Tag Archives: Detroit

Me, a friend & Detroit’s Dally in the Alley

Early Morning Sunlight

The alley where the Dally began 38 years ago.

It was 6:30 in the morning. The streetlights were still on. I parked my car up against a garage door in a timeworn alley paved with red brick. It was more like a small courtyard, with wooden balconies jutting out from the assortment of apartments built nearly a century ago. In the center of the space was a large, graffiti-covered dumpster. I poured myself some coffee from a thermos and awaited further instructions from a friend. I was there to vend in the annual Detroit event known as the Dally in the Alley. There was already a bustle of activity. People in pink shirts were directing vendors driving in. Tents were going up, and cars were being unloaded. Vendors are amazing people to me. They trudge to some outdoor festival with a truckload of stuff, arrange everything, and spend all day in the elements talking to all kinds of people, then teardown, re-load, and go home after a 17 hour shift. I find their commitment admirable.

I noticed a large hand-painted sign informing fairgoers that everyone in the neighborhood parks elsewhere for the day allowing the festival to completely take over. I smiled knowing the spirit of sharing still remained strong.

I knew this neighborhood well. I lived around the corner in the ‘80s. At that time it was known as the Cass Corridor. My friends were hippies and musicians. There was a co-op and a few art galleries. Not too much else. A decade ago the Corridor was renamed Midtown, and new enterprises keep popping up.

Except for an awkward, and brief, first-meet date a few years ago, I hadn’t been to the Dally since 1986. I remember the one and only stage not having speakers back then. The Jug Band was one of the featured acts, and they were acoustic. A girl named Sally played the accordion and a man named Ralph played a washboard. I remembered there were a couple of tables with goods for sale, and artists displayed their paintings. It was an event by and for the people of the neighborhood. Back then the population was rather sparse; it was an intimate affair.

All I knew about the Dally in the Alley 2015 was I had to be there at 6:30 in the morning to meet my long-time friend, Zana Smith – owner of the urban boutique Spectacles. I wondered how the day would unfold. I was curious to check it out from behind the scenes, but I knew I wouldn’t do what I was about to do for just anyone.

Zana at her store. That's my book.

Zana at her store. That’s my book.

I met Zana in 1986. I was working in an old fur-processing factory that had been converted to an indoor shopping mall connected to a newly built monorail loop. I walked to work to spend my day in what would become a failed experiment of retail stores downtown. Hudson’s was already closed and there weren’t very many businesses open. En route one day, I happened upon Zana’s store. We have remained friends ever since.

Spectacles is still located at 230 East Grand River, across from the new YMCA. Zana has kept her business going for 31 years. To me that is a feat among feats. Only a few stores, like Henry the Hatter, and Wolverine, have managed to maintain longevity in Detroit.

This year somebody bought the building in which Spectacles is housed. Eviction notices were sent out. Newspaper articles were published about the goings-on and the local community was in an uproar about the loss of a landmark business. A month later the owner requested Zana stay. After much ado, it turned out her store was just the kind they wanted in their building. But now the question was how to get the word out that Spectacles would remain.

I received a text from Zana a week before. It simply said: I’ve paid for a booth at the Dally. I knew she meant: Will you be there with me all day? I gulped. But I saw the brilliance of the PR, so I told myself if she could do it, I could do it, and volunteered. Zana scored a great spot just down from the Electronica Stage – perfect for us as we all like that music. The “us” included DJ/dancer Steve who works at Spectacles, and a new person I now call a friend- Corky. Having a booth at the Dally was his idea. He promised to help out and proved himself to be a man of his word. Three young entrepreneurs – Wink, Tracy, and Chinonye – shared Zana’s booth. Wink had photographs she had taken silkscreened onto shirts, Tracy sold purses, and Chinonye offered handmade apothecary. They exuded excitement and enticed all to share in their glee. It was a celebration of making things happen for one’s self.

The day was mellow for me. Most of the time I sat in a chair on the sidewalk behind our booth, drinking coffee, and eating my snacks. A constant stream of people walked down the street. Some came in to shop, say hello, or give a hug – old friends and new ones. At one point it looked like rain, but it passed.

