25 years later, 'outsider art' vision still fuels fame, furor on Heidelberg Street

Despite acclaim, installation continues to draw neighbors'
Michael H. Hodges/ Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

It began as artistic protest.

To shine a spotlight on the dilapidation of the east-side Detroit block where he grew up, Tyree Guyton, his grandfather Sam Mackey and other family members started stapling "found objects" — trash to some — on Heidelberg Street's abandoned houses.

Now, 25 years later, the Heidelberg Project, as it's known, has morphed into an art-and-education nonprofit that's been awarded more than $500,000 in grants and established Guyton as an "outsider art" star on the international scene.

"I never thought it'd last this long," said Guyton with a smile. "It's just unbelievable."

Still, the project has antagonized many neighbors, not least because of summertime crowds. And while part of the Heidelberg mystique is that it brings city and suburbs together, some argue visitors mostly gawk at the locals as if they were on exhibit, with no real effort to bridge the social divide.

Still, experts argue that anything that can garner so much reaction has to be called successful at some level.

"The Heidelberg Project is a wonderful way of taking art to the streets and delivering art to the people, and shows a creative use of resources that has attracted international attention," said Graham Beal, director of the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The Heidelberg Project — at Mount Elliott and Heidelberg streets, south of I-94 — is a crazy quilt landscape, an ever-changing collection of oddball artifacts with the feel of a sprawling outdoor art gallery. Over the years, street signs, numerals, board games, dolls and other pop-culture debris sprouted all over the principal block's foursquare houses.

Bicycles scaled a tall tree. Shoes, thousands of them, blossomed like clover on empty lots. Colorful polka dots punctuated the blacktop street.

Thousands of visitors

And visitors come by the thousands — 200,000 plus a year from all over the world, according to Guyton's wife and project executive director Jenenne Whitfield. Such visitors would ordinarily steer clear of such a blighted Detroit neighborhood, said John George at Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that fights abandonment on the west side. But Heidelberg is different. "Suburbanites cruise through Heidelberg, cameras snapping, eyes big as saucers," George said. "Then they pull over and actually get out of their cars.

"I mean," he said, delighted and spacing his words for emphasis, "this is the middle of a … ghetto."

On a recent sunny morning, women from the Bloomfield Newcomers Club strolled about the festooned houses, and car hoods with grinning faces, at a leisurely museum pace. Trying to account for the sense of security that envelopes Heidelberg, president Kathy Finley pointed to Guyton's childlike aesthetic, heavy on dolls and teddy bears.

"And there's a sense of safety," she added, "because somebody is obviously looking out for these properties."

For his part, Guyton, 55, is not surprised by the reaction. "The art is a medicine," said the art school dropout. "It helps you forget your fears and takes you back to your childhood. It makes you laugh. It makes you happy."

Some might think the academic art world would be dismissive. It's not.

Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, said a friend who once headed an art school emailed to ask, "What is this Heidelberg Project? I'm hearing fabulous things about it."

Harvard University art historian John Beardsley, who knows Heidelberg well, links it to the Southern custom of found-object yard art, which itself connects, he said, to the African tradition of decorating graves with objects sanctified by connection to the deceased.

"Guyton talks about the shoes and suitcases he uses as stand-ins for people who've moved away," Beardsley said. "So those objects also embody people who are gone."

At the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, which has awarded grants to Heidelberg, president Mariam Noland argues the much-loved, much-vilified project "helps give Detroit an identity.

"It's art that's sort of edgy," she said, "and I think art and edginess go together in a positive way in Detroit."

Reed Kroloff, director of Cranbrook Academy of Art and Art