Detroit artist Tyree Guyton shared the 30-year story of creating his famous Heidelberg Project during a Friday night talk at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Guyton founded the project in the east side of Detroit in 1986 by painting bright polka dots on abandoned houses, cars and gardens on Heidelberg Street, and covering them with salvaged items from the neighborhood to express social, personal and political stances.
The project grew over time to transform the street into a colorful venue open to thousands of visitors. The project, in part, aims to promote art education and volunteering opportunities in public schools around Michigan.
Guyton talked about the project’s beginnings and his time at College for Creative Studies, which influenced him to embark on a career in the arts.
“It started with my grandfather, who gave me a paint brush and told me to paint,” Guyton said. “Even when cops came in, I was still crazy enough to go on painting.”
Guyton shared the challenges he faced, particularly the arson and complete destruction of the entire project on various occasions.
“Every time the city came to over to demolish the project, something inside of me said that I have to just keep on making the project bigger,” he said.
Guyton also expressed the importance of diversity at the Heidelberg Project, as he wanted the project to welcome different communities from all over Detroit and the world.
“I said to my neighbors that we cannot live in this world where are afraid of other people who don’t look like us,” Guyton said. “I saw the importance of art in collaborating communities.”
Guyton concluded his speech by advising the youth to take pride in their work and use it to change the world.
“Life has a way of preparing you for the world, even if it’s a roller-coaster ride,” Guyton said. “However, when it’s over, you can someday look back and be proud of what you’ve done and the great time you’d had.”
Jenenne Whitfield, Guyton’s wife and executive director of the Heidelberg Project, talked about the work’s importance in the neighborhood and the global art community. Guyton’s work and exhibitions have been permanently installed as far as Sydney, as well as at places closer to home like the Detroit Institute of Arts.
“There wasn’t a single report of crimes in the Heidelberg Street since the project started,” Whitfield said. “We also have records of visitors from 140 countries, and despite the differences in socioeconomic backgrounds, race or sex, people found a way to be expressive in the Heidelberg Project.”
Jenna Krajeski, a Knight-Wallace fellow at the University, said she was inspired by Guyton’s work, and hoped to learn how it could be applied to different communities.
“I came to see this project because I’m very interested in the art culture of Detroit and how the Heidelberg project has changed the dynamics of many neighborhoods there,” Krajeski said. “I wanted to know how it can be replicated in other communities.”