Heidelberg founder talks arson, rising from ashes

By Neala Berkowski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 22, 2015

Inside Rackham Auditorium on Thursday, Heidelberg Project creator Tyree Guyton publically discussed the loss of six of the project’s art installations for the first time since a series of arsons hit the project over an eleven-month span.

During the talk, Guyton compared the post-arson Heidelberg Project to a phoenix rising from the ashes. He said the destruction has allowed organizers and collaborators to reimagine the project, which he noted is not ending in any way.

“Looking at it from a philosophical point of view, life is getting me ready for something greater,” he said.

Friday’s program featured Guyton and his wife, Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project. Social Work Prof. Larry Gant, who also teaches in the School of Art & Design, moderated the discussion, which was sponsored by the University’s Museum Studies Program

The Heidelberg Project is a community art project that features recycled materials and objects on and around Heidelberg Street in Detroit. The 29-year-old installment is a popular Detroit cultural attraction that attracts people from around the world.

What began as Guyton’s response to neighborhood blight has since expanded to include a vision encompassing education, conversation and social change.

Bradley Taylor, associate director of the Museum Studies Program and member of the project’s Board of Directors, said that despite destruction to some of the artwork, what remains is not to be discredited.

“There’s a belief out there that the fires have brought the Heidelberg Project to an end,” Taylor said. “That’s not true at all. If you’ve been out there the site’s been cleaned up and (Guyton) is already out there creating new stuff in the foundations of the buildings that were burned down.”

Whitfield said the fire damage is no longer visible, which surprises people who expect to see it when they come to view the art. She added that the fires have led to some positive outcomes, including the installation of solar-powered lighting in the neighborhood and a new security system to monitor the art.

The recent string of arsons is not the first time the Heidelberg Project has faced adversity, Whitfield said. She noted that the project was partially demolished by the city in 1991 and 1999 amid pending safety concerns, local complaints about the crowds of visitors and general conversation asking whether or not the project was really “art.”

“Each time the Heidelberg Project was partially destroyed it came back stronger,” she said. “In my mind, what Tyree has done is he’s just created a new platform each time on the canvas.”

Whitfield said at the time, these obstacles proved challenging, but she and Guyton gained perspective over time.

“With the things that we went through, it grew us,” she said. “And so we can come to a point now and say, ‘that’s all part of the process. We know all this negativity is playing a big part in what we’re doing.’ But how we conclude it is what’s most important.”

Guyton said visitors have transformative experiences, often influenced by conversations between visitors attracted to the site.

“Heidelberg is the realest place,” Whitfield said. “I think one of our board members called it a sacred battleground that has taken all the scars of Detroit. It provides that platform that people can discuss real issues.”

LSA senior Adam DesJardins, who attended the discussion, said he fell in love with the Heidelberg Project after many visits — showing friends and family around and talking to Tyree at the site.

“(Heidelberg) is just a really welcoming place, so to see (Guyton) speak and be recognized was really cool,” he said. “I think his whole point about sparking creativity was really important in terms of finding yourself and how you can spark other people’s creativity through your own creativity. I think that’s something that’s a takeaway for me because that’s so much of what (Guyton) does so well.”

One of the Heidelberg Project houses is called the “Dotty Wotty House,” and Guyton’s mother currently lives in it. Taylor said there are plans to potentially convert the house into a museum.

Guyton added that students from the James & Grace Lee Boggs School, a local charter school, may soon begin work transforming an abandoned house adjacent to the school.

“We’re going to paint stars all over this house and the stars are going to be a reflection of these young people,” Guyton said. “Every one of those young people are stars, and my job is to help them to see that they’re stars.”

Taylor said two exhibitions of Guyton’s work are scheduled to run on campus this year. The University of Michigan Museum of Art will run one this summer and the Department of Afroamerican and American Studies Gallery will host a small exhibit on the main floor of Haven Hall.