L.A. muralist Bunnie Reiss coats the Downtown Synagogue.
Los Angeles muralist Bunnie Reiss left Detroit’s only synagogue a lot more colorful than when she arrived, cloaking it in symbols of luck, love and protection.
Reiss, 43, took a week to paint her mural on the back of the four-story Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue on Griswold Street. It has a hamsa (an open hand that is meant to protect the wearer from the evil eye), a pair of identical birds in mirror image and other folk symbols and shapes she says remind her of her Eastern European roots.
“I wanted to use the building to highlight the mural rather than using the mural to highlight the building.”
— Bunnie Reiss
The 98-by-50-foot mural is one of three in the immediate neighborhood. Across Griswold is a new black-and-white expressionistic mural by renowned Detroit artist Charles McGee, and behind the synagogue, on the flank of the Detroit City Apartments on Washington Street, is a neon geometric design by local artist Beverly Fishman, who heads the painting department at Cranbrook. There is a feel of an open-air museum in Capitol Park, as the area is designated.
Reiss’ mural, completed in May, is embroidery-like, in hues of plum, turquoise and mustard, suggesting a royal garment. The mural incorporates the doors, windows and fire escape of the synagogue building. She says she hopes it encourages conversation — and makes people happy.
Reiss, who grew up in Colorado in a Conservative home, considered the project unique because she had never worked on a building that housed a faith-based group.
“I thought of it as special and unusual,” Reiss says. “I’m Jewish — that’s part of it, for sure. Part of it was inspired by my own heritage, but as a muralist, it’s an unusual building. A lot of muralists wait for those projects.”
Reiss chose not to lay down a coat of paint to cover the brick, as many muralists do; instead, she painted “raw” as a way to reveal the building’s architecture.
“I wanted to use the building to highlight the mural rather than using the mural to highlight the building,” says Reiss, who was the only artist the Downtown Synagogue considered for the project. “I want people to feel a sense of goodness inside, and I also want them to feel a sense of size. It’s so big, it makes you see your own size in the world. I like that about big buildings.”
Reiss has done work in Detroit before, including a project at Ferndale’s Boston Tea Room about five years ago and a few private commissions in the area. A graduate of the master’s painting program at San Francisco Art Institute, Reiss is busy doing murals all over the country but she also has solo shows each year.
The idea for the mural grew out of the synagogue’s Make It History campaign, which crowdfunded renovations to the building, including installing a new fire escape and building a new bathroom.
“We thought the mural would be done locally — maybe have kids from Summer in the City do it — but along the way, we changed our mind,” says synagogue President Jodee Fishman Raines. A RFP did not yield the response they were hoping for, and then board member Oren Goldenberg suggested Reiss for the project.
“We fell in love with her for a couple reasons,” Raines says. For one, she was raised in a fairly observant home. For another, she says, “She really, really wanted to do this mural. That was infectious.”
The designs, which incorporate Jewish mystical symbols, also made Reiss perfect for the project, she says.
“She’s got a great spirit about her,” Raines says.
Last summer, the board cleared the project with the city’s Historic Commission, power-washed the building and invited Reiss, who will return with her boyfriend and family for a party to celebrate the mural.
“We’ve gotten a great response,” says Executive Director Arlene Frank. “It’s a great way to create conversation about what we’re doing in the synagogue in continuing and contributing to Detroit’s art culture.”
The mural project was the Downtown Synagogue’s first real contribution to Detroit’s art scene; next is a sukkah design contest initiated this year. The winning teams will each get $15,000 to cover materials, construction and living expenses. The 5-7 designs will be displayed in Capitol Park Sept. 23-30 and coincide with Sukkot programming by the synagogue, Hazon and other Jewish groups in Detroit.
Art, says Raines, is “another dimension of how you experience your spirituality and engagement with the city.”