Heidelberg Turns 21

Tyree Guyton is taking it all the way. His life is now entirely devoted — he’s telling a small group of fans, friends, journalists and official members of the Heidelberg Project family who are gathered on the sidewalk in the neighborhood where he lives and works — to making art that can change the world.

“There is great power in helping to transform a place, or transform the way people think,” Guyton says. “I asked myself, ‘What can I do to bring about real change that affects the lives of real people?’ My answer is this you see all around us.” He’s looking up, down and across Heidelberg Street, where for the past 21 years Guyton has been assembling Detroit’s most acclaimed — and often maligned — installation of art.

Guyton’s colorful construction has been multiplying across Heidelberg Street, an east-west residential street south of Mack and east of Mt. Elliott on the city’s Near East Side, and onto nearby streets like Elba and Ellery, since 1986. As much an ode to hope as it is critical commentary on the breakdown of community in one of America’s great cities, the work includes paintings on nearly every available surface — including televisions, tires, old car parts, lockers, utility poles and houses — trees stuffed with toy animals and shoes and polka dots everywhere. Many of the newer paintings are what Guyton calls his Faces of God series. The faces depict people of all races, in all colors, with red hair, black hair, teeth clenched in anger, or expressions beaming with joy.  

Guyton says the religious thread in his work initially came from an experience he had when he was about 30 years old.

“I had a vision, a greater power talked to me,” says Guyton, 51. “I stepped out of that house, across the street on Heidelberg, and heard God calling to me. I thought I’d lost it. But I saw the project unfolding before my eyes.”

That moment of inspiration came in 1986, the same year the Heidelberg Project was launched.

Fully alive, bursting with color

The 21-year history of the Heidelberg Project has been marked by countless accolades from critics and fans of outsider art around the world — but tempered by pitched political and court battles at home with Detroit leadership.

Two years after Guyton began assembling Heidelberg, the project received national press in Newsweek and People magazines. In 1989, he was granted the city’s “Spirit of Detroit” award and a year later he had a one-person exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts. But soon after Guyton appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1991, four houses that were part of the Heidelberg Project were demolished by order of then-Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Guyton says he told Winfrey that the project should remain outside, and not become an “inside” museum. “I don’t know if Coleman took that as a challenge, but he sent the demolition crews in right after that.”

A year later, Guyton received the Artist of the Year Award from Gov. John Engler, and during the next five years traveled with pieces of the growing installation to shows in Minnesota and Germany. A Heidelberg photo exhibit also worked its way around Europe.

Guyton and Heidelberg executive director Jenenne Whitfield initially found a sympathetic response to the project from Young’s mayoral successor, Dennis Archer. In 1997, Guyton and Whitfield received a $47,500 grant from the City of Detroit Cultural Affairs Department for the development of a café and welcoming center. But soon after, some members of the City Council threatened to close down the project.

Many of the threats came from councilmember Kay Everett, who said, "I want it gone. I'd put on a hard hat and drive the bulldozer myself if the project is still up when we come back from recess." Guyton and Everett even sparred verbally about the project on Court TV. A city administrator, Public Works Director Clyde D. Dowell, called Heidelberg “an illegal dump site and will be handled in that manner.”

In 1998, despite receiving 275,000 visitors that year, Guyton had to thwart plans by the city to demolish the project by getting a restraining order. But a year later, the restraining order was lifted and Archer sent bulldozers back to Heidelberg Sreet. Another part of the installation was taken down.

Whitfield says that the energy the City of Detroit spent trying to “squash the project … shows how powerful art can be."

Public and legal pressure kept the project going. Today, it is doing
much more than hanging on for its survival. Heidelberg is humming,
bursting with color, filled to the top with real emotion and the art
of being truly alive.

Vision made real

In the past six years, a renewed missionary zeal has also been evident. Guyton created an off-site installation, called “Open House,” at the DIA for Detroit’s 300-year anniversary celebration in 2001; and he was commissioned by the city to build an “art-garbage truck” for the 2002 Thanksgiving Day parade. Guyton and Whitfield have traveled around the world, including two trips to Ecuador, lecturing about Heidelberg or installing works. Pieces of the work have been exhibited at shows at Harvard University and Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Art Festival. In 2004, Heidelberg was part of the Shrinking Cities exhibition in Berlin.

But just as often, or more, the world comes here to see Guyton’s vision made real.

While Guyton and Whitfield were talking on the sidewalk in front of the Heidelberg home that has belonged to Guyton’s family for three generations, a young visitor from New Orleans stepped up to introduce himself.

“I never knew this existed,” Clay Smith says. “I’m in Detroit for the first time ever. I just got here and I can’t believe what I’m seeing.”

Guyton pointed to an inscription in Hebrew made on the street by some recent visitors from Israel. He nodded in another direction to a spot where some fans from England pitched a tent one night and camped next to paintings, sculptures made from tree trunks, and clusters of dolls and shoes.

“It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the power of the people that has kept the Heidelberg Project alive and moving forward,” Whitfield says.

“It’s all about the people, who deserve a better community and a better world,” Guyton says. “In my own way, I’m trying to make that happen.”

Walter Wasacz is editor at large for Model D and metromode. This story is an updated version of his piece, "Little Pink Houses for Everyone," published last August in Model D. For a closer look at the project, see Dave Krieger's photo essay on Heidelberg.

All Photographs of the Heidelberg Project and Tyree Guyton Copyright Dave Krieger

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