Thursday, January 19, 2023

Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry Murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts

The Rivera Courtyard

In 1932, noted Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) to paint twenty-seven murals including the massive north and south walls of the Roman Baroque Marble courtyard. The original space was filled wih fountains, potted plants, and austere marble pillars. The first DIA director William Valentiner wanted to fill the space with colorful murals representing Detroit's industrial miracle and the workforce that gave life to the assembly line.

When two out of five Detroit autoworkers were out of work during the Great Depression, raising money for public art was a hard sell. Patrons of the arts Edsel Ford, president of the Ford Motor Company, and his wife Eleanor, underwrote the project with $20,000 of their own money to pay Rivera his commission. It was DIA Director William Valentiner, who brought Diego Rivera to the attention of Mr. and Mrs. Edsel Ford.

Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo

Rivera and his new wife Frida Kahlo arrived in Detroit on April 21, 1932. Rivera spent three months touring the Rouge Plant, the Parke-Davis plant, and Downriver industry including the chemical plants in Wyandotte. He prepared sketches of the entire assembly line process with American Labor toiling at work. FoMoCo's official Rouge Plant photographer aided Rivera in his research, guiding the artist through the company's extensive photographic archive.

Using the Renaissance technique called frescoe, it took expertise and teamwork to grind pigment and paint the wet plaster before it dried. Rivera and his skilled assistants usually began working at noon and ended fifteen hours later, but they finished the twenty-seven panels in eight busy months. Rivera lost one hundred pounds in the process.

North Wall of Rivera Court

The large north wall fresco depicts the manufacturing process of Ford's famous V-8 engine from the steel-making blast furnances in the background to the labyrinth of conveyer belts laden with engine parts awaiting assembly. In the lower right section of the mural, Edsel Ford and Director William Valentiner are overlooking the scene. Rivera followed the fresco tradition of painting the patron(s) somewhere in the work of art.

South Wall of Rivera Court

Likewise, the south wall shows the manufacturing of the exterior parts of the automobile. Again, Edsel Ford and Director Valentiner appear on the right side of the fresco standing in front of a chalk board signifying that Edsel was a car designer and an artist in his own right. Laid out before him on a drafting table are the tools of his trade. Ford and Valentiner gaze into the gallery from the painting.

At the unveiling of the mural, Edsel Ford invited members of Detroit's religious community to comment on the mural. Catholic and Episcopalian clerics condemned the murals as blasphemous, mainly over one panel that was a modern take on traditional Christian images of the Holy Family and the nativity. They considered that panel a parody rather than an homage and demanded the mural be destroyed.

The conservative Detroit News weighed in and called the murals "vulgar" and "un-American", but Ford and Valentiner refused to destroy the epic work of mural art. Some historians suggest that the controversy may have been engineered by Edsel Ford to garner free publicity from the local media.

The first Sunday the Detroit Industry murals were on public exhibit, the bad publicity prompted 10,000 Detroiters to visit the mural to see for themselves. The people of Detroit were in awe of this masterpiece that celebrated the working man. On the strength of the public's response, the Detroit City Council increased the DIA's yearly budget.

In the early 1950s, United States Senator Joseph McCarthy was conducting anti-American hearings in Washington D.C.. Since the 1930s, Diego Rivera had gained notoriety for his Marxist philosophy, prompting the DIA to place a disclaimer at the entrance to the Rivera Courtyard stating that Rivera's personal politics did not take away from one of the crowning achievements of twentieth-century art. The notice defended the artistic merits of the murals while criticizing Rivera's politics.

For the one-hundredth birthday of Diego Rivera during February of 1986, the DIA held a celebration of his work. Of Edsel and Eleanor Ford's four children, only their daughter Josephine bothered to attend, and of their eleven grandchildren, only Benson Ford's daughter Lynn attended.

The murals were Edsel's gift to the city of Detroit, and they form what is considered one of the finest examples of industrial art in the world, worthy of both its creator and his patron. On April 23, 2014, the Detroit Industry murals were designated a National Historic Landmark.

Panoramic View of Detroit Industry Murals in Rivera Courtyard

Friday, January 13, 2023

Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" vs. Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney

Baby Boomers who grew up in the Detroit area and listened to Windsor radio station CKLW were familiar with advertisements for the Detroit Dragway located at Sibley and Dix. The ads always began with "Saturday, SATURDAY NIGHT, at the DETROIT DRAGWAY." Then the card for the automotive duels would be hyped. If you don't remember or aren't old enough to know what I'm talking about, I have a link to an audio at the end of this post.

Connie Kalitta with top fuel dragster in 1967.
Two of the most popular drag racers of the 1970s and 1980s were Connie Kalitta "The Bounty Hunter" and Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney. Connie was from Mount Clemens, Michigan, and Shirley was from Schenectady, New York. They shared a professional and personal relationship from 1972-1977. Connie gave Shirley a Funny Car he no longer raced, and he acted as her crew chief for many of her early races. In those days, Shirley was known as "The Huntress." 

