The Scarab Club has been a Detroit art institution since its opening in October of 1928 (as the Scarab “clubhouse”). Its rich history of visiting and local artists is famously catalogued by the collection of signatures on the wood beams of its second-floor lounge. The beams display some 230-plus signatures, including those of Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Norman Rockwell, and Juliana Force—an invitation to sign the beams is means of honoring artists for “their significant and lasting contribution to the arts,” according to the Scarab Club.
BEAMS, on view through May 20th, featuring a number of signatories—a break with the Scarab Club tradition of presenting a solo show for beam artists.Now, the Scarab Club will induct the signature of sculptor Glen Michaels, who is known for his mosaic sculptures, fastidiously fashioned out of thousands of small metal objects, such as token blanks or printer’s type. Michaels’ unveiling accompanies a group show,
“Usually when we let someone sign the beams, they’ve had a solo exhibition, but I think for Glen it was kind of overwhelming for him, and his work tends to sell as soon as he makes it,” said curator and longtime Scarab Club stalwart, Treena Ericson. “To take the pressure off him, instead of it being a solo exhibition, we used a limited number of pieces of his work, and then work from other beam signatories.” Other participants in the show include heavies like Michael Hall, Lester Johnson, Charles McGee, and Bill Rauhauser, as well as hometown heroes like Nancy Mitchnick and Gilda Snowden, whose name was posthumously added to the beams after her sudden and devastating passing in 2014 at the young age of 60.
“It was really important to me to have Gilda’s work in there because she was on our art advisory committee for 11 years before she died,” said Ericson, “and I think that she was really instrumental in turning the Scarab Club around from being the same show over and over. Back when the Scarab Club was a lot more insular, it wasn’t as open, and one exhibition tended to look like the last. Gilda and Maryanne Wilkinson were on the art advisory committee, and they really helped to turn things around.”
Ericson assembled BEAMS entirely from artists that have signed structures in her tenure with the Scarab Club, and has personal anecdotes to accompany each induction.
“The first person [in the show] that we had sign the beam was Michael Hall, who is most known for his large-scale sculptural work, and he was really an interesting character,” said Ericson. “I was scared to death of him at first; I found him really intimidating. He said to me, ‘What’s your budget for a catalogue,’ and we didn’t have two pennies to rub together—and so I just told him we had a copier and ream of paper.”
With her frank humor and determined attitude, Ericson is a beloved fixture of the Scarab Club scene, dedicated to steering the Scarab Club’s programming in the direction of ever-widening horizons.
“We’re working on getting out there, working more with emerging artists,” said Ericson, looking to the future. “Thinking long and hard about who to invite to sign the beams. It seems like everybody has wonderful things to say in a eulogy, but it’s wonderful to celebrate people while they’re alive. A big part of it is to honor the artist, by acknowledging significant and lasting contributions to the arts—but on top of that, it’s a community thing. It’s an opportunity for people to meet the artists who have inspired them or taught them, or are their heroes. I think that’s a really, really wonderful thing.”
In a sense, the beams serve as a measure for the growth and history of the club, the way proud parents might record their children’s height against a doorjamb. The physical manifestation of the club’s history creates a living archive, and also the opportunity for some funny juxtapositions. Included in the show is Detroit painter Nancy Mitchnick, who recalled the time when she signed a beam at the Scarab Club.
“I did this whole show of covers of other people’s paintings [in 2011],” said Mitchnick. “And the funny, terribly thing is, about signing the beam was—I’m a heroic scale person, and I hadn’t practiced signing the beam. So I started signing the beam, with this big oil stick, and it made me write large, and I bumped right into Diego Rivera—and I stopped! So my signature isn’t finished, and I’ve been begging Treena for years to wipe that [mistake] out, and let me finish my name.”
Goofy times aside, Ericson and the rest of the Scarab Club couldn’t be more serious about the impact of their longstanding tradition.
“Bill Rauhauser told me the very first place he’d ever shown work as an artist was at the Scarab Club,” said Ericson. “And exactly 70 years later, he was invited to sign the beam. All those years ago, he was so excited to be showing work for the first time, looking at the other artists’ work and being inspired by it, and then 70 years later, to be back there signing the beam—it’s just incredible, that entire cycle. The beam signing is just a means of accentuating that.”
BEAMS will be on view at the Scarab Club through May 20th. Glen Michaels will give an artist talk Thursday, May 4th, at 6pm, with the unveiling of his signature at 7pm.