16 November, 2010: Carlos Nielbock: CAN Art Handworks, Inc.
Detroit. CAN Art Handworks is located a few blocks off downtown’s Eastern Market, but seems a world away from what we’d consider an urban environment. Because the majority of the buildings in this neighborhood have been cleared off, the place feels more like farmland than the industrial region it is known as. Trees and fields of lush grass stretch to the horizon, punctuated by the occasional brick building or workman-style home. There is a surreal beauty to this, the disproportionate verticalness of the structures accentuated by what feels like farmland. When an SUV streaks through this field of green, on a street unseen from my vantage point, I imagine what an aerial view of this neighborhood must look like: a net of black asphalt resisting in vain this incessant carpet of nature. At this rate of industrial decay, I wonder how long would it take for all evidence of man to be erased.
The address I have for Carlos Nielbock has brought me to one of these anomalous buildings. Though the monolithic structure itself is unmarked, the lot adjoining it is fenced in ornate wrought iron with grand gate work. Above this gate are the words CAN Art Handworks rendered in a classical font suggestive of the Old World.
The building is a fortress. The first story is impenetrable from the street, save for the blank metal security door I’m standing at. I ring a doorbell placed high on the wall, and I realize I’m under video surveillance. In fact, from where the cameras are mounted, it seems the entire street is under surveillance.
The door opens, and I’m escorted into the fortress by a thin guy dressed in black work clothes and welding gear, a cigarette hanging from his lips. This is Eric, a hired hand, and he asks me about my project with a peculiar interest. He leads me up three flights of stairs to a wooden door, where he knocks and excuses himself for the work going on below. I wait. From a window I get a better view of the neighborhood. I can see the streets between the fields, closer to what I imagined at ground level.
Carlos welcomes me into his home with a strong handshake. Of German origin, he’s a rangy, middle-aged sort, square shouldered and lean, with sharp blue eyes. From behind his pair of minimalist spectacles I get an immediate sense of scrutiny. It is directed at me.
Carlos lives on this upper floor of the building. It is a dark and moody loft with dramatic directional light and lots of wood. The ceilings are high and beamed, and the walls are adorned with fantastic metal fabrications of regal crests and elegant fixtures. All around the place are fine examples of African tribal sculpture, all rendered in crude metal. With its open floor plan and attention to detail, it’s a hell of a bachelor pad.
Cigar in hand, Carlos conducts a tour of the building proper. Beginning on the second floor, I am shown archives of his work from the past thirty years in Detroit. I learn that he’s the go-to guy for metal restoration in all of the city, and he’s had his hands in nearly every historic renovation that’s been done here. He’s worked on classic buildings and sculptures designed by regarded architects and artists, creative work that would have fallen by the wayside if not for an acute attention to craft and the classical ways of working with particular metals.
Out in the yard, dodging Rottweilers that Carlos reprimands in German (“This is Detroit,” he reminds me), he explains his ongoing project of the last twenty years. It is a creation of a gate design from the World Exhibition of 1862, crafted in increments as time and resources permit. While the framework is 90% complete, the details will likely take decades more to finish. This project, Carlos explains, will be a masterwork for the ages, a one-of-a-kind achievement never before realized, the scope of which will never be undertaken again. I must admit, it is remarkable. Here in the neighborhood, it is already a monument– albeit a surreal one.
Carlos takes us off the premises, in his pickup. Besides the various architectural landmarks downtown, there is one particular destination he wants me to experience. Historic Fort Wayne was completed in 1851 to defend against possible aggression from the British. It was later fortified in 1861 during the Civil War, but never saw battle. It served as a garrison and mustering center during both World Wars, as well as the Korean War and Vietnam. It housed anti-aircraft weaponry and missiles during the Cold War. Now it exists as a historical park and reserve, but due to budgetary issues and a flagging population, it is challenged with disrepair. Because of the fort’s need for help, and because of his passion for historic preservation, a collaborative agreement was reached allowing Carlos to utilize otherwise dilapidated space as a living museum for Detroit’s architectural history and restoration. On the grounds and in several of the fort’s outbuildings Carlos maintains and exhibits artifacts such as the bell and clockworks from the original city hall clock tower, saved from destruction via bureaucratic process and no shortage of legal red tape. Also on display is the ironwork of the old Fort armaments, massive cannons that are in immaculate condition thanks to Carlos’ efforts. Trouble is, the timber components of the guns are long gone. While he has obtained authentic plans and permission to rebuild the cannons to spec, the cost involved in acquiring the materials and completing fabrication is a challenge. He longs for the day when the cannons might again fire cannonballs. “There are few places in the world with this kind of authenticity, and we have the know-how to do this right.” With the possibility of attracting financial assistance from interests involved in historic preservation, Carlos donates his time to outreach through educational pursuits. During the warm months, when foot traffic at the fort increases, Carlos conducts workshops on Old World blacksmithing replete with coal burning foundry and classic handwork.
Driving around Detroit, we discuss the city’s relevance and contradictions. Per capita, it has the highest population of blacks of any city in the United States. Despite this, the city is devoid of monuments to African Americans, instead celebrating a litany of famous whites with statues and murals. We speak of a legacy of political corruption and racism, and the city’s reputation as the most segregated in our country. These motivations drive Carlos with a resolve to not only honor the civil rights heroes of the region, but to work with other artisans, both black and white, on the development of potential monuments celebrating civil rights.
Back at the foundry, Carlos spends time on one of his paid projects, a multi-faceted free-standing trellis for an estate in the suburbs. I’m struck with the elegant simplicity of the design, spirals and florets intertwining in intricate combinations. The proportions are just right, it seems. This is the kind of project that pays the bills, and by bringing revenue from the affluent suburbs into metro Detroit, makes CAN Art Handworks an exception to the trend of the past few decades. On this job, Carlos has Eric on the payroll. Eric is a 24 year-old sculptor with a fascination for metalwork, and has been learning the craft for a few years. Eric tells me in confidence that no one he’s met– in Detroit or New York– has the skills Carlos possesses, and he’s fortunate to learn from a master. Also on hand is a young man from the neighborhood, ShiRay. Learning from Eric, he’s just beginning an exploration of the craft. Carlos tells me (in confidence), that both kids have the core to become excellent, and for that he’s thankful to have them around.
Over a German coffee up in the loft, I learn of Carlos’ personal history. Born in Celle, Germany to a white German mother, he tracked down his African-American father when he reached his early twenties. A G.I. in World War II, his father had been a liberator of the concentration camps at the conclusion of the war. Carlos had learned metalworking from his childhood at a monastery in Celle, but found resistance in the German system of the trades. After receiving an invitation from his biological father to visit Detroit, he discovered that his craft as a metalworker was advanced, and found employment easily. He also found his roots, and developed a connection to his biological dad’s Detroit that he proudly identifies with. It is this sense of pride that informs every piece he creates, and guides every plan he makes for this city and his place in it.