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 Detroit’s automakers and workers. Yeoman isn’t sure exactly what happened—he imagines it has to do with the less-than-expected amount of money offered to Chrysler in the bailout combined with Fiat taking control of the company’s business decisions—but the deal never went through, and Yeoman was suddenly back at square one.

“My manager was exhausted after that, so we kind of drifted apart,” Yeoman says.

Enter James Feagin. Feagin had just lost his job managing community grants and business feasibility plans at the Warren Conner Development Coalition on Detroit’s east side. Feagin and Yeoman were introduced through a mutual friend, and began, as Yeoman describes, “swapping sob stories.” [Paragraph changed to clarify how Feagin and Yeoman were first introduced.]

When Feagin told Yeoman he lost his job after Chrysler went bankrupt and ended the charitable giving that paid for his position, the floodgates of conversation opened. They hatched one of those plans that often materialize after a few drinks—Feagin would become Yeoman’s new business manager and would try to sell his art using a non-traditional approach. They shook on it and Yeoman wondered if he’d ever hear from Feagin again.

“I went home and thought about it,” Feagin says. “Here I am, 28 years old, thinking I had a career in development. I mean, I was effective—I could pick up the phone and speak to the mayor if I wanted to. Then, suddenly, I’m laid off. But it’s all divine. I always wanted to own my own business. I had no kids and no wife, so I figured it’s now or never, especially in this job market.”

Feagin and Yeoman officially went into business together and BeloZro Visual Energy was born. The pair decided they wanted to sell Yeoman’s art outside of the traditional gallery system with social media, where they could target collectors and investors across the world, playing a crucial part in the startup’s business model. Their plans were innovative enough to warrant inclusion in the recent TEDxDetroit conference, which is where I first heard of them.

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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