SuperDre in the basement of the Detroit Historical Museum.

Sometime in the afternoon a DJ took the stage and I couldn’t help but stand up, grooving to the beats. I shouted to Corky: Who is this spinning? It’s great! He shouted back: Come on, let’s go! We ran to the stage. As we came up on it I saw a familiar ‘fro. It was SuperDre! I was so excited! I had met her the previous winter. She was spinning at a fundraiser in the basement of the Historical Museum, but her volume was turned way down. She and I connected both having lived on the West Coast and sharing the astrological sign of Taurus. Her live mix was kicking – seriously fabulous layers of rhythms.

When twilight came I moved to the front of the booth to sit on a stool and watch the ever-growing crowd walk by. A good friend of Zana’s stopped and offered to buy us dinner. I went with him to help bring it back. I was happy to be moving as it was a little chilly. At this point I had only ventured as far as the original location of the Dally in the Alley. The food stalls and the third stage beyond that were new to me. Then it was decided we would walk to Cass Café to get food instead. On the way over I was completely blown away by how big the Dally actually is. There were two more stages and what looked to be thousands of people who had come down for it. There was performance art, sculptures being created, and lots of goodies for sale. For blocks and blocks. I had no idea all this had been going on all day.

The Dally in the Alley is special, from its humble beginning literally in an alley to what I witnessed this past weekend. It is an event that has been put on for 38 years by an all-volunteer staff, from the planning to the garbage clean-up. Everyone does it because they want to. It is well-organized and has a great vibe. And whenever so many people from all walks of life, maneuver around each other, elbow-to-elbow, and everyone gets along and has fun, well, that is a beautiful thing to me.

Elizabeth Pilar is an awarding-winning short story writer from Detroit. Her debut book, A Blue Moon in China, was just published. It is the memoir of the two months she traveled through China in 1988 when she was 21 years old. Her editor is Christopher Ross.

You can buy my book here.

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Derrick May, Strings of Life, and Me

Dzijan Emin conducts the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Derrick May & Franceso Tristano at Chene Park, Detroit

The people of Detroit love their fellow hometowners who have gone out into the world and done well. The list of successful artists and entrepreneurs is long, and it seems like every time I turn around I learn some famous person is also from the city, or at least nearby.

Derrick May is one of the famous people from Detroit. He, along with a trio of friends know as the Belleville Three, created a musical sensation known the world-over as Techno. That was almost thirty years ago. Derrick’s first releases are now considered classics, the most revered is a track called Strings of Life.

I knew before Derrick before was famous. He was just a guy living down the hall in the apartment building I had moved to in the Cass Corridor. I was just a shy girl fresh out of high school. A mutual friend introduced us and Derrick, being the gregarious personality that he is, invited me over to listen to the music he was making.

One night I went to visit. The apartments in the old building were small. Spread out on the floor of his living room were several little machines and keyboards. A very cool sound unlike anything I had heard filled the room. I really liked it. From an open window I looked out over the night skyline; the city lights were sparse. The music filling the space became haunting as if telling the story of abandonment and decay. The beats began to pulse and urged me to dance. I felt my spirit soaring over the empty lots and empty buildings, and the people who lived out there. I felt a sense of hope.

Derrick said, “Listen to this one I’ve been working on. A friend of mine is playing the piano, I made a loop from a snippet, and I can’t stop listening to it.”

He put on Strings of Life. I loved it.

I left Detroit soon after that, and was unaware of the whirlwind Techno music was throughout Europe. I remember when I first learned Derrick had become famous. It was the mid-90s. I was at a party out in the deserts of New Mexico. A young man was there. Somehow he learned I was from Detroit. He became animated telling me of how much he loved Techno and asked me about a Detroit club called the Music Institute – which was founded before I left the city. Back then Derrick, along with Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, and others, spun in that barebones club.  The young man talking with me just about passed out from excitement when he heard I had danced there, telling me that place was legendary – it was the first Techno club in the world. I felt my ego inflate a bit just because of who I knew and where I had been. Funny how that is. But it is.

