Brian Whitfield: Painting faces in empty spaces


Under the constant hum of traffic on Lansing’s crosstown Interstate 496 freeway stretches a vast, temple-like arena of light and shadow. Dozens of concrete columns give this strangely empty space, only a few blocks from the state Capitol, the feel of an ancient Roman forum, or the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.

For now, this is the open-air studio of Lansing artist Brian Whitfield.

“There’s a weird peacefulness to this area,” Whitfield said. “You have all this traffic noise overhead, and people walking across the river, but there’s a solitude over here.”

Whitfield is working with the “Pave the Way” history project and the 2023 Lansing ArtPath to adorn the columns with the faces of people who lived in the once-thriving Black neighborhood wiped out by the freeway over 50 years ago.

Courtesy Lansing ArtPath
Whitfield created composite images from photographs of residents of the Black neighborhood wiped out by I-496.
Courtesy Lansing ArtPath Whitfield created composite images from photographs of residents of the Black neighborhood wiped out by I-496.
He wishes he had a hydraulic lift. Ladders are not quite up to the task. The surface is uneven in places, and there is debris waiting to trip the unwary foot.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “I walked up to the columns the first day and thought, ‘Whoa, these are much taller than I expected.’”

Whitfield has been involved with “Pave the Way” from its beginnings more than two years ago. He designed the project’s logo and hoped to be involved in the production of the resulting film, “They Even Took the Dirt,” to be released Sunday (July 9), but his many mural projects around town, and day job at the state Department of Transportation, kept him too busy.

This year, he jumped at the chance to create something lasting, in the haunting, open space where people lived before the freeway came through town.

“Now we have the film, and people are talking about this, and that’s significant,” he said. “But there’s nothing physical for future generations to say, ‘Hey, this highway was built over a neighborhood.’ This pillar’s site is perfect for that.”

Whitfield’s family moved to a house on Washtenaw Avenue near Logan Street in Lansing, not far from I-496, in 1963, when the future artist was a baby and the freeway was in the late planning stages.

“I don’t really have a memory of it, but thinking about what was here and what’s gone — there’s nothing to memorialize that.”

Working from old photographs, he came up with composite images rather than portraits of specific people.

His original idea, as described in the grant proposal, was to render the faces in black and white, but after painting a trial portrait, he decided that the faces would be too ghostly and stark in the shadowy spaces framed by the freeway columns. Passersby on the River Trail across the river might not see them at all.

Besides, bold colors are a Whitfield specialty, from the vividly hued avocados and tomatoes on the back of Capitol City Market downtown to the splashy jazz parties, street scenes and factory vignettes that light up the I-127 embankment over Michigan Avenue.

“When it came down to it, I wanted a pop of color,” he admitted.

Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse
Lawrence Cosentino/City Pulse
Whitfield’s work has elevated many new and old buildings around Lansing, including the Allen Place project on the east side (featured in a recent story on urban development in The New York Times) and a brand new mural at the Rathbun Insurance offices on the west side.

But the I-496 project’s emotional impact, unique setting and historical significance have him hooked. He’s hoping to paint as many of the columns as he can, even if it takes another year and another grant application. Never mind the hydraulic lift. What this man needs is a jet pack.

“I’d love to do those columns, but that’s a whole ‘nother level,” he said, pointing to even bigger and taller pillars in the middle of the river, that only kayakers and waterfowl can reach.

It takes some doing to get to this one-of-a-kind work site. One day, Whitfield inadvertently scared off a would-be graffiti artist, but his most frequent companions are ducks.

“A guy who lives around here came by and brought me a Coke,” he said. “We talked for a while and it was really nice.”

He spends most of his time getting the faces right, soaking up the strange duality of the hushed space —a vast, open-air altar dedicated to the automobile age, and a memorial to a lost neighborhood sacrificed on that altar.

While working, he sometimes meditates on the meaning of it all.

“You think about what the cars and the exhaust is doing, killing the Earth,” he said. “But that’s progress. People were living their lives, doing what they we’re doing. Now we’re progressing all the way to the end! But we’re not going to give it up. We love this life.”


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