How Carl Nielbock uses art to tell his story, our story and history
Published: September 12, 2012
Artist and restorer Carl Nielbock is giving us a tour of his live-work space near Eastern Market. He chatters nonstop in his German accent, guiding us from the first-floor loading area up through the second-floor workshop and design studio, where his plans for future projects adorn the walls. On one half-wall is a photograph of the building as it looked when he bought it, with its ceiling falling in. With his keen restorer's eye, Nielbock noted that the walls and foundation were sound, and now, several years later, it is the center of his activities. Finally, after having hardly taken a breath between words, he leads us up to his third-floor living quarters, where he seats himself on a luxurious couch, surrounded by what appear to be artworks and architectural ornaments from around the world.
But Nielbock is no new arrival, not one of the scores of artists who've claimed Detroit as their home in the last few years. Nielbock arrived almost 30 years ago, and his relationship with this city stretches back to his birth. In fact, his story contains unusual similarities to those who've grown up in Detroit, perhaps leading him to become a dogged advocate for the preservation of the art and heritage of his adopted hometown.
To understand Nielbock, you have to start at the beginning. Born in Lower Saxony in Germany in 1959, he was one of the "children of the occupation," with a German mother and an African-American GI father. Once the Army higher-ups found out about the interracial relationship, which was illegal in many parts of the United States at the time, his father was in deep trouble. The military made sure Carl never got a chance to meet his GI dad.
Until the 1980s, not much has been written about the experience of growing up Afro-German in postwar Germany, and little official study has been made of "occupation children" by the U.S. military. Estimates of children of mixed German and African-American heritage born after the Second World War range from 5,000 and up. Until the creation of the Afro-Deutsch movement in the 1980s, there were few organizations providing support dealing with the challenges of growing up different in largely homogeneous Germany, or assistance with locating missing or unknown fathers. For Nielbock, and others whose heritage was a mystery, there were few resources available at the time. "With the help of resources today, we can find anybody," he says. "But when I came [to Detroit], I was by myself with no recognition that people like me existed."
The German half of his heritage was less mysterious, but no less challenging, dealing with the general hardships of growing up in postwar Germany. To hear him describe it, the rebuilding that went on in Germany, as it was still being de-Nazified and integrated into the West, was a special time for a special people, whom he describes as "forward-looking," but gazing also deep into the past and "choosing which values to reject and which to sustain." To take ruined historic buildings and monuments and repair them for posterity was a natural and normal part of his upbringing, undertakings that present eerie parallels with the Detroit of today. Though Neilbock didn't take part in reconstruction of buildings, his trade had a deep connection to the past, as he apprenticed as a blacksmith. He says, "I didn't recognize it as a historical trade at the time, but it helped lay the foundation of doing historical, authentic work."
Of course, Lower Saxony was destroyed in a few years by Allied munitions, whereas Detroit's destruction has dragged on for decades, caused by disinvestment, ill-conceived "urban renewal" projects, arson, demolition sprees, drug epidemics, industrial pollution and crime, but the similarities are worth noting: two places recovering from destruction and now looking into the past to find historical heritage worth saving for the future.
After growing to adulthood, Nielbock was looking for some history of his own. In 1984, a 25-year-old Nielbock came to the east side of Detroit, finding a house at a return address on an old letter among his mother's possessions. Nobody was home, but, knocking at the house next door, he learned the house was used as storage, and that the man he was looking for lived down the street.
The man who lived down the street was Nielbock's father, Clarence Cheeks.
And the man Nielbock had spoken to was his uncle, Clarence's brother, Cecil Cheeks.
Reunited with his son, Clarence, who had a job as a city maintenance worker, let the young man take over the house on Helen Street, which had been used for storage. It took a lot of time and effort, but Nielbock took down all the molding and trim and rebuilt the house, using advice and tricks from his uncle Cecil, who worked as a carpenter and was accustomed to such old houses. Nielbock learned much in this new "apprenticeship," and fixed it up with the skill of a restorer, eventually adding a shop on the back of it.
Today, he laughs, thinking of how freaky the house must have looked, with him welding in his kitchen at 3 a.m., with bursts of white light shooting out of it.
In America, Nielbock prospered, working on metal architectural ornamentation for such governmental clients as the Library of Congress and the State Department. Getting these jobs was no small achievement, as he reels off a number of certifications he had to attain in order to do this sort of work. His clients also began to include the affluent, as he fabricated new wrought-iron and aluminum pieces for ostentatious homes, jobs on which money didn't matter. Using these profits, he was able to repair and move into the studio and living space he now occupies, near the intersection of Gratiot and Chene, headquarters of his company CAN Art Handworks, Inc. Under the CAN Art aegis, he worked rebuilding the Hurlbut Memorial Gate at Detroit's Waterworks Park; he worked at Dearborn's Henry Ford Museum and other high-profile sites. Things were looking up.
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