The party at the end of the world
From Burning man to Detroit in time for the rapture
Published: May 18, 2011
He'd also spend two months a year working for Burning Man's Department of Public Works.
"It was a staff of 120 people then, and it's probably about 300 now," Doyle says. "They need everything for a week that a city needs, including a metal shop, generators, golf carts, fencing, shade structures." The DPW job also got him gigs building art cars for Burning Man for private individuals.
"It seems mixed-up," Doyle says, "but that's how my life was: traveling, trying to learn as much as I could, and to build as much as I could before I was 30."
By 2004, when he was 25, his work had already been featured on TLC's Junkyard Wars, and he started doing more stuff on his own for Burning Man and Coachella.
But after 10 years of fabricating and globetrotting, dividing his time between the Bay Area and New York, Doyle has decided to put down roots in Detroit. It helps that his wife, Canadian performance artist Zarah Ackerman, has a home base just across the border. The cheap rent and property don't hurt either. And, as Doyle points out, "It made sense to build a really big art car in the Motor City."
'A good crew'
It's a bright, sunny spring day on Moran Street in Detroit, just north of Hamtramck. And 13169 Moran St., the art house Doyle had helped with last October, is a neighborhood oddity, a house artfully plastered with castoffs scavenged from torched houses. The front porch is brightly painted, adorned with, among other things, a bicycle seat, a plastic pony, a whirligig, old boxes, table legs, a drawer or two, antlers, an upside-down nightstand and much, much more. It's the kind of abandoned house that neighborhood people slow down to look at when they drive by. It's mostly quiet at 1 p.m. A cracked water main gurgles a river of city water into puddles under the curb. Starlings alight for a quick bath.
Suddenly, though, the house is the center of ferocious activity. The artists who gave it its makeover are back to turn it into a home for Doyle, his wife and their infant daughter, Dynamite. The upper floor will be a rotating hostel for artists who work at Detroitus. In fact, three entire art houses are to be fenced off in an artists' complex.
There's much to do. Shortly after pulling up in a fully loaded 1-ton Chevy van, a platoon of tattooed, bearded art dudes and resale-chic ladies start trooping into the house with supplies. Doyle roars into the alley with his 1967 International Travelall. A mammoth fallen tree and heaping piles of brush lie behind the building, and Ryan Carmichael, Ryan Oliver and Sarah Sue Simeon quickly build a fire pit of bricks to burn as much as possible. Ackerman is raking up years' worth of dead leaves along a house set near the back.
Canilao and Harrison Bartlett, two of the artists who'd originally decorated the house, have just come in from Canilao's recent art show in Milwaukee. A wiry, agile blond with a breezy, humorous manner, Bartlett is suddenly hopping all over the place, rushing upstairs to pop the plywood out of the windows, downstairs in a flash to cut a gate apart to join the two backyards, or standing on a rickety chair to move a plywood barrier. Soon the fire pit is blazing, and Carmichael is using a chainsaw to prune back an overgrown apple tree. The neighborhood residents are taking notice, aloof for the most part, except for the occasional curious child who strolls down the alley to get a good look. Some friends of the group drop by to donate windows, or to help out with the work, including Miles Michael and Sean Digger.
These folks aren't exactly risk-averse. At one point, a 100-pound branch comes loose from a tree, grazing Carmichael's head as he holds a running chainsaw, and sending Oliver skidding just out of its way. A half-hour later, Carmichael is seen standing atop a rickety-ass fence, chainsawing a mulberry tree bit by bit while trying to free it from the wires streaming down from a utility pole. Doyle walks by, genially muttering something about "not telling them to do that, but not telling them not to." At moments like this, it's clear the crew lives a charmed life and knows it.
Carmichael wants to know if they're going to the weekly barbecue and fire party at Flynn's space north of Detroit's Woodbridge neighborhood. That's the plan. The bearded twentysomething, a native of Kodiak, Alaska, laughs as he heaps more wood on the fire. "That's how we live. We make one fire, then go on to the next."
Carmichael, who'd make a bundle on Alaskan fishing boats some years, had met Doyle after subletting from him in Oakland when he was in Europe. "He moved back and, after a day, he was like, 'Want to work on a dragon with me?' And it's turned into this."
Canilao realized after the fact that there were no real plans for the art house they'd created. "The house was bought originally for $900, and it was in OK condition, as it has been abandoned for two years. And Harrison and I came first and left last, and thought, 'What if we bought it from Powerhouse?' It cost us $2,000, but we also have to pay $6,000 in back taxes."
She says she and Bartlett intend to visit the complex as often as possible and to try to get to know the neighbors. "It's funny — coming here and starting a project and having it stay in your life ... forever," she says, with a laugh.
She and the others meet to discuss plans for the mini-community. They're often fanciful, always interesting. In addition to the garden on the southernmost lot, there's discussion of a greenhouse or solarium, a chicken coop, and even talk of raising perch in the basement. The group's nothing-is-impossible spirit is infectious and fun, enough to make you root for them, if not to want to join their circus.
After a hard day of work, it's off to Flynn's space for grilling, burning wood and celebrating. Last week, Carmichael and Oliver kicked apart palettes of wood with their sneakers, hurling timber toward the fire with a crash in a sheer portrait of exuberance.
> Email Michael Jackman