How to Make It in (The New) America

[Corrected on 10/19/11 at 4:45 pm. See below.] Miguel Yeoman—known as the artist BeloZro and, now, as cofounder of the startup company BeloZro Visual Energy—was born and raised on Detroit’s hardscrabble east side. As he tried to stay out of trouble in 1980s Detroit—an extraordinarily violent period in the city’s history—he found his way to boxing, and then to art.

He spent a decade working on the line in local factories until he finally mustered the courage to try to make a living off his craft. He moved to Los Angeles and found limited success—a fairly big gallery show, but also an attorney who swindled him out of a quarter-million dollars. So, in 2008, back to Detroit he came.

“I came back with my tail between by legs,” he says. “I left Michigan for a reason, but I got my ass beat by the business.”

Shortly after returning to Michigan, he hired a business manager who also happened to work at Chrysler. It was the manager’s idea that Yeoman should do a painting to counteract the mounting bad press that the Big Three were getting as they sped toward bankruptcy. Yeoman came up with a conceptual sketch that showed all three Motor City automakers as a unified front.

“It was sort of a Detroit against the world type of thing,” Yeoman says.

He spent three days turning the sketch into a painting and then showed it to his business manager, who began pitching it to executives at Chrysler. The idea was that Yeoman would donate the piece to Chrysler in exchange for wall space, publicity—anything to get the struggling artist’s name in people’s mouths. Instead, the painting made it all the way up the Chrysler chain of command to vice-president of manufacturing and engineering Byron Green, who loved it.

“My manager called me and asked me if I was sitting down,” Yeoman says. “I was expecting more bad news but instead, he told me Chrysler was prepared to offer us $1.8 million for the painting.”

Chrysler proposed to buy the piece, but wanted Yeoman and UAW president Ron Gettlefinger to present the painting to President Obama as a thank you for his support of the bailout plan and … Next Page »

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