Spreading Color to the World:

Tyree Guyton Brings a touch of Heidelberg to Australia

by Nick Sousanis

Tyree Trilogy: This is the second part of our Tyree-trilogy, in which we caught up with Tyree Guyton's current project, took a look at his new work, and saw his efforts come to live on the other side of the world in Australia. For contributing writer Marion Jackson's examination of Guyton's new work click here. For contributing writer Sara Lyon's report from Australia click here.

A drive down Heidelberg Street from Gratiot towards Mount Elliot in Detroit means passing by the drab exteriors of countless abandoned, decaying houses, all looking like they belong in a city still recovering from the depression or perhaps hit by a tornado or two. And suddenly you encounter the block Tyree Guyton built - "we're definitely not in Kansas anymore." The street is a technicolor miracle - the houses, the trees, even the road itself, all come alive with color and vitality. It's a little corner of Oz in Detroit.

For those who don't know much about the Heidelberg Project, a little history: Since 1986 painter/sculptor Tyree Guyton has been working to transform this block that he grew up on from a place of abandonment to one of life and hope. Guyton's trademark polka dots cover the street, the trees, and the houses, including one his mother still lives in - the "Dotty Wotty House.," The "OJ House" - that is "Obstruction of Justice" soon to be covered with pennies and transformed into the "house that makes sense" is currently a collage of colored dots and writing, while the "number house" is covered with numbers as the others are covered by dots. Brightly colored stuffed animals are suspended from trees and vacuum cleaners fill a yard. Painted faces leer out from the hoods of cars set upright on an abandoned lot. And then there are shoes - lots of shoes. While the Heidelberg Project has been a symbol of hope and a positive spot in Detroit, its history with the city has been mixed at best. The height of the troubles hit in 1999 when the city began to demolish it. After much legal wrangling, the city reversed its decision and the project began to rebuild and continues to grow and bring in visitors from around the world (89 countries at last count!)

I am meeting with Guyton to discuss his current plans which include a project in another Oz - Australia. When I arrived, Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg project, were busy feeding the neighborhood kids lunch. It's hard for the kids to sit long enough to down their food, as they spend most of their time running through and clambering on the artworks Guyton has created, which the kids are finding to be a fabulous playground.

These kids, this community, this family, all speak to what lies at the heart of Heidelberg. All of the kids call this internationally recognized artist by his first name, and Guyton, that is Tyree, seems to know and acknowledges everyone who walks down the street or drives by in a car. For Tyree, Heidelberg offers this lesson, "We're all brothers and sisters." This connection between people speaks to the symbolism behind his ubiquitous polka dots. The dots represent all people - not black or white - but all of us. The neighborhood itself is a testament to that idea of communalism. Its residents include in addition to Tyree's mother and the local kids and their parents (who live at the "number" house), artist Tim Burke (whose own house makes a brilliant yellow and orange splash on the landscape), and 93 and 82 year old active neighbors.

The Heidelberg Project states its mission as demonstrating "the power of creativity to transform all those whose lives it touches." Through art, Guyton and company set out to challenge culture institutions, educate and empower people, and thus break the cycle of crime, drugs, and homelessness. One of Detroit's biggest questions as it looks to the future is "how do you make people feel safe?" This street and the lives of the people it has affected are an example of how to accomplish just that.

Over the years, the Heidelberg concept has been taken on the road all over the country and the world - where Guyton and Whitfield have lectured on its message, and his work has been shown extensively (most recently a timeline documentation of the project was included as part of this month's international "Shrinking Cities" exhibition in Berlin.) Now it travels to the land down under, where the Australians have welcomed Guyton and his ideas with open arms.

The Heidelberg-styled project titled "Singing for that Country" (SFTC) has been in the works for the last six years emerging from the thoughts of transplanted Detroiter Aku Kadogo (now living in Australia), who on a return visit to Detroit, was so taken by what she saw on Heidelberg Street, she decided to find a way to bring it to Sydney. After continuing correspondence over that time, plans for the project were finalized earlier this year and Guyton traveled there to immerse himself in the environment. The City of Sydney has offered him the opportunity to transform five sites: a park, a school, and three community centers with his unique vision. The project also will involve the help of local children as well as those back home in Detroit in its creation. Kids from both countries will be linked by a cultural exchange of shoes which they will paint on and write messages to go inside of them, before they are shipped to their counterparts on the other side of the world. The footwear acts as the children's representatives, cinveying, essentially, "If my shoes could talk what would they say about me..."

While the work will definitely resemble Heidelberg, the support Guyton is receiving in Sydney is a welcome contrast to what he has encountered over the years at home. Already he has met with the city and parks people and is working on the project with the city's landscape architect. The City of Sydney has itself put up $110,000 towards Guyton's Sydney projects. Private donations make up the rest of the funding for the project. Sydney's chief executive, the Lord Mayor Clover Moore would like to see a joint project between the two countries, including perhaps an exchange of shoes with our own well-heeled mayor. Despite the impressive nature of her title, Guyton notes that the Lord Mayor is a down to earth person, who is punctual, attends and stays at events, mingles with people, and travels without a host of bodyguards. In addition to the exchange of artworks (the shoes) Guyton plans to send a Detroit student to Australia to be part of the project, with funding from the city or not.

After two preparatory visits, Guyton is headed back to Australia near the end of September to complete the project, in his words to, "make it colorful and make it beautiful." The project in Sydney will take on the same aims as his past work, trying to bring unity between peoples in areas that have seen racial tensions; in fact a riot broke out in one of the locations as recently as February of this year. Not only will the creation of the parks involve the coming together of children from the community, Guyton hopes that when finished the parks will serve as a place to create further dialogues. Like he has done in Detroit, theses sites can demonstrate the power of art, "not religion or government," to heal and bring people together.

In Australia, Tyree acquired a piece of native wisdom from a boomerang craftsman he encountered: "Life is like a boomerang. Send out the right thoughts, so good can come back to you." Guyton has been a boomerang goodwill ambassador for the city of his birth - he ventures out into into the world spreading his art and its message and then returns bringing that energy and the financial resources it affords him back home.

"Detroit keeps me coming back. You ain't seen nothing yet. Just wait." We eagerly await his return and look forward to what vision he will bring to our community next.


On September 17, Batista Gallery in Ferndale will be hosting an artist's reception and fund raiser in support of Singing for this Country. For more info go to: http://www.batistagallery.com/events.htm

To learn a great deal more about the Heidelberg Project and Tyree, go to http://heidelberg.org

The city of Sydney has a pretty cool website, check it out here: http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/

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