“What do you want to be when you grow up?” This is a question many of us are familiar with, and one often asked of young children. Common responses often include professions that feature prominently in our daily lives, or that young people are introduced to early on: doctor, police officer, firefighter, astronaut, and so on. But how many children do you know that offer the response of automotive designer?
From an early age, Lansing native Michael Burton (1957–2016) was drawn to automobiles, literally and figuratively. He was fascinated by them and drew them night and day. By his adolescent years, he was a highly skilled draftsman and spent much of his time imagining the future of the automobile in colored pencils and markers. As the story goes, Burton even learned to read from reciting the letters and names of the cars rolling off the Oldsmobile production lines across from his childhood home.
Fast forward a couple of decades, and Burton’s lifelong dream to become one of the industry’s top automotive designers not only came true, but he’d become the first Black designer to work for all three top US manufacturers: Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors (in that order). Burton’s career spanned nearly forty years, and the works in this exhibition present a focused selection of concept drawings from his time at Chrysler and GM, offering insight to the development of his signature designs. The show thus celebrates the incredible, groundbreaking career of this artist and visionary.
While Burton left this world too soon, his imprint on the automotive world and culture, and thus US culture more broadly, will endure. His story and remarkable career in the field of automotive design also provide a sense of hope: dreams do come true.
Michael Burton is organized by the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University and curated by Steven L. Bridges, Associate Curator. Support for this exhibition is provided by the Alan and Rebecca Ross endowed exhibition fund.