On August 14, 2015, Derrick brought his latest project to Detroit – he would play his music with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Chene Park. The amphitheater filled with people who shared that same intimate pride I felt back in New Mexico talking with the young man. Only this time the energy of sharing in the glory of success was exponential. And we were not let down. Derrick’s show with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was epic. History was being made again.

The concert was a magical moment. Strings of Life came from an acoustic piano and created a genre of electronic music, and then an acoustic symphony orchestra played the music that came from Strings of Life, creating a new genre of music – symphonic fusion.

The story of this collaboration has its roots across the Atlantic Ocean. A bold conductor from Macedonia named Dzijan Emin composed several scores of Derrick’s music for classical musicians. The event debuted last year in Macedonia and has played around Europe. I’m so glad it finally made it to Detroit. The sensation of hearing trumpets, clarinets, violins, and drums play what was once synthesizer music was amazing, genius really. And the finale of Strings of Life crescendo-ed the whole concert right out of the park. Everyone was on their feet. It was a celebration of everything we here in Detroit are proud of – innovation, our musical tradition, and someone from our city who goes out into the world and does great things.

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here’s a video of one of these concerts: http://concert.arte.tv/fr/derrick-may-ft-francesco-tristano-et-lorchestre-lamoureux-au-weather-festival

Post edited by Christopher Ross. And Michael James is Derrick’s friend who wrote the piano piece.

You can buy my travel memoir, A Blue Moon in China, here

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Detroit, Chapter Two, A Blue Moon in China

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Detroit 1987

A Blue Moon in China

Chapter Two

Detroit

It had been easy to pack my bag and leave my hometown behind. I had already lived in nine different homes, in two different countries, and in three different states. I had gone to nine different schools. I had two fathers; one who was deceased. And, I felt born with the apparent inability to commit to the status quo.

My mother was from a small French settlement in Michigan. Her ethics were soundly Mid-Western. Her father had been born and raised in a log cabin. He left home at 18 to work in a factory building cars: 14 hour days standing, six days a week, no vacation, no benefits. My grandmother gave birth fifteen times. Of the twelve who survived, my mother was the second youngest.

As a young woman, my mother made her great escape to California and met my Mexican father on a blind date. When I was four he moved us all – my pregnant mother, my two-year old sister, and me – from Los Angeles to Mexico City.

The fates warned me early on not to become complacent and feel too settled: less than a year after we moved to Mexico, my father caught a cold and never got out of bed again. Etched into my memory is the white sundress patterned with bright red strawberries and green leaves that I wore the last time I saw him alive.

My mother moved us back to Michigan, and fared well on another blind date, marrying a disciplined man of Polish descent. His example was a devout sense of right and wrong, coupled with an unwavering commitment to helping the less fortunate.

Thus twists and turns brought me a new father, and to a new city: Detroit. I came of age there neither black nor white, rich nor poor, growing up on the Detroit side of Mack Avenue – “across the tracks” from the affluent who had ensconced themselves along the water’s edge in Grosse Pointe, and next door to those who struggled to make ends meet.

Detroit had experienced many incarnations since the French built a settlement along the strait in 1701. Fur trading came first for the settlers, then lumber gave the few their fortune.

With the rise of riches came world-renowned architects who designed beautiful buildings with complex stone lineaments and ornamental sculptures gracing exteriors. Grand lobbies boasted ceilings of carved wood, stamped copper, and murals of pictures or geometric patterns. Byzantine deco gave splendor to the landscape with colorful mosaics accented in gold and leaded glass windows in harlequin design, glistening in sunlight. The proliferation of theatres, museums, libraries, and universities gave evidence of the city’s burgeoning wealth. Doorman in white gloves once held open glass doors with polished brass handles for women in furs who walked red carpets to shop. The city was known as the Paris of the Midwest.

Diego Rivera was given the four walls of a cavernous room to do with what he pleased. Many were insulted by the political and religious overtones of his work. A favorite urban legend my mother would tell was how Henry Ford’s only son stood guard, rifle in hand, protecting the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster. The legend wasn’t true, though Edsel Ford did issue a proclamation to leave the murals alone. It worked. They were saved.

