The 1,500-square-foot, second-floor walkup on Detroit’s North End that serves as the studio for artist Scott Hocking looks like the place Tim Allen would go to die. It’s the quintessential man cave, a happy hunting ground crammed with metals and glass, stone and stuffed animals, treasures and trash.
And most of it – including the rusted hood from a 1955 Mercury Monterey that hangs proudly on one wall – is definitely, decidedly Detroit.
“That was part of an installation I did about alchemy,” Hocking explains, taking a visitor on a guided tour. “Mercury is a big factor in the alchemical trinity. This Monterey was decaying in the backyard of a church on the east side for years, and every year I would talk to the pastor and ask, ‘Can I buy it now? He would say, ‘No, I still want to fix it up.’ Eventually he called me one day and said, ‘MISTER Scott Hocking! God told me to sell you the car! $500.’”
Hocking’s persistent. He has a deep appreciation for history, and he’s loyal to his location.
“I’ve been in this building 16 years,” Hocking, 42 reflects. “Many tenants have lived on the first floor over the years, but I’ve always been the guy upstairs. It’s evolved from being really raw, empty, and me sleeping on the floor with centipedes crawling over me, to becoming a true full-of-junk artist studio.”
One man’s junk, however, can be another’s vision, for Hocking is what is known as a “site-specific installation artist.” He occupies buildings that have been long-abandoned and creates sculptures within them using materials he finds at each location, capturing the entire process through his photography. His giant creation “The Egg and Michigan Central Train Station,” built within Detroit’s ramshackle, 104-year-old abandoned depot from more than 6,000 sheet marble fragments found inside, garnered national attention, and he has constructed similarly unique shapes for installations from Pittsburgh to Paris, Grand Rapids to Germany.
Yet the Redford Township native still calls Detroit his home base. Hocking captured his love for the city after dark in his 2015 book Detroit Nights, and, supported by a Knight Foundation/Knight Arts Challenge Grant and a 2016 Efroymson Contemporary Artist Fellowship, he will work this year on a series of sculptures under the title “Signs,” to be installed at sites throughout the city.
“Scott is one of the best and most recognized Detroit artists, for sure,” offers Hazel Blake, director of the Suzanne Hilberry Gallery in Ferndale where Hocking’s work has been displayed for 15 years. “He has an emotional investment in the city, and he’s really interested in its history. Installation art is becoming more popular, but I think he remains truly distinct.”
(Authors Note: Hilberry Gallery is closing; Hocking is in the process of transitioning to the David Klein Gallery in Detroit and Birmingham, and plans to mount a two-man show with illustrator Don Kilpatrick III in November at Galerie Camille in Midtown.)
Blake adds that most Hocking works sold by the gallery over the years were photos of his giant installations: The sculptures themselves are typically stolen, damaged or destroyed.
“He doesn’t mind that his work changes or disappears over time,” she says. “He’s quite interested in that evolution.”
Hocking is part historian, part recycler, and like most artists, part renegade.
“I am influenced by my surroundings, the materials I find, the history of a place, and history in general,” Hocking says. “I try to collect things that I consider to be future artifacts.”
Hocking’s future was determined by accident: a violent traffic crash at age 21 that T-boned the Toyota Corolla he had been living in for several months.
By his own admission, Hocking had hit rock bottom. Despite working three menial jobs at once, including sign painter for a local grocery chain (“Bananas – 99 cents!”), he was nearly penniless. He planned to sell his car for travel money, leave Detroit, and ride with a buddy to Seattle.
“I was going to start working in the fishing industry in Alaska,” he says. “You start in Seattle, get hired there, then they send you up.”
That is, until a speeding motorist provided Hocking with his first metallic sculpture, transforming his car into a giant letter C.
“That really made me think I wasn’t supposed to leave,” he says. “My car was totaled, I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, and I should have been more injured. But I only had cuts, bruises and a concussion.
“It led to this clarity I don’t think I’d ever had before. If there is one thing in life I was interested in from a young age but never really believed in, it was artwork. I could draw well, but I never thought about surviving as an artist. That accident was the ‘fuck it’ moment. Why not do it? I could die at any moment. That’s the reason I stayed.”
As soon as he recovered, he rode two buses to get to the Center for Creative Studies – “They had to explain to me what a portfolio was,” he recalls – and enrolled.
His love for Detroit was fueled in part by his rebellious nature.
“At the time I was raised in Redford Township, it was kind of a lower-middle-class, I would say very racist white neighborhood,” he says, stroking his salt-and-pepper beard. “They wanted to get out of Detroit in that ‘white flight’ style. So I grew up with a lot of negativity toward blacks and the city. And when I got to an age where I started to question that, I decided I really wanted to get to know it myself. I started to explore the city, and it led to a real transition of thinking and open-mindedness.”
He still explores the city, and while his quest for artistic inspiration takes him through some dark and dangerous places, Hocking says the only thing he truly fears are the packs of wild dogs that live in dilapidated factories. The “scrappers” he frequently encounters are searching for more valuable materials than he desires.
“A lot of people don’t realize this, but I have never broken into a building, never pried open a door,” he says. “I owe a lot of my process to the scrapping industry, so to speak. They break in, create pathways, cover holes in the floors. I follow in the footsteps of my progenitors.”
Hocking admits, though, that the anger he feels on his concrete-and-mortar excavations fuels his art.
“These amazing giant factories, abandoned by rich people, people who had money to own a factory that big,” he reflects. “That infuriated me because you think, ‘I could never even dream to own a place that big. Not only did they have it, they didn’t care about it.’
“So I sure as hell didn’t care if I was trespassing or using materials out of these places,” says Hocking. “I felt like they lost their right to claim ownership when they didn’t care about the neighborhood, the people, the history. And I especially felt justified when I could go into a place like that, make an artwork, put a photo of it in a gallery and a wealthy person would buy it. That’s full circle. And it really spoke to issues I have with economic inequality.”
However his materials became available, Hocking’s art proves that nothing really loses its value. It just needs someone to think creatively about its potential, and to have the vision to bring that potential to life in a new way. Not unlike the city in which his creations are born, or reborn.