Kalitta began drag racing when he was a sixteen-year-old student at Mount Clemens High School. He worked himself up the ranks of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) to become one of the sport's top drivers. Known as The Bounty Hunter, Kalitta was the first driver to reach 200 mph in a sanctioned NHRA event. In 1989 at the Winter Nationals, Kalitta was the first driver to break the 290 mph barrier with a 291.54 mph qualifying run.

In all, Kalitta won ten national titles and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1992. The NHRA compiled a list of the Top 50 Drivers for their fiftieth-anniversary in 2001. Kalitta ranked 21st on the all-time list, and in 2016, he became the first recipient of the NHRA's Lifetime Achievement Award.

Kalitta's first NHRA win came in 1964 in Bakersfield, California. In 1967, he won his first NHRA title. With the prize money, he bought his first airplane--a Cessna 310--and started his company Kalitta Air at the Willow Run Airport shipping freight for the Ford Motor Company (FoMoCo)--his racing sponsor. 

Kalitta Air and Kalitta Motorsports company photograph.
For a time, Kalitta retired from racing and directed his attention toward building up his air freight business. Now he has a fleet of about 100 planes, many of them 747s. In addition to a bread-and-butter FoMoCo parts distribution contract, Kalitta Air provides charter flights for Medical Flight Services, Air Ambulance Specialists, the Shriners' Children's Hospital and the United States Department of Defense, to name a few. It is not generally known that Kalitta Air keeps a 747 on standby to work with the military to return fallen service men and women to their homes.

Kalitta no longer races, but he is the CEO of Kalitta Motorsports in Ypsilanti, Michigan which sponsors four cars and drivers. His love of racing became a lifelong pursuit and a way of life.


Shirley Muldowney
Connie Katilla first met Shirley Muldowney in 1966 at Raceway Park in Illinois when she was racing a dragster with her husband as her mechanic. In 1972, Shirley divorced Jack Muldowney when she wanted to advance to top fuel funny cars, and he refused to live the life of a Gypsy to compete on the NHRA circuit. Doubtless, there were other personal issues as well no doubt.
Shirley moved in with Kalitta in 1972. On the track, Kalitta was The Bounty Hunter and Muldowney became The Huntress. Connie soon tagged Shirley with the nickname Cha-Cha which she never liked but became part of her NHRA branding.

After her split from Kalitta, Shirley went on to make a name for herself in this male macho sport. At first, she had trouble attracting sponsors and finding a crew that would work with a woman. But when Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney showed up at the track with her hot pink car, cowboy boots, and crash helmet, she started filling the grandstands. Even her pit crew wore hot pink team shirts.

Muldowney defied traditional gender stereotypes head-on and challenged sexism in the racing culture like Billie Jean King had done for tennis in 1973's Battle of the Sexes against Bobby Riggs. Both ladies proved women can compete in a man's world.

Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to receive a NHRA license to drive top fuel dragsters. She was the first person--man or woman--to win three NHRA national events in a row. In 1980, Shirley won the World Finals by beating her rival Connie Kalitta, and in 1982, she won an unprecedented third NHRA Top Fuel Championship.

Muldowney's achievements were not lost on Hollywood. She got the big screen treatment in 1983's Heart Like a Wheel starring Bonnie Bedelia as Muldowney and Beau Bridges as Connie Kalitta. Muldowney has said the film did not capture her real life very well but was good for the sport.

On the heels of her celebrity, Muldowney was faced with her biggest challenge. In June of 1984, her dragster crashed at over 250 mph at Sanair Speedway near Montreal, Canada. A front tire shredded and got twisted up in a wheel causing the car to lose control for 600 feet before crashing. Shirley was left with broken legs, crushed hands, a shattered pelvis, and a severed thumb. Determined to race again, she undertook two years of grueling physical therapy and recovery. Her first race back was against "Big Daddy" Don Garlits--a personal friend of hers. She lost. Shirley retired from active racing in 2003.

During her career, she won eighteen NHRA National events and was ranked 5th on NHRA's 2001 list of its Top 50 Drivers earning her the title of First Lady of Drag Racing. Her memoir Shirley Muldowney: Tales from the Track was released in 2005 depicting her drag racing life. The same year, Muldowney was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame. Muldowney still makes personal appearances at racing events to raise money for her charitable organization, Shirley's Kids, which helps children in need in cities where drag racing is a part of the community. Shirley can literally be called a trailblazer for women's equality.

CKLW radio commercial for the Detroit Dragway from 1966:

1982 U.S. Nationals Championship drag race between Kalitta and Muldowney:  

Muldowney on the Johnny Carson Show in 1986 after her 1984 catastrophic car crash: