Iconic Detroit artist Charles McGee dies at 96

Charles McGee in front of his piece titled "Regeneration," 2007. (Photo by Ray Manning)
Charles McGee in front of his piece titled "Regeneration," 2007. (Photo by Ray Manning) (Kresge Foundation)

DETROIT – Legendary Detroit artist Charles McGee passed away Thursday at the age of 96, the Kresge Foundation announced.

Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson issued the following statement:

Charles McGee’s influence on Detroit looms as large as his towering downtown murals — he literally beckons us to look up from the everyday, the humdrum. His art is kinetic. He celebrates perpetual motion in way that’s befitting for an iconic artist of a city that put the nation on wheels and in motion. His art proudly displays its African American roots — and affirms life itself. As our first Kresge Eminent Artist, named in 2008, Charles set the bar for excellence and achievements in his artistic forms, and for his contributions to the cultural communities of metropolitan Detroit. He will be missed even as we reap the rewards of his long, productive life far into the future.

He had a distinguished career that included hundreds of exhibitions all around the world. An American artist of international renown, he made Detroit his home and the city his own. A teacher, mentor and passionate arts advocate, he found teaching a complement to creating art in his studio.

Charles McGee was one of 100 Detroiters that photographer Marcus Lyon shot during his 2018-2019 “iDetroit” book project. (Courtesy Marcus Lyon)

Charles McGee exemplified what it means to be eminent and what it means to be a Detroiter. He was an artist of international renown, who in his life and his work was energetic, passionate, always probing and eager to take on new challenges.

His work can be seen widely in and around Detroit from the Detroit Institute of Art, which has his 10-foot-by-15-foot “Noah’s Ark: Genesis” on permanent display, to his large work “Progression” at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, to Detroit’s Broadway People Mover Station, which has the 12-foot-by-17-foot, “Blue Nile.”

And in his late years, his works burst on Detroit anew.

In 2016, he created the soaring 20-foot-by-20-foot sculpture entitled “United We Stand” for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. This stunning piece, among all of his works of art, speaks to his ability to unite the community, to lift us up, and to leave a lasting impact with his art that will surely keep his tremendous legacy alive.

That same year, his “Playscape II” was dedicated at the corner of McNichols and Wyoming, at what was then Marygrove College — now the Marygrove Conservancy — across the street from his studio of a half century.

In 2018, a new mural titled “Unity,” 11-stories tall, was created on the 28 Grand building is at 28 West Grand River Avenue.

And in 2019, his then 45-year-old 60-foot-by-40-foot mural on the east-facing side of what is now the Detroit Foundation Hotel at 234 W. Larned was restored to dramatic effect.

“The average person looking at these things should be able to enjoy it, and that’s the joy of making it as far as I’m concerned,” McGee once said.

Charles joy has been our joy over and over — and it will continue to be.

On behalf of the entire foundation, our hearts go out to all who knew and loved Charles.


The Detroit Institute of Arts also released a statement:

The Detroit Institute of Arts joins the Detroit community in celebrating the life of artist Charles McGee, who passed away yesterday at the age of 96. McGee is a local, regional and national treasure, with works in the collections of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the Dennos Museum, and 10 works in the collection of the DIA. His public art projects are installed throughout the region, including at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak and the Rackham Building across the street from the DIA.

“Charles McGee left a tremendous legacy for all Detroiters, and for all those who visit our city and see his work in our museums, in our parks, and even on our buildings,” said Salvador Salort-Pons, DIA Director. “I can think of no other artist who has so profoundly impacted the daily lives of those in our community – from the tens of thousands of students who visit ‘Noah’s Ark: Genesis’ on field trips to the DIA to workers and visitors that experience a downtown made more beautiful with his murals and installations.”


About the Author:

Ken Haddad is the digital special projects manager for WDIV / ClickOnDetroit.com. He also authors the Morning Report Newsletter and various other newsletters. He's been with WDIV since 2013.