Epic 4-Story Ruth Ellis Center Mural Unveiled

REC unveiled an epic four-story painting, created by Detroiter Ijania Cortez, celebrating the legacy of its namesake, Ruth Ellis.

Mural Project Celebrates Legacy of LGBTQ Elder, Leader, and Advocate Ruth Ellis
Mural Project Celebrates Legacy of LGBTQ Elder, Leader, and Advocate Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis Center (REC) is about to welcome the new residents of the Ruth Ellis Clairmount Center, a new supportive housing in Detroit’s North End

Photo taken by Mark Erwin.

REC unveiled the first mural of the building’s public art program. Created by Detroiter Ijania Cortez, this epic four-story-tall painting honors Ruth Ellis, the building’s namesake, and it adorns the east façade of Clairmount Center.

Chicago-based Full Circle Communities, architects Landon Bone Baker and Associates, and O’Brien Construction partnered on the development. It will be one of the newest housing developments in Detroit that serves transgender women of color and other at-risk LGBTQ+ youth who are facing chronic homelessness.

Inspired by a Remarkable Woman: Ruth Ellis

“We intentionally designed this facility as a benchmark for how organizations should create supportive housing programs to meet the needs and experiences of the individuals they serve,” Mark Erwin, REC co-interim executive director, said. “Residents here will have safe space and access to resources to build the life they want and deserve. We continue to hold ourselves accountable to Ruth’s legacy. This is the perfect opportunity to honor her contributions as an LGBTQ+ elder, especially because she stepped up to help others when no one else was doing so.”

Ellis and her life partner Ceciline “Babe” Franklin gave refuge, physical assistance and spiritual validation to those whose race, or sexual orientation, or both, put them apart from the mainstream society. Ellis is sometimes credited as the first “out” African American lesbian activist. A pioneer, she was also the first LGBTQ+ woman of color to own and operate her own Detroit-based printing company.


By Detroit, For Detroit

Clairmount Center’s impressive exterior mural is the focal point of an arts and cultural program curated by multi-media artist, designer, and educator, Tony Whitfield, and Erwin. 

Whitfield, who moved to Detroit from New York, works with groups and communities with a focus on history, culture, and well-being of different LGBTQ+ populations in urban settings. “This work of art honors a queer woman’s life that spanned three centuries of extraordinary change. Ellis’ life embodies joy, courage, and self-possession transforming into a rich, community-connected, thriving life despite and in the face of a world of adversities,” Whitfield said.

Erwin and Whitfield sought talent as vibrant and creative as Ruth herself to accomplish this feat. They enlisted a formidable Detroit-based staff, which included:

  • Fine artist and muralist Ijania Cortez, a longtime REC supporter, as lead project artist.
  • London-born graffiti artist Richard Wilson, whose 2019 original portrait of Ruth Ellis was auctioned to raise money for the Center, as assisting artist. Wilson’s mural of Stevie Wonder graces the exterior of Music Hall Center.
  • Dylan Box — graphic designer, developer and president of the American Institute of Graphic Arts Detroit chapter — as the visual artist.

“Ijania’s mural is beautiful, inspirational, and uplifting, and redefines the civic role that monuments play, who they can be about, and what they can look like.”

Multi-media Artist, Designer and Educator Tony Whitfield

On Oct. 7 starting at 12 p.m., join Ruth Ellis Center as it unveils this love letter to the LGBTQ+ community and Detroit at the facility’s grand opening celebration and block party.

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