Suddenly a fight broke out when the performance started. Louder and louder, it could be heard from the merch table in the next room. The culprit? Long time Detroit multimedia artist Maurice Greenia, Jr. orchestrating a hand puppet fight between two devils of regional ill repute. Improvising rhyming lyrics as he went in a freestyle vaudeville-esque rap, our puppeteer’s performance delighted the crowd. In case you missed it, this was the scene at Critical Moment’s recent April fundraiser at Crow Manor.
Our puppet master is also a prolific painter and dedicated surrealist working under the pseudonym Maugre. Maurice was also deeply involved with the Zeitgeist gallery and writes Poetic Express, an art and poetry publication running since 1985 under the name MG, Jr. Intrigued by his entertaining mix of politically themed antics at our fundraiser, we decided to catch-up and get better acquainted with the man known for dueling puppets.
CM: We’re curious to know more about you and your art. About your performance, were the devils Snyder & Orr?
MG Jr.: Yeah, kinda. I didn’t quite spell it out. I kind of alluded to that.
CM: What themes do your puppet performances cover?
MG Jr.: Sometimes I’ll do a special theme. There are songs, skits, and always some fighting in my shows. Some shows are just non-stop fighting. And one time I did a show where the puppets made a revolution against me. That was one of my classic shows. It was a one-time show. To quote Malcolm X; “Don’t strike at the puppet, strike at the puppeteer.”
CM: Your bio says you’ve spent a lot of time in New York since 1980. Can you talk about the creative link between Detroit and New York, both personally and in general?
MG Jr: A connection with Detroit and New York is the street art. I saw stuff that reminded me of the Heidelberg project. Early on when I first started going Keith Haring was doing his sidewalk art in the subways and there was still graffiti on the trains. There was better street art in New York than Detroit for a long time. Now Detroit is getting more street art. More people are doing it. Some of it’s really bad, some of it’s good, like anything. Early on Detroit was like a ghost town. Walk downtown on a Friday night and nobody would be out. There wouldn’t be a lot of people except for Dally in the Alley or something. In New York there would be a lot of people energy; I’d go, there would be big crowds of people, swarms of people.
CM: Tell us about your perception of the arts community in Detroit and what you’re currently working on.
MG Jr: Seems like it’s not totally connected here. I have a vast archive of stuff from the last 30 years or more – a bunch of fliers and news clippings and posters. I might do an exhibit later this summer of the history of Detroit’s arts community of the last 30 years or so. But I always try to agitate on behalf of the artists. Artists have important things to say to society. It’s an important voice.
CM: Are you advocating for artists to speak truth to power, to be more engaged politically?
MG Jr: It’s always a concern of mine to have the artist engaged politically, trying to have art that’s informed by reality, that is politically aware without being just propaganda. The Dadaists and the Surrealists – when they first came out – people would riot and try to destroy their art, tear it off the walls and smash it. Nice to get a reaction out of people but you don’t want to have just mindless provocation.
CM: Would you say art has a responsibility to strike a nerve?
MG Jr: It’s a matter of awareness. Just try to make people aware there are more possibilities. The artist is like a canary in the coal mine. If you’re a real sensitive and aware artist you realize things are going bad before other people do.
CM: Regarding Detroit’s bankruptcy, the DIA’s collection under threat, and how art and politics intersect over this issue, what is your opinion of the situation?
MG Jr: They shouldn’t mess with the art. The people that bought it in the name of the city, if they had any idea that it would be used as an asset like this they never would have put it in the city’s name. I enjoy going to the DIA but they’re not as supportive of local artists as they could be. That’s a big gripe. Local artists are supporting them more than they’re supporting local artists. It’s not really a two-way street. They have some living Detroit artists in the collection at least, like Tyree and Bob Sestok.
CM: Any advice for today’s emerging artists?
MG Jr: Know your roots, the background of what you’re interested in and keep practicing. Spend the extra time to go around and really find out what people were doing. Explore the complicated culture and history of whatever medium you’re interested in, especially if you’re self taught like I usually am.
CM: Are there any stories of success or failure about your art making you’d like to share?
MG Jr: I’ve had people tell me my poetry helped get them through some rough times. You just put stuff out there and you don’t even know what people think of it a lot of times. One time I was shopping at University Market and this guy said he appreciated the little manifestos and things I put out about the newspaper strike. “You always stuck by us with your heart. I’ll give you twenty bucks for groceries.” That was more direct.
I get my share of articles, did a Metro Times cover, did some art for their fiction issue and have had press with the Detroit News. But the one-on-one personal response is just as much or more gratifying to me. We’ll see what happens to it after I’m gone but I like to touch and affect people now. I’m kind of unique because I always cast a wide net. My whole life has been like that.
NOTE: If our readers have rare or wondrous visuals they’d like to loan or donate to Maurice’s retrospective exhibit mentioned above, he would love to know more. Maurice can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information about the artist, see U-D Mercy’s Special Collections websites on Greenia’s work and biography and his WordPress blog, Adventures and Resources.