DETROIT — On Sunday, Detroit native Tyree Guyton, creator of the open-air Heidelberg Project, stood next to a severed Barbie doll limb poking out of the dirt from a lot on Detroit’s east side.
University students and Detroit residents gathered on Heidelberg Street to complete maintenance on a house that is part of the Heidelberg Project art installation. The volunteers were participating in a new initiative aiming to create a relationship between the University and the famous project.
Guyton said he was deconstructing and rebranding one of his Heidelberg houses, and the Barbie limb was one of his “jewels.”
“You see that leg there? That’s magic. I’m teaching people how to see,” Guyton said. “That’s gonna go on this house.”
Guyton and his grandfather started the Heidelberg Project in 1986 by gathering local materials for an art installation. He said his project goes beyond the city of Detroit.
“Albert Einstein said that logic would take you from point A to point B, imagination would take you everywhere,” Guyton said. “What I’m doing here is I’m creating an art in such a way that it goes beyond.”
LSA senior Rachel Johnston, the student liaison between the University and the Heidelberg Project, said her father’s involvement in the project inspired her to participate. Johnston said her father started helping out at the project in 2013, after a few of the installation’s houses were burned down.
After her father started taking regular trips to Detroit, Johnston became more closely involved.
“I just started tagging along with him,” she said. “The first time I met Tyree he already knew everything about me. I was like, “Oh my god I have to keep coming back now, this is so cool.’ ”
Currently, there are two Heidelberg exhibits on campus — one at the University of Michigan Museum of Art and one on the ground floor of Haven Hall. Johnston said she increased her excursions to Detroit to help Guyton prepare to bring Heidelberg to the University.
“I think it’s super interesting to take Heidelberg out of context and put it in a place like Ann Arbor,” she said.
Johnston has been encouraging students to get involved through word of mouth, starting with her friends. LSA senior Alicia Speak said her friendship with Johnston influenced her to visit Heidelberg.
“Rachel has been talking about this for three years now,” Speak said. “She finally got me down here today and it’s really cool.”
Originally from Grosse Pointe, Speak has a history with the city and a desire to see it prosper.
“When I was younger I would come down and go to soup kitchens, volunteer downtown all the time,” she said.
Project Manager Trista Dymond has worked for the Heidelberg Project nonprofit for the last four years and has noticed an influx of volunteers after the string of arson attacks in 2013.
“We had volunteer days before then, a lot of site beautification, that kind of stuff,” Dymond said. “When the fires came it was cleaning up the fire, and we had tons of students.”
Dymond said what resonates the most for her about the installation is Guyton’s message of putting the power back in the hands of the individual.
“A lot of these people have just had a terrible time here. You have long-standing residents who have been here before the race riots in 1967 — don’t wanna move. The neighborhood has just completely become run-down. The idea was stop waiting for Santa Claus, take things into your own hands.”
Students were filmed while they volunteered at Heidelberg, and the recording — called “Heidelberg Television” — played live in the Heidelberg exhibit in UMMA throughout the day Sunday.
Johnston said she wants the initiative to continue after she graduates, but she plans to keep it contained to a grassroots collection of students whoa are truly passionate about the work.
“I think it means a lot more to just grab a couple people who really want to be here,” Johnston said.