Profound impacts upon the world at large emanated from the city. The assembly line spewed out automobiles, and Detroit became the Motor City. Unions for workers finally formed after years of struggle, riots, and strikes. Detroit stood proud as the Arsenal of Democracy during World War II as an army of Rosie the Riveters built big bomber planes. Blacks emigrated from the South, and with them came their music, and from the music came Motown.

Soon though, whole neighborhoods were wiped out for freeways. Racial tensions erupted into riots in ‘43 and ‘67, exacerbating the “White Flight” to the suburbs. In the ‘60s, Rosa Parks relocated to Detroit; Martin Luther King, Jr. first gave his “I have a Dream…” speech there, and Malcolm X was known as Detroit Red. The crash of the economy in the early ‘70s drastically downsized factories. Jobs were lost and the population dwindled further.

In the last decades of the 20th century Detroit had become a desolate wasteland: tumbleweeds blew across the wide boulevards as nature reclaimed vacant lots. Drug addicts and the homeless found shelter from the bitter winter wind within the crumbling walls of long-abandoned Victorian mansions. The city became a free zone – as long as you weren’t shooting someone the cops left you alone. Expansive freedom was found in the anarchy, and creativity flourished. Die-hard hippies planted community gardens, weeding out used heroin needles and painting bright murals to ward off despair. Musicians played on discarded engine parts that filled venues with the odor of gasoline. A new dance music, soon to be known as Techno, was being created on keyboards spread out in rooms overlooking the city’s ruins. My own creative expression was to walk the deserted streets and to discover beauty in the decay. I collected stained glass from a burned out church and trudged across fields of tall grass searching for treasure, artifacts of a prosperity long gone.

I loved the city. It was fascinating how affluent culture and ghetto poverty stood side by side, yet a world apart. But I found myself questioning the incongruity of the haves and have-nots. I was disappointed by the imbalance between those concerned with the welfare of people and the much larger group preoccupied with Wrestlemania. I wanted to seek out a world beyond these paradoxes. And far away from heartbreak.

Thus, a year before I stepped off the train in Guangzhou, China, I boarded a train in Windsor, Canada, on the south side of the river from Detroit.

Across Canada I went, figuring out along the way what to do next. It was simple – the train would drop me off in some small town, and friendly people would direct me to shelter. Not much happens in Canada to be afraid of: it’s a land of prairies and plains where people with guns go hunting for food rather than for revenge as so many did in the United States. I hitched a ride through the magnificent Canadian Rockies, singing the songs of Vera Lynn with a family from Scotland. I touched the cold Pacific waters off the Vancouver shoreline, and bid my new friends farewell.

A bus took me back across the border, and to my mother’s sister in Seattle. I “relative-hopped” down the West Coast, from the Michigan side of my family to the Mexican. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and played chess with hippies. I learned about political prisoners and drank my first cappuccino. I made my way down the coast to the Los Angeles basin, the land where I was born.

Los Angeles constantly showed itself to be too varied and spread out to pin down in a singular description. The air was fresh by the sparkling ocean, and smelled of urine downtown. The city boasted every demographic, but the mansions of Beverly Hills were another world from the soul food of Compton. It was a city of palm trees with blue skies offering the world in success and Skid Row in failure.

From there it was onward to Arizona and the deserts of the Southwest. My grandmother was up from Mexico, living with my aunt and uncle who welcomed me into their home; it was a moment to be seized.

I fell in love with the desert, the monsoons, the zigzag lightning strikes shooting down one after another, and the boom of thunder. I loved how the rain would approach from the horizon, how the long dark silver brushstrokes descended at an angle from a line of gray clouds. The storms struck in torrents, flooding the parched land. After they passed, the air was pungent with the sweet scent of sage.

