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.
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!)
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.
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..."
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
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.