (and only) Whole Foods, Sawyer’s work prominently and powerfully features hyper-realistic black and brown faces that are directly tied to the specific location where they appear and, more broadly, Detroit.
While murals have made Sawyer’s work more familiar to the masses, the artist — whose creativity was partly inspired by his “eccentric, artistic” parents — fell into the medium somewhat accidentally. When Whole Foods announced it was coming to Detroit in 2013, the company launched a mural competition and Sawyer’s friends and family kept encouraging him to apply. “I applied for it with really no expectations of getting the gig,” he recalls. “I kept making it through the different rounds, which surprised the hell out of me.”
To come up with the image for the project, Sawyer used the Spirit of Detroit as a starting point. “I wanted something in line with the iconography of Detroit,” he says. But rather than the famous bronze statue, he had his friend’s son pose in that same position as his model.
Out-of-towners don’t necessarily get the reference, but Sawyer isn’t miffed. “They usually think it’s some kid doing yoga and they relate it to health and wellness,” he says. “I think that’s a cool byproduct of what I did. I like to make art not so much for insiders in the art world [but] if I can make it more accessible to the layman … it gets a more visceral reaction.”
Sawyer defines himself as a figurative artist, meaning his imagery is representative, based on reality, and typically centers on the human figure — one of his favorite things to paint, in part because it is so challenging. “I have to be very responsible in the type of images I put out there,” he explains. “Because at the end of the day, somebody can just describe it. Like, ‘that’s a person with a gun’ and it may be [a] metaphor for something great, but at the end of day, it’s still a person with a gun, right?”
Sawyer, who was an art major at Eastern Michigan University, is constantly reconciling and coalescing his classical art training with his urban roots. But he challenges the formal style’s status quo by representing almost exclusively African American figures in his art. “I understand that my work was probably born in the academy to some degree,” he says. “But I’m still trying to be true to who I am as a person and the place that I grew up.”
Though his art may not directly be about Detroit, it is firmly planted here. After all, as Sawyer points out, “Detroit’s a black city.” And since returning home, Sawyer — who lives in the LaSalle Gardens/Boston-Edison area — has immersed himself in the local arts community. He is part-time faculty at the College for Creative Studies. In 2018 he transformed “American Gods,” his solo exhibition at Detroit’s N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, into a documentary that won an award at the 2019 Freep Film Festival. And last year his solo exhibit “White History Month Vol. 1” showed at the University of Michigan.
Sawyer also started the first teen council at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit in 2014, which is still going strong today. (Its members are young creatives who are passionate about the arts.) “Tylonn is very talented,” says Elysia Borowy-Reeder, MOCAD’s executive director. “He has an awe-inspiring commitment not only to his practice as a visual artist, but to his role as a mentor and teacher.”
Pre-COVID-19, Sawyer was working on a follow-up to “White History Month,” which was inspired by the controversy surrounding post-Civil War Confederate monuments in the U.S. Even with the uncertainty of the past few months, he’s optimistic about the future of art in Detroit, and artists playing an important role in helping the city bounce back post-pandemic.
Specifically, he envisions something akin to the post-Depression era Works Progress Administration (WPA), in which the government hired artists to create public art. “It’d be cool to see something like that where the city was able to employ artists, even if it’s in a limited fashion,” he says. “Despite this thing that’s happened, beautiful things have been happening around the city and are still going to happen.”