I rode a blue 1950s bicycle across that desert full of cacti hundreds of years old to a community college out on the Pima Indian Reservation. I studied. I painted. I contemplated the atom, and looked up at the stars. I was exposed to New Age philosophy, full of glamour and promise, and its credo of creative visualization. I learned about medicine women, the Age of Aquarius, and that the Mayan’s calendar was coming full circle to an apparent end. I read Native American lore about the Great Purification soon to wipe the slate of the world’s sins clean. I began to feel scared and apathetic. I felt the end was near. I wondered what the point was… of anything. I pondered fate, destiny, and how free will fit into the puzzle of life.

Then one day my art professor told the class of the annual trip he had been taking to Bali for the last 20 years. I was intrigued by the prospect of worlds unknown to me. I decided if he could do it, I could do it.

The adventure that had brought me to Arizona had begun with an urge to head west. It was a desire to find my roots, and to seek the answer to the meaning of life. But thus far my transcontinental introspection had yielded few answers. I wrestled with purpose. I felt lazy. I didn’t want to be pinned down by society’s – or anybody’s – expectations of me. But I didn’t have any tangible expectations for myself. I wanted to expand my paradigms. I wanted to be justified in my romantic notions. I wanted to feel magic, breathe in Spirit, see God in everything.

I knew I was one of the few very privileged people in the world; I was well fed, I was educated, I was an American. I enjoyed freedoms most people can hardly dream of, freedoms I often took for granted. I felt blessed to be in a position of choice. I believed there was more to life than getting a job, getting married, and having kids. I just didn’t know what.

So, on that epic sunshine day, staring out the classroom window at the desert horizon and listening to tales of faraway lands, it may well have been an existential crisis I was experiencing – a crisis of my place in the world, that led my to where I now stood: China

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A Blue Moon in China  There are 18 black and white photographs; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map.
Buy My Book links here

Author’s Note:  I grew up with the urban legend that Edsel Ford stood guard with a rifle protecting Diego Rivera’s murals, thus saving them.  Neither my editor nor I could find substantial evidence for it’s truth. I insisted it remain in the story as it was part of my psyche. I have learned since that it was workers from the factories, the very men depicted by Diego Rivera in his masterpiece, who stood guard protecting “… the priceless murals from anti-communist madmen and religious fanatics threatened by the pictures painted into plaster.” I give love and gratitude to them as well. A Blue Moon in China is my just released memoir about the two months I traveled through China in 1988. I went alone with $400 in my pocket…

bluemoonsm300

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Emel Mathlouthi, Voice of the Arab Spring

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Emel Mathlouthi

Powerful singing transcends language.

Emel Mathlouthi played the Diego Rivera Room tonight at the Detroit Institute of the Arts. On the website announcing her gig, there was a youtube video. Emel Mathlouthi is on the street in a crowd of people. She’s dressed in a red winter coat. A warm scarf is wrapped around her neck. She’s singing into a microphone, her eyes flicker with fear, but she keeps singing her song – the Arab Spring’s Movement’s song – into a microphone, My Word is Free. It is the first song she put music to with words by someone other than herself. The poem by a friend touched her heart and music flowed. My Word is Free became the anthem for thousands of people protesting the Tunisian regime, and then the Egyptian. Millions all told.

I quickly got dressed and drove down to hear her; I knew it was something special, not to be missed. I arrived just in time.

She began playing the electric guitar and singing in a language I didn’t know. The tone in her voice spoke of the desire for diversity, for freedom, for independence. In my mind’s eye I saw her on a mountainside tending a herd and singing to the sky. Her voice sounded like a prayer.

She introduced the next song, “It’s my favorite song to play on the guitar. I think this is one of the first songs everyone learns when they first pick up the guitar.” She hoped we would like her take on it. I think she’s going to play Stairway to Heaven. She played Smells like Teen Spirit.

She called herself a humanist and wanted to sing a song for the homeless, because “one should always remember the people living on the streets.”

A young man calls out from the audience for the song Hallelujah.
She looked up and said, “You know me.” “I do. I do know you. We met in Cairo.”
“Last year?” she asks. He answers with excitement, “Yes, I drove 400 miles to hear you tonight.”

She launched into Cohen’s song. Big tears streamed down my face. I felt self-conscious, but I hid behind my hair. Her last song was sung in a demanding voice calling out for “Liberte.”

