2016 marks the 30th anniversary of Tyree Guyton’s site-specific art installation on the east side of Detroit, The Heidelberg Project, and everyone wants in on the celebration. Well, maybe not the arsonists who torched the project last year, or the opponents who bulldozed it or those who brought Mr. Guyton to trial over the past three decades. But the obstacles and strife are all the more reason to celebrate the reach, energy and resilience of Guyton’s irrepressible oeuvre.

What has come to be known as the Heidelberg Project is two city blocks of ever-evolving, art-adorned houses, found object sculptures and interior urban-folk museum spaces that have stood as playfully as they have steadfastly against the blight of inner-city decay. It is named for Heidelberg Street, in Detroit’s McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, the block where it began and on which Guyton grew up.

The University of Michigan Museum of Art has curated an exhibition titled “The Art of Tyree Guyton: A Thirty-Year Journey” since August and will run through Jan. 3, 2016. It is presented in tandem with the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies’ current exhibition “What Time Is It? Tyree Guyton, New Work” running through Nov. 6. Many ancillary events — including gallery talks, a dialogue with Tyree and his wife Jenenne Whitfield the other week at UMMA and a Q&A with student organization Stamps in Color —  a community of students of color in the School of Art & Design at the University — have provided spaces for students and Ann Arborites to engage with Tyree and his work. On Sunday, Oct. 18 there will be a guided tour, and a discussion with Taubman faculty on art and urban planning, and “In Conversation: The Art of Tyree Guyton: From the Street to the Studio” will take place Nov. 8.

“Well, it’s a funny kind of retrospective because it’s an outdoor dynamic project that changes constantly,” said UMMA exhibition curator MaryAnn Wilkinson. “Not only because of Tyree’s work, but because it gets torn down sometimes or it gets burned down sometimes. I mean it’s always changing and you can’t really do a timeline the way that you can do in a typical art exhibition where you can start with the artist’s early work and you know the end. You can’t really do that with this because it doesn’t — somehow it misses the point to do that.”


During the Q&A with Stamps in Color students, Guyton spoke a bit about the changes in the city of Detroit over his lifetime and the impetus for his community artwork.

“I grew up on Heidelberg Street and I remember when it was a thriving neighborhood, Blacks and whites living there,” Guyton said. “In the ’60s and over the years it began to change: You know the ups and downs of the automobile industry, the Vietnam War, Wall Street. All these things had an effect on the city of Detroit. I remember some of the white kids I used to play with and how they moved away.”

Guyton left Detroit for a period and then moved back at the wish of his aging grandparents. It was Guyton’s grandfather who gave him a paintbrush at a young age and instilled in him the passion to create. Pursuing his study of art at the College of Creative Studies, Guyton met artist Charles McGee who became his mentor. In a formative moment McGee prescribed him a bizarre exercise to find himself by locking himself in his studio for two weeks, smoking joints while listening to John Coltrane, getting naked and painting his body. It may sound crazy, but it was from this act of sustained introspection that Guyton was able his understand his community and what he could do for it.

The Heidelberg Project would become an external extension of this gained understanding. Back in Detroit, it was important for Guyton to share with his neighbors the freedom of art and creative thinking he’d discovered — not just to render creative images on canvas or paper, but to reimagine the aesthetic of his urban landscape and its social climate. Noticing that a lot of them weren’t going to the DIA or exhibitions in Ann Arbor, Guyton was determined to bring art to the people, citing a piece called “More Power to the People.”

“It was my way of using the Heidelberg project as a medicine to help the people understand the importance of thinking for themselves.”

Some of the neighbors on Heidelberg Street had a knee-jerk reaction of distrust. They didn’t like it; they didn’t want it there. Provoking any response, positive or negative, laid the foundation for Guyton to open conversations with his community, to tease out, person by person, what they thought about the project and what they thought the larger implications were.

“He intends it as a gift to his neighborhood and to the city,” Wilkinson said. “But you know everyone gets gifts that they don’t quite know what to do with and that’s what this is.”

Opposition, public and private

The reaction Guyton drew was art criticism on steroids, with repetitive cases of litigation and acts of violence against the Heidelberg Project. The political implications of his art became unavoidable.

“The city said to me … that art goes in an institution,” Guyton said. “And I said well what do you mean? And they said you put it in a building behind walls, so I heard that. And then I was told by the city government that I should leave the city and I should go to New York, that New York is a place that accepted art, or Chicago. Then I was told that I had too many white people coming, and then I was told that I had too many people coming in general.”

