Detroit Music Hall president and artistic director Vince Paul had initially planned to hold a grand revealing of the new Stevie Wonder portrait being painted on the historic theatre’s south wall. But it is impossible to hide a roughly 100-foot high mural from bustling downtown Detroit.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, all of Detroit wants to know the backstory of the portrait.
Since May 3, London-based painter and artist Richard Wilson has been working long hours to finish the mural. Stevie Wonder, who ironically turned 69 on Monday, is one of Wilson’s favorite music artists, and he wanted to honor him with a mural in the town that groomed him musically.
“For a long time, I’ve always wanted to paint Stevie,” said Wilson, who was wrapping up a day’s work on the mural Tuesday evening. “I grew up listening to him. His career makes you wonder how many babies he has helped make; how many relationships have started because of him; and how many heartbreaks people have gotten over because of him. His music is the soundtrack of our lives.”
Wilson, 45, came to Detroit last summer for the annual Murals in the Market mural and public art festival. The piece he created there is called, “Flo Real.” It depicts music artist Flo Real selecting from a shelf of vinyl records by Detroit artists Aretha Franklin, Donald Byrd, J Dilla, and Moodymann. It is located behind Gratiot Central Market right off of Gratiot and Russell.
Last summer, traveled to West Philadelphia to paint a 65-foot mural of Will Smith. Big Willie is seated wearing Jordan Three sneakers, with the Fresh Prince’s iconic signature hat and striped shirt draped on the back of the chair.
His love for music and the impact artists have had on their respective cities is what brought him back to Detroit and the Music Hall.
“When I was in Detroit last summer, I saw this wall. And I’m always looking for walls to paint,” said Wilson, talking about the Music Hall’s south wall. “When I got back to London, I started thinking about my next project. I remembered this wall and I Google mapped it. I found out that it was the Music Hall and I emailed Vince Paul.”
Paul is a busy man, so Wilson did not get a response until weeks later. Paul went through the proper channels to get permission to paint Stevie Wonder on the wall and received a yes.
“Detroit is on this collision course with happiness. The rendering was happy, and it articulated our legendary music,” said Paul, who told stories of Stevie Wonder rehearsing at the Music Hall. “It was all yesses for me. Stevie Wonder is one the greats from Detroit and I supported it 100 percent.”
Two weeks into the mural, Wilson estimates that it will take him another two weeks to complete the entire project. He is not getting paid for it and is using his own money to foot the bill on the project. That includes his stay in Motown, two cherry picker cranes, and 100 gallons of paint from Motor City Paint Company.
Wilson’s inspiration for his mural is a 1976 photo of Stevie Wonder taken by photographer Douglas Kirkland. In the photo, Stevie Wonder is sitting at a keyboard, wearing a white t-shirt that reads “Contusion.” Wilson’s version will read “Detroit,” and he is adding his own flare to it.
“The only thing I’m using from that picture is the head,” Wilson said. “Everything else is my take on it. He’s going to be playing a Fender Rhodes Mark I Stage 73 and that’s an all-time classic keyboard. A lot of his songs were written using that style of keyboard. To get that L-shape, I’ll also add a Hohner D6 clavinet, which is how “Superstition” was created, and a microphone. I know the original photo is someone’s work, but I’m adding my own touch to it. I hope that doesn’t get me in trouble.”
Wilson said he does not yet have a name for his Stevie Wonder portrait, but does love the entertainer’s 1976 song, “Love’s In Need of Love Today” from the Songs In The Key Of Life album.
“I think I’ll call it that,” he said. “There is so much going on in the world and we all need love.”
Once Wilson is done with the Stevie Wonder piece, he will get started on a mural for the west wall of the Music Hall. Paul said that mural will attract visitors to the inside of the theatre to view its museum.
Stevie Wonder was born May 13, 1950 in Saginaw, Michigan. Due to an eye condition, he was born permanently blind. In 1954, he moved to Detroit with his mother, where he began his musical career at the Whitestone Baptist Church on Detroit’s west side. At age 11, he was discovered by Ronald White of the Miracles and auditioned for Motown Records. Berry Gordy loved him and signed him to a deal 1961. During a career that has spanned seven decades, Stevie Wonder has won 25 Grammys and has sold over 100 millions albums worldwide.