She encouraged a sing-along. I couldn’t understand how she was making the sound she was making so I remained quiet. Others succeeded in mimicking her cry.

She seemed brave and vulnerable at the same time. She sang for everyone’s enlightened human rights. That her first song was Teen Spirit written by a man who would have been my age had he lived made Emel Mathouthi seem young to me. And to know she was the voice of the Arab Spring, her song at the center of a revolution that spanned across the top of Africa, I felt awe and gratitude.

But that’s how it goes, isn’t it? The young lead the way.

Link to the video chosen for DIA’s website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEkqU2GJ2uw http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring

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J L Hudson’s in downtown Detroit: a collection of photographs & a little story

detroithudsonsfull hudsons When I was in grade school, my mother would take my little sister, my little brother, and me downtown to shop in the bargain basement of Hudson’s. It was the late 70s and the grand department store had seen better days. What was once celebrated as “the” place to shop was now faded in its glory. The building stood proud, defiant in its claim to fame. We entered the grand hallway and made our way downstairs. It was a bright place with bins full of clothes, shoes, coats, socks, and underwear. It was hot, crowded with women and children talking loudly. The subterranean room smelled of dust and the array of things to buy overwhelmed and confused me. After the ordeal of shopping was over, my mother would treat us to lunch on a floor with a broad view of the Detroit skyline. The old elevator had one of those metal gates that had to be manually pulled open and closed. Inside the restaurant was an aquarium with fish that was a wall between the dining rooms. It dominated the experience for me. There was also a wall of tiles with the design of ocean life and the rug was plush. (I just asked my mother about this memory of mine – she didn’t remember the fish. Was that somewhere else? Anyone know?) Hudson’s was known for its Maurice Salad. The dressing was top secret. (Years later, a lady who worked in the kitchen told me no one was allowed to take home any of the leftover food; it all had to be thrown away. She told me how frustrating and sad it was to see the waste, especially when the people who worked there would have been happy to take it home.) sideofhudsons100sidewithfence100 During Christmas time there was a Santa Claus, ready for his picture to be taken. graffitionhudsons100bookcadillacbuilding100

My mother would reminisce about the days when doorman wore sharp uniforms and would hold open the heavy door. Women ran the elevators. And the many floors were stocked full of quality goods. Hudson’s was known for its window displays and the artfully arranged glass counters.

I never knew that Detroit. Hudson’s closed in ’84. These photos were taken by me in 1988. Scrappers had broken in and stripped the building of all its value. After that there didn’t seem to be any reason for it to take up space, for it to be a blatant and constant reminder of a city fallen on hard times. The building was imploded and the rubble was cleared away, leaving an empty space like a scar upon the city’s landscape. hudsonsandcar100

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All the photographs were taken by Elizabeth Pilar These photographs were taken upon my arrival back in Detroit after being gone a year. In my book, A Blue Moon in China, there are 18 black and white photographs I took while there; an index; and recommended reading, movies, and music from the book lists. I hand-drew the map. Library Journal‘s verdict was that it’s a “nice addition to women’s studies readings as it chronicles the kind of travel undertaken with a tattered map and the recommendations of students met on trains.” Feel free to contact me: elizabeth@elizabethpilar.com  My website has lots of pictures: elizabethpilar.com If you want to read my story, I’d love for you to order it from your local bookstore and ask your library to add it to their collection. $18.99 softcover ISBN: 978-0-9904251-9-9

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The face of Mao Zedong in a contemporary piece of art. Detroit 2014

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Face Recognition by Rick Cronn 2014 (detail)

Seeing Mao’s face shining from an art assemblage was a such surprise I had to share.

I don’t know if artwork like this is allowed to be displayed in China today. I do know that when, in 1989 during the demonstration for the freedom and democracy, three students threw ink on the big portrait of Mao that hangs overlooking Tiananmen Square. They were arrested. One of whom was recently released and, rumor has it, is not right in the head.

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Face Recognition by Rick Cronn 2014

The piece is called “Face Recognition” by Rick Cronn. It won first place in the 2014 Silver Medal Exhibition at the Scarab Club in Detroit.

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