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Detroit-based artist to create mural portraying first African American student to attend U-M

Mural will be painted inside U-M's Modern Languages Building in Ann Arbor

Artist Tylonn J. Sawyer. (Courtesy: University of Michigan)

ANN ARBOR – Detroit-based artist Tylonn J. Sawyer, with the help of students at the University of Michigan, will create a mural honoring the first African American student admitted to U-M, Samuel C. Watson.

Sawyer is currently in residency at U-M's Institute for the Humanities. The project will include an exhibition and a number of student engagement opportunities.

In 1867, Watson was Detroit's wealthiest black property owner, after having been one of the first African Americans to graduate from Cleveland Medical College with a doctorate of medicine. Years later, Watson would become Detroit's first African American elected city official.

While he attended U-M, Watson passed as white, according to the U-M Library Online Exhibit titled "Michigan's Story: The History of Race at U-M."

Sawyer and the students will paint the mural during two weekends in October inside the Modern Languages Building. Completion of the mural is scheduled for Saturday.


Samuel Codes Watson. (Courtesy: University of Michigan)

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Another one of Sawyer's exhibits, "WHITE HISTORY MONTH, VOL. 1," will run at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery from Nov. 18-Dec. 19.

On Nov. 21, an opening reception and discussion with Sawyer and the curator at the Institute for the Humanities, Amanda Krugliak, will take place at 5:30 p.m.

Sawyer is an American figurative artist, curator and educator. He lives and works in Detroit and his work focuses on themes of individual and collective identity with regard to race, politics, history and pop culture.

"Maybe what is most compelling is Sawyer's clear commitment not only to his practice as a visual artist, but to his role as a mentor, a teacher," said Krugliak in a statement. "His engagement with young people in Detroit -- his long-standing role as an educator there -- sets him apart as an artist. He is an activist, rooted and invested, directly impacting his community's present and future."  

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About the Author:

Meredith Bruckner

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.