DETROIT — “What in the hell is all of this?” she asked.
A prominent Detroit banker — well put-together, confident and dynamic — it seemed as if she had her whole life figured out. In 1993, Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project, turned down Heidelberg Street and never returned to the bank where she once hobnobbed with white-collared executives, crunching numbers and wearing power suits.
Instead, she met a whole new world.
A little place nestled and tucked away in the heart of inner-city Detroit, Heidelberg Street remains humbly dilapidated, really only recognized by those who have gone in search of its magical wonder. Sticking out like a sore thumb, five to six houses are splashed with brilliant colors. Polka-dots, larger-than-life grinning faces and car hoods meet you as you enter — almost as if someone’s garage had just exploded. Dozens of shoes dangle aimlessly from the top of a tall, barren, tree. It’s unreal — like a scene from “Alice in Wonderland” come to life.
Tyree Guyton, artist and originator of the Heidelberg Project, an idea to renovate Detroit housing in a creative new way, called it art.
The City of Detroit called it trash.
“What would make you take polka-dots and put it all over a house?” Whitfield questioned Guyton that day she turned down Heidelberg Street by chance.
“Why would a contractor paint a house one color?” he responded.
“Because it’s supposed to be one color,” she answered.
“Is it?” he asked.
With challenge after challenge to her notions of aesthetics, Guyton forced her to confront the truth of what his project told. “In 1986, I was standing on the porch of the polka-dot house — I looked out here, and I saw it,” said Guyton. “I saw the possibilities of what art could do for this neighborhood. And guess what — it don’t have to be pretty. But how can I take something, and make it work to the point that people will come from all over to see it? I am getting inside the minds of young people, and making them think about life — and learning to see the beauty that exists, when there’s chaos. That’s what I’m doing here.”
The area surrounding Heidelberg Street is historic. Guyton grew up in one of his projects, now titled “The Polka-Dot House.” His grandparents moved into it in 1947, when the neighborhood was one of the few areas where blacks could live in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Guyton was only a little boy during the 1967 riots, which he recalls vividly. “I remember tanks and helicopters — right there,” he pointed to the corner of the block. I looked at an empty lot, surrounded by decrepit houses and buildings. “When we were having a war in Vietnam, we were having a war in the city. The city never recovered. Just look around,” he pleaded. “Just look.”
His voice boomed, and his intense eyes almost seemed as if he was staring into his listener’s soul as he talked passionately and intently about his project.
“When you look at Tyree’s work,” said Whitfield, “you can understand why some people would be disturbed by it. He says that art reflects life — and life is not always pretty.” The words God and war were painted haphazardly on pieces of car parts and sides of houses. Dismembered dolls hung downtrodden from shopping carts. Yet his art, though seemingly grotesque and haunting, paradoxically conveyed a child-like playfulness and hope. There was a life in it — a vigor that shone past the wretchedness of pain and ugliness that had poisoned his soul and neighborhood for so many decades.
The man was merely protecting the inner child within him. He was desperately trying to hold it tight — guarding it from being trampled on again. It had been beaten one too many times by the toils of poverty and racial segregation. His soul was weathered like many of his art pieces. But he had let a glimpse of that light shine through.
“What you see here is a reflection of the people,” he said dishearteningly, “the people look just like this. You have to become tougher — you put on this thick skin.” Guyton declared.
In 1991, opponents of the Heidelberg Project — those who thought that it was an eyesore to the city — submitted a petition to the city protesting the art. Mayor Coleman Young responded with an executive order, and part of the project was demolished — pulverized into the ground, with Guyton’s dreams lying downcast along with the rubble left abandoned by the city bulldozers. Yet his dreams re-emerged, along with the debris of the destroyed houses as Guyton continued to rebuild Heidelberg even after the city of Detroit attempted to destroy his project again in 1999.
“Here’s my art — here’s my voice,” he said.
Another piece called “Doors of Opportunity” is an installation in a lot at the end of Heidelberg Street. Old doors — painted and arranged, similar to the way children build with playing cards — stood solitary on a lot once occupied by one of Guyton’s other taken pieces called the “Rosa Parks Bus.”
“Those doors are beaten, battered, broken, and turned all different ways” Whitfield pointed. “It talks about the doors that we enter throughout our lives. Some doors are closed to us — some are not, and some are open.”
A project in the making entitled “The House that Makes Sense” will be a house covered in more than 675,000 pennies from all over the world to represent how many people have come out to see the Heidelberg Project and have appreciated it. Inside the house will contain a community gallery presenting the works of children throughout the area. “At the time when it started,” Whitfield said, “he (Guyton) didn’t intend to create this nonprofit arts organization that would become known to the world as the most influential art environment in the world. His purpose in creating the Heidelberg Project was to have an answer to the crack dealers selling crack right around the street — or answers to little girls being pulled into abandoned houses — or kids getting hurt on glass.”
Currently, Tyree’s artwork has traveled the world with countries such as Germany, Italy, and Australia that has embraced his work with open arms. Funny, that people in his own neighborhood barely even knows that is exists. In 2001, he was commissioned by the Detroit Institute of the Arts to create an installation for the tricentennial of the city of Detroit. He also has four auditions at Michigan State University, Auburn University, Siena Heights University, and a show in Germany that is a traveling 18 year historical account of the Heidelberg Project. He has been featured in People magazine, Newsweek, Art Forum, and inspired the Emmy Award-winning documentary entitled “Come Unto Me: The Many Faces of Tyree Guyton” which received “Honorable Mention” at the Sundance Film Festival in 1999.
Tyree has continued to dream about spreading polka-dots all over the world. “The Heidelberg Project is ready to take on a life of its own” said Whitfield. Guyton and Whitfield recently returned from a trip to Sydney, Australia where they worked intimately with the native aborigines there. “The same problem with the people here that the people are facing — it’s all over the world. I am changing the way we think, our perception of things, of people — when are we going to go beyond that?” Guyton said. “I don’t see black, I don’t see white — I see people. I’m so sick and tired of living in a world where we categorize everything, and put everything into boxes. We tell a person that that’s the way to think. I say no, that’s not me, and I want to think outside the box. I want to realize that I have so many possibilities that exist that I haven’t tapped into.”
“Why polka-dots?” I asked. I was curious as to the source of his obsession.
“Jelly beans. People. Life. Circle,” he answered, pausing abruptly between each word.
Perplexed, I looked at him for a couple of more seconds. I’m sure he was used to that response. “My granddad loved jelly beans. He had a sweet tooth, but no teeth,” Guyton quietly laughed. “They always made me think of people — life — the world. All different races of people exist here.” His answer was simple, yet poignant. I was glad that I asked.
“It’s amazing, the power of a dot” said Whitfield.
Trash or art?
Life or death?
Tyree chose life — through art. “There’s a scripture in the bible that says “Come Unto Me,” Tyree added contemplatively. “He’s sayin’: ‘Come unto me. I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve might be faced with. I want to give you life — life in this junk. God said, “Come unto me … I’m going to heal you.”