How to Make It in (The New) America

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As part of his first official duties as the company’s head of marketing and strategic management, Feagin asked Yeoman to come up with a piece that showed his unique style. Feagin had a bright, sunny image of Detroit’s cityscape in mind, something that a young professional, for instance, might want to use on a business card.

Instead, Yeoman came up with a dystopian image of a man walking on railroad tracks leading into the city, which looms as if it was just the target of the first bombing attack of World War III.

“I hated it,” Feagin says. “But that’s when I learned that I’m not an art critic, and that’s not my role.”

Feagin reluctantly posted the drawing on Facebook. Twenty-four hours later, he got a call from a collector in Dubai who not only bought that piece, but two more.

“I didn’t know anything about art, but I knew people could really be into this,” Feagin says. When, several months later, a collector paid $2,000 for a decade-old sketch that’s a rendition of the Packard Plant, Feagin knew they were in business. A year later, they’ve gone on to sell $40,000 worth of BeloZro’s art, a small miracle considering the economy, the city they live in, and the fact that neither has a traditional background in the arts.

“Now,” Feagin says, “I’m focused on building the brand, and I’m doing that by selling prints, t-shirts, iPad skins … but I’m also doing it tastefully. I respect the fact that it’s art, and I’m not going to put him in a place he doesn’t feel comfortable. Though we’re going outside of the gallery system, I’m also keeping the established art community aware of us. But any one decision from an art gallery doesn’t matter as long as I’m willing to hustle t-shirts.”

BeloZro Visual Energy’s latest project is a sequel to the “Detroit against the world” painting that Chrysler passed on, only this time they want to put the image on a billboard in the middle of the city by using the crowdfunding website to buy the ad space. They’ve even enlisted the help of founder Jerry Paffendorf, who used a similar crowdsourcing model with much fanfare to raise $67,000 to build a Robocop statue in Detroit. As of press time, they’ve raised $2,106 of the $3,500 needed to purchase space on the billboard, and expect the project to be fully funded by the Oct. 27 deadline.

“The theme of the painting is a time for change,” Yeoman says. “America has its back against the ropes economically, but here’s a public image of the Big Three standing together. I’ve hijacked [company] logos to change people’s thinking about the auto industry.”

Yeoman hopes the public—and the Big Three—will see the billboard the way he intends: as a symbol of economic recovery and community solidarity. The fact that Yeoman is returning to the same material seems to prove that even in the leaner, greener age of the domestic auto industry, its role in Detroit’s economic health can’t be overstated.

After all, without the profound effect Chrysler’s bankruptcy had on both men, their startup company would never have existed in the first place.

Feagin says the crowdfunded billboard is just one piece of a year-long business plan that culminates with a “blowout party” next summer in the lobby of the urban monolith otherwise known as the long-abandoned Michigan Central Station. He wants to attract a crowd of attendees that includes everyone from “the hipsters and the homies, to pimps and players, to young professionals.”

Although just thinking of the permits, security, and clean-up needed for such a massive shindig might make those made of lesser stuff feel faint, Feagin has no reason to think, after everything he and Yeoman have achieved together so far, that this goal won’t also become reality.

“I feel like our story could give [the HBO series] ‘How to Make It in America’ a run for its money,” Feagin says. “There’s a hustle you get in your blood when you’re from Detroit. I love having that in me. When we started, I asked [Yeoman], do you really want this? Because a lot of people have good ideas, but they don’t really want to make it.”

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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