“Michigan Stories” explores the formative Midwestern years before the duo migrated west. Kelley’s working-class Catholic upbringing in the Detroit suburb of Westland provided fodder for much of his later work, including the posthumously realized Mobile Homestead, a replica of his childhood home, now permanently installed as a public cultural center in downtown Detroit. Shaw grew up with three older sisters in the more northerly Dow Chemical factory town of Midland.
After the social disintegration following the 1967 Detroit riots, Michigan’s underground culture experienced a foreshadowing of the gritty and desperate urban energy that would soon emerge as punk, complete with a voracious appetite for lower-class vernacular visual culture. But it wasn’t enough: “Leaving Michigan was something you just did,” recalls Shaw. “Why would you stay? There were no jobs, there was no art world.”
Prior to that momentous journey, though, Shaw and Kelley—along with filmmaker Cary Loren and singer/artist Lynn Rovner (a.k.a. Niagara)— formed the proto-punk experimental noise band Destroy All Monsters (DAM), which recorded hours of effects-laden bleats, squawks, and tape loops and published a series of art-damaged zines. At the same time, the DAM collective—most of whom were attending art school at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor—were producing comparatively traditional paintings, drawings, collages, and sculptures.
“Mike disowned a lot of his early work,” Shaw remembers. “But I’m sure some will come out of the woodwork, because he left a lot of it in the back yard. We just left shit in our Ann Arbor house when we moved to Los Angeles. All these oil paintings and ceramics. Mike only took works on paper. Literally, the back yard was knee deep in stuff.”