Change Agents, Creativity, People

Telling Detroit’s story — one matchbook at a time — is Urban Jethro’s artistic inspiration

three posters

There’s something about Detroit that inspires you, be it amateur or professional, to try your hand at creating. Art. Photography. Graffiti. Writing. Textiles.

Murphy - matchbookWhatever your medium, chances are there is a community of doers somewhere in the city willing to support you. It’s enough inspiration to make small-business people out of every one of us – we feel like what we make has a place, a purpose, a moment in Detroit.

That is part of the reason Sean Patrick Murphy has taken his longtime fascination with matchbooks and turned it into art. This College for Creative Studies graduate and instructor and freelance photographer has collected more than 800 matchbooks of legendary Detroit hotels, restaurants and destinations. Now, he has documented each one and has put them together to tell a story of the city that remembers its past, highlights its manufacturing muscle and shows off its current beauty.

Each matchbook tells its story. They are individually unique and visually compelling. Murphy said he spends hours sorting through them, examining the fine details of the artwork on the covers. Mixing and matching them to places new and old in Detroit resulted in an idea.

murphy detroit twoAfter living in Detroit for more than two decades, Murphy knew the neighborhoods and haunts that made the city his own. He felt the nostalgia for the places that once were. So he found the matchbooks that reminded him of when the city was at one of its many peaks. Of when its automobiles were as loud and sexy as the girls that rode in them. Of the hotels were celebrities like Frank Sinantra or The Beatles stayed when they played in town.

“It started when I was a kid. You weren’t supposed to have matches. They were for starting a fire in the chimney or smoking a cigarette,” Murphy said. In some cases, they were for going behind the garage and shooting off firecrackers. But we disgress.

“My grandparents would go out a lot, and they always had a thing of matches around from the places they visited. If I was at their house, cutting the grass or washing windows, I’d nonchalantly put a few in my pocket,” Murphy said. “There’d be the Chophouse. Joe Muers. Ponchatrain.  The greats.”

When his parents moved, they gave him what they had. When Murphy’s grandparents passed away, he inherited more. Then, he started looking for them – and they always seemed to find him.

seafood matchbook“They’re made to be disposable. But each one is a tiny work of art,” Murphy said. “They were people’s calling cards before there were calling cards. Every bar had them. Every hotel had them. Some were even labeled “Fireproof” to help advertise the hotel because people were worried about that back then. They didn’t want to burn to death in a hotel.

“These are the history of the city – things changing, growing, being destroyed.”

The result is a series of art prints that highlight each matchbook. (They’re not just “posters,” he says, they are individually crafted on special heavy duty UV resistant  paper using high quality, fade resistant archival inks, mounted and ready to frame.) Each matchbook is lovingly photographed, yet grouped together in ways that take you back to the city’s youth – and your own. He has three in production but has plans for seven more. (They are for sale right now at the Grosse Pointe Art Center, one of the posters centers in The Bubble, where Murphy now lives with his family.)

When not trolling garage and estate sales (for more matchbooks, natch) Murphy under his pseudonym “Urban Jethro” is working on what he describes as low-cost, high-danger events that may or may not be legal. What happens in Detroit after midnight…

hotel matchbookHe has a garage full of what one might call urban oddities. There are the piles of sleds, skis and related equipment (think: third-row seating from vans) that he and friends use to do some wild-man sledding at Balduck. This underground endeavor got started when a few friends showed up at the park through one of Murphy’s invites, enticing them to join the “Balduck Mountain Oddballers.”

“When I worked for this estate-sale lady, she was always throwing out sleds and skis. So I started collecting them. We’ll strap the skis on anything, like a World War II stretcher. The crazier, the better. We don’t want it to cost any money. This is about using your ingenuity,” Murphy said. “And, the more dangerous it is, the more points you get.”

Another estate-sale trash to treasure was bowling balls. Chop them in half, attach a handle and you’ve got Urban Curling. Together with a teacher friend, Murphy created an impromptu league on Belle Isle this winter. The whole thing became organized enough to be documented by MLive and to even host a few events, including a company party for Green Dots Stables at Clark Park.

Urban Jethro Design also a serious “design studio” that tries to incorporate all kinds of things-found objects, repurposing items and making Detroit-centric things to show our pride in the City. “There are a lot of haters out there, and we want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem,” Murphy said.

murphy detroit oneThis father of three girls admits he spends most of his days doing what a good dad does – helping out at school, schlepping kids to hockey, creating a skating rink in his backyard for neighborhood practices.

“I have become a sort of professional volunteer — PTO president, board of directors for the Grosse Pointe Hockey Association, Woods historical commission — trying to give back to the community whilst leading by example,” Murphy said.

But finding that next great matchbook is always on his mind. He still does the St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Nain Rouge, the Slow Rolls. He’s a man of two cities, and that’s OK. He’s inspired by them both – and his matchbooks show him everything he loves.

“You can look at them every day and see something different,” Murphy said. “It’s a look back into history to see where we’ve come from and all the places we’ve been.”

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