Paige Pfleger: Tyree Guyton’s ‘Inextinguishable’ Heidelberg Project

By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published February 22, 2015

It was almost 30 years ago when Detroiter Tyree Guyton had a self-proclaimed epiphany. He closed his eyes and he saw “it” — “it” being the street of his youth painted with brightly colored polka dots, the houses covered in records, clocks hanging from trees, abandoned structures smothered under sagging stuffed animals. He wanted to create an art installment that would make the street safer by combating blight, and serve as medicine to his neighborhood. Guyton made the Heidelberg Project a reality, so that anyone could visit Heidelberg Street and see the “it” that he once only saw in his head.

That is, until the arsons started.

A rabbi and a prostitute visit Heidelberg Street

In an event titled “Inextinguishable: A conversation with Detroit Artist Tyree Guyton” on the fourth floor of Rackham Auditorium on Friday, Guyton made one of his first public appearances since the rash of arsons started in 2013. Clad in a University of Michigan hoodie and tan cargo pants, he sat between his wife Jennene Whitfield, and his friend, Social Work prof. Larry Gant.

A group of Heidelberg employees sat on the stairs of the auditorium, one wearing a shirt that reads “ART>ARSON.” Whitfield and Guyton explained to the audience and Gant that the Heidelberg faced adversity well before the arsons began — back in the 1990s, under orders from the city of Detroit, several Heidelberg houses were demolished.

“If you’re going to do something in this world,” Guyton said whimsically, “you’re going to have to pay a price.”

As they spoke, it was obvious that Whitfield works as Guyton’s foil. Guyton spewed artistic idioms and famous quotes like he was reciting slam poetry and Whitfield would take those ideas and bring them back down to earth. The two spoke of the project candidly, as if it were alive.

“I know I talk about it like a thing, but that’s what it’s like to me now. It’s like a baby I wish would grow the fuck up,” Whitfield said, eliciting a laugh from the audience.

“What are you drinking, honey?” Guyton asked her.

The Heidelberg project, despite the numerous setbacks, is a place where Guyton hopes that art can bring people from different cultures together. Visitors from around the world can be found driving through Detroit’s East Side to see the renowned art installment. Whitfield said that sometimes there are ten countries on Heidelberg street in one day.

“The Heidelberg project reaches so many different countries, people, situations, circumstances … I mean we actually had a rabbi talking to a prostitute,” Whitfield said, making the audience laugh again. “I do think it was amazing that she felt comfortable on that street to talk to him, and he felt comfortable too.”

These things happen, Whitfield explained, because art is the great equalizer.

A city on fire

From 2013 to 2014, there were 12 fires on Heidelberg Street. Despite crowd funding efforts and extra security measures, there are currently no leads on the culprit that has burnt down or severely damaged several parts of the installment.

“In order to get light you need negative and positive. There is something to be said about accepting negativity as a natural part of the process,” Whitfield said. “We accepted the fires. It was an unauthorized transformation.”

With no leads, the Heidelberg Project has faced proposed conspiracies and non-stop questions: Who would want burn the houses down? To what end? Does the project’s staff know more than they are letting on? Is the city in some way involved? The questions are endless and the answers are unknown, but this doesn’t bother Tyree Guyton.

“Paige, I don’t even listen to it,” Guyton told me during a phone interview. “I listen to what’s in me. Because if I listened to that it would drive me crazy and have me running around here like a mad person. I’ve heard some of everything.”

Though Heidelberg is just one street, the arsons that have plagued the project are representative of a larger problem facing the city of Detroit. According to a recent Detroit News investigation, there were more than 9,000 suspicious fires from 2010 to 2013, and at least 66 percent of those burnt houses have yet to be demolished.

Neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit and Detroit’s East Side show the heaviest amount of arson damage, with more than 200 fires from 2010-2013 in the Heidelberg’s zip code alone.

“I want to send love out to the person that has been setting this project on fire,” Guyton said to the audience at Rackham. “I want to do something a little bit different by sending out love, and that’s how you educate people.”

Professor Gant looked at Guyton incredulously. “Could we kick their ass a little bit first though?” he asked. Whitfield agreed.

“Well then you guys do that,” Guyton said “and I’m gonna’ love. And I’m gonna’ kick their ass by loving them.”

“Heidelberg rising from the ashes”

Guyton and the project will be celebrating their anniversary with an exhibition at the University of Michigan Museum of Art called “30 Years of Heidelberg” in August.

“After 30 years what do you know now, Tyree,” Guyton said of the exhibition. “I know that I can do anything and everything. And then something that Socrates said: I know nothing. I’m still learning.”

Also in the works for Guyton is a possible trip to Berlin, along with some Detroit techno legends that have yet to be announced.

Whitfield said that while the rest of the Project’s staff continues to deal with securing funds and keeping the project safe, Guyton’s sole responsibility will be focusing on his art.

“It’s just a new canvas,” Whitfield said. “We will be there. And we will continue on.”