Mario Moore honored with CCS’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award

May 23, 2023

Mario Moore and leadership at graduation

Mario Moore had an impressive if not astounding start to his year — not only did he have a second painting installed in the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA), but he is also the recipient of CCS’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award.

“It’s incredible to be seen as someone who’s made contributions and who has given back in a way that people feel like I should be honored,” said Moore (’09, Illustration).

The Distinguished Alumni Award recognizes CCS graduates who best exemplify what it means to be a creative leader through outstanding professional or artistic achievements, exceptional leadership in their community, a dedication to service and a commitment to the advancement of arts education. Moore was chosen after a selection committee comprised of CCS students, alumni, staff and faculty leadership completed a monthslong process of accepting and renewing nominations.

A native of Detroit, Moore struggles to recall a time when CCS was not part of his life. As a toddler, he would sometimes accompany this mother (Sabrina Nelson, ’91, Fine Arts) to campus. He can remember attending an anatomy class at age 7 or 8 and drawing the figure alongside enrolled college students.

“It’s been a major part of my life,” he said. “It’s been most of my life.”

But when it came time to apply to art school, Moore wanted to spread his wings beyond Detroit — and CCS. His portfolio review with CCS changed his mind.

“When you’re the best person at your high school, you think you’re amazing,” Moore said. “Gil Ashby kind of ripped my work apart. And I was like, ‘OK, all right. I think I want to go here. This person is going to help me grow in ways that I want to grow.’”

Although he had always considered himself more of a fine artist, he chose the Illustration Department because he knew from watching his mother’s career how challenging life as a professional artist could be. He decided that learning the technology and processes would set him up to be a storyboard artist, spot illustrator or “something that I thought, in my head, would make me money,” he said.

CCS ended up teaching him much more than that — thankfully, since by his senior year he realized illustration was not what he wanted to do. Besides instilling the foundations to build his skills upon, the school also offered business classes. Knowing the business side of being an artist has been invaluable to Moore in the years since he graduated, especially when he eventually did venture from Michigan to the East Coast for graduate school at the Yale School of Art and, later, the Princeton Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University.

Another class during his undergraduate studies at CCS also proved essential to his journey as an artist: sculpture. Although he managed only a C in his one sculpture class, he was able to transfer those skills to his first job as a set sculptor during the era when the film industry in Michigan was booming due to tax incentives. Moore found his work on Real Steal and Red Dawn exciting and lucrative — but also all-consuming.

“I didn’t have any time to work on my art, my personal work, which is what I really wanted to do,” he said. “So, I started thinking about what the best way forward for me would be.”

In the back of his mind was grad school, but only at the Yale School of Art. When Moore was a sophomore in high school, his father had persuaded him to learn to paint and, through his mother, he had ended up learning oils and working on his first oil painting that summer with Detroit painter and former CCS adjunct professor Richard Lewis.

“One thing I saw on his wall was that he went to Yale for his MFA,” Moore recalled. “I had no idea that that was a possibility and that I knew somebody who did that.”

Like during his portfolio review with CCS, the Yale faculty members who interviewed him also gave him a tough time. And he responded just as he had as a senior in high school: “OK, this is the place.”

Moore’s time at the Yale School of Art was exciting — he learned mainly from his peers and experimented with his work and different ways of painting. But he found the lack of diversity to be challenging, especially when it concerned who was critiquing his work’s ability to understand where he was coming from in his subject matter. In addition, while figurative art was on an uptick in 2013, the year he received his MFA, most schools were not interested in that kind of practice.

“But I was always going to make what I was going to make, so that didn’t bother me too much,” he said.

Post-Yale and Princeton, Moore lived in Brooklyn, where he further found his voice and footing as a professional artist. Three years ago, he moved back to Detroit, bringing his life full circle on many levels.

One was the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) — where his parents met and he worked as an usher at the Detroit Film Theatre during his CCS days — acquiring The Council. The museum previously installed another of his paintings, Queen Mother Helen Moore, in 2018.

The Council depicts Moore speaking with three artist friends, two of whom have a Michigan connection, Jamea Richmond-Edwards of Detroit and Titus Kaphar of Kalamazoo. (The third, Mark Gibson, is a friend from graduate school.) On the table in front of them is a copy of the New York Times with a headline about COVID-19 deaths surpassing 100,000.

In the piece, which the DIA installed around the corner from Moore’s favorite painter, Diego Rodríguez de Silva Velázquez, Moore examines his role as an artist during chaotic times. “It’s based on a history of Dutch painting and government Dutch paintings,” he said. But he swapped government officials for his circle of artists, who are considering the question, “What do we do to change what’s happening?”

CCS also became a focal point in his life once again. His wife, Danielle Eliska, is now an adjunct professor of Photography, and Moore has found himself back on campus for a sculpture class and, most recently, as a Woodward Lecturer. And, of course, he received the 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award at the spring commencement ceremony, which was held at the Aretha Franklin Amphitheatre in Detroit on May 11.

“I’m just humbled and excited, and I hope I can live up to this award,” Moore said.