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Brian Whitfield resurrects the past in Michigan Avenue mural

Return of the meatballs


Whitfield’s trompe-l’œil (“fool the eye”) red awning has already hoodwinked a few passers-by into thinking Emil’s Restaurant is back.

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 5 — What does the ghost of a plate of spaghetti look like?

Mighty tasty, it turns out.

Longtime Eastsiders who venture behind the Venue, developer Scott Gillespie’s new mixed-use development at 2010 E. Michigan Ave., are doing a double take these days.

The familiar red awning of Emil’s Restaurant is back, and more blasts from the Eastside’s past are on the way.

An ambitious, block-long mural conjuring bygone decades of Eastside life, centering on the historic 2000 block that was mostly demolished in 2015, is taking shape fast.

Brian Whitfield, the master muralist who painted four huge panoramas of greater Lansing life under the I-127 overpass last year, was the logical choice for the job.

Whitfield was pleased at his progress as he worked on the mural Thursday evening. In less than two weeks, working nights and weekends, he turned two large wall panels into visual poems to the preparation and consumption of Italian food.

Emil’s Restaurant started as a fruit stand in 1921 and was one of the longest-lived establishments in town.

“It had its own flavor, like no place else,” Whitfield said.

In Whitfield’s geometric fantasia, deep red slashes of wine and sauce jump from a tableau of blocky blue and green shadows reminiscent of Cezanne.

Whitfield plans to add a false window to the scene that will open into Lindemann’s Meats, another bygone business that anchored the block in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As he works his way east, he will include nods to the barber shops that once served the block and re-create a friendly tug of war between children and nuns from nearby Resurrection Elementary School. Nurses from Sparrow Hospital will also make an appearance.

As Whitfield worked, two passers by walked up to him. Both compared his work to muralist Diego Rivera.

“Oh my God, I had my bachelorette party at Emil’s!” the woman said, spotting the false awning. “This is so great.”

A few minutes later, Scott Gillespie walked over, still wearing a suit from a business meeting, to catch up with the paint-spattered artist.

“This is fantastic,” Gillespie said. “I deliberately used flat panels on the back of the first floor because I wanted to have art here, and it’s better than I imagined.”

Before starting work, Whitfield met with about a hundred Eastsiders, in groups and one-on-one, to find out what they would like to see in the murals.

“It was fascinating listening to their memories,” Whitfield said. “So much life has centered on this block.”

The block has been home to dozens of businesses in the past 120 years, from hardware, drug and grocery stores to barber shops and beauty salons and even Dental Art Laboratories, grinders of false teeth. The porcelain dust got everywhere, according to old timers.

But by the ‘90s, the block was a deteriorating patchwork of antique shops and odd storefronts, including a comic book store and the always empty United Nations Gift Shop. But Emil’s hung on until the end.

“This was my stomping ground, I grew up here,” Gillespie said. “This area means a lot to me and to a lot of other people.”

Whitfield hopes to finish the job before the weather gets harsh, but he’s not too worried.

“I’ve painted in the rain,” he said.


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