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Scene In Detroit: Vendettas, Dreams and American Art

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(Photo: Amelia Kanan) Vitale's mosaic tiles are sliced up credit, ATM, membership and gift cards she collected from friends and family.

(Photo: Amelia Kanan) Vitale’s mosaic tiles are sliced up credit, ATM, membership and gift cards she collected from friends and family.

By Amelia Kanan, CBS Detroit Blogger

“What is my biggest vendetta with America?” This is what Jessica Jaramillo Vitale, a Spanish teacher in the Upper Peninsula, asked herself when she wanted to submit a piece of art to Work Detroit’s show AMERICA!

It was April and as the school year was coming to an end, Vitale found herself itching to return to her art path in life. “I felt like a hypocrite, encouraging the kids to follow their dreams and there I was…not doing that,” she said.

She had minored in Spanish in college but held a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a concentration in ceramics from Northern Michigan University. To help fuel her return, she decided to look into going back to school and while looking into the graduate program at the University of Michigan’s School of Art and Design she came across the open call for art submissions.

Work Detroit, U of M’s A&D’s gallery on Woodward in Detroit, was looking for artists with pieces that sparked a reaction or used an interesting form of expression to say what America means to them.

So, what was Vitale’s vendetta? “Debt.” Not just her own either but her students (and their families) where 60-80 percent of them are low-income. “I see kids with dirty clothes and receiving government breakfasts but all have iPhones.” What symbolizes debt? Credit cards. Vitale’s heart belongs to ceramics which made the mosaic technique a natural choice but she wanted to reach out of the box at the same time.

Thanks to Facebook, she quickly called on all her friends and family to donate their old gift cards, hotel cards, membership cards and credit and bank cards for the sake of art. She added incentive to her Facebook friends by offering prizes (ceramic pieces she would make) to her three biggest contributors. Soon enough, Vitale began to receive packages in the mail from family members in Canada, stacks of cards from students and old friends from childhood. Just as quickly as she received them, she got to cutting.

Now that Vitale had her materials and technique, she still hadn’t decided on what sort of design or image to create. Abstract or representational? Since she wanted to be able to engage a large audience she thought of using the mosaic plastic tiles to create an authentic American scene.

“I asked myself, what is my American dream?” That was easy, because it’s one she envisions often. Her dream is to own a farm, where she could milk her own cows and grow food where she and her family (that consists of her husband and 8-year-old son) could be independent from the grid. Independence … how familiar. Funny enough, a farm represents what this country was built upon; families in search of a life free of the British monarchy and where they could build lives with self-sustaining systems. Not to mention, the art highlights the irony of a pure American landscape built with materials of greed and consumerism.

After three weeks, all the questions, packages and stacks of cards, gridding and sketching, cutting and attaching her dream farm “Land of Opportunity” was born. Sparkling, with rolling hills and curling clouds shadowing and depth of field, the American mosaic scene is actually just one of three other pieces.

Her full American dream series also includes a tropical scene and a cityscape. The tropical one represents Vitale’s desire to one day have a vacation home to escape to and the cityscape serves as a reminder of her hometown Detroit. The credit card tiles symbolize something personal to her as well, “All of my friends and family are a part of this,” she said. That means a lot to the family oriented native Detroiter.

“Land of Opportunity” will be on display at AMERICA!’s opening reception is Friday, August 3rd from 6 p.m. to 9pm and hanging there until August 24th. The gallery hours are Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and is located at 3663 Woodward Avenue in Detroit.

Amelia Kanan is freelance writer/photographer and a returning native of Detroit. A graduate of Columbia College in Chicago, she wrote for an Emmy nominated sketch comedy show and pursued her passion for documentary filmmaking in Los Angeles. An incomplete list of her loves: books, human rights, improv, the smell of new shoes, talking to strangers, libraries, France, yoga, furniture, music, sociology and pushing the limits.

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