Government officials didn’t really understand what the project was, how to talk about it or how to accept it. In the ’90s Mayor Coleman Young dispatched bulldozers. Guyton spent a lot of money and time in the Detroit courts and administrative agencies fighting the political opponents of the project. Guyton eventually won the right to keep the project on Heidelberg Street. 

“Every time the city came to demolish the project, something inside of me said, ‘Do it again,’ and I went out there and I start doing it again.”

Arson was another problem. With the 12 fires, some as recently as last year, Guyton had to summon his spirit to help his art continually rise from the ashes.

“The voice said ‘Make it greater’ than before,” Guyton said. “And I did.”

One of the pieces Guyton created specifically for the UMMA exhibition, a mixed-media sculpture titled “How Much for the City” addresses these deep-rooted struggles with the city government.

During the arson episodes last year, a destroyed television set appeared on the street. An upset Guyton left it out there for a few days as he turned its significance over in his mind: How could he transformed it into something positive and interactive?

“Flip the script: turn it into Heidelberg television,” Guyton said. “My job as an artist is to find solutions. So someone came over, dropped a television set off and it came to me: to create Heidelberg Television. So that television set was on the project and I had the kids of Heidelberg Street come down and they would write television shows for me. So they were performing behind that television set.”

It was important to Wilkinson to feature the Heidelberg Television in the exhibition at UMMA. Borrowed from the project space for a period of time, the physical frame tells the story of the people and activities on Heidelberg Street. The television displays a slideshow of many of the art-adorned houses and their social or aesthetic themes, such as house of soul, polka dots and clocks among many others, some of which are no longer standing. These images allow people who have maybe have never seen the Heidelberg Project to get a sense of its many incarnations over the years.

Recreation and rebuilding on the foundation

The second of the two new works Guyton is creating for the UMMA exhibition will not be featured in the gallery, but on Heidelberg Street itself. Thinking about the 12 fires and what to do about them, Guyton met with a team of architects to develop a plan to build a house. After initial concern and doubt posed by the architects about the stability of the foundations damaged by the fire, Guyton convinced them to shore up and salvage what had been damaged and simply build on top. The result is doubly powerful.

“Two plus two equals eight,” Guyton said. “I’m never starting over; I’m just adding. I keep adding. That’s what I do.”

The reconstruction of one of the houses on Heidelberg Street is being filmed in real time and Wilkinson plans to have the footage shown in the exhibition to celebrate the process of rebuilding and connect visitors of the gallery with the site in Detroit.

Global perspective and recognition

Guyton returned from a year-long residency in Basel, Switzerland in 2012 where he studied Plato and wrote his forthcoming book. The small city of Basel boasts more than 40 museums. With art and artists everywhere, Guyton was constantly seeing pieces and their creators and engaging in dialogue (not only the Socratic kind) with some of his international contemporaries.

“I went over there to learn, to listen and to see, and I think today if you’re going to be an artist, and this is my opinion, you have to think global,” Guyton said. “And you have to see (the world) because it helps to grow (the Heidelberg Project).”

Taking a year way from the Heidelberg Project allowed Guyton to reflect on his decades of work and formulate how he would return to it. UMMA’s exhibit displays some of his prints and studio work from his Switzerland residency. Though living abroad had its challenges, the glamour of an artist residency threw into relief some of the more gritty work there is to be done at home.

“For me, going somewhere else, they roll the red carpet out for you. The real challenge is here.”

Reach of the project and visitors

The arrival of young artists to Detroit’s blighted neighborhoods is by now well underway. But it’s more than just cheap rent drawing them; that’s available in lots of places. It’s the storied legacy of Detroit’s creativity and determination that sets it apart, and Heidelberg embodies it.

“I do think that having the Heidelberg Project there with its example of what an artist can do to try to change people’s lives gives later artists the freedom to do all kinds of things,” Wilkinson said. “I think what is happening in Detroit could maybe have never happened without the Heidelberg Project being here, and all of its contentiousness … But I really think that it’s so different even though there’s a long history in Detroit of artists making things out of junk. Many artists here do that because that’s what you can find when you’re in Detroit and there’s sort of a Detroit ethos to it.”

Guyton has paved the way for large-scale public artworks, which have been springing up on smaller scales all around the city.

“And now you get this new energy that’s coming into the city from all over the world,” Guyton said. “Thirty years ago when I started, I knew that I was on to something. I knew it.”

A changing or “revitalized” Detroit poses the slew of problems associated with gentrification, but the Heidelberg Project has been around through it all; it’s a magnetic energy from within the city born from the vision of a Detroiter who sees the importance of community art in his neighborhood, in his city and in the world.

“It’s a 30-year dissertation,” Guyton said. “I hear me. I trust me. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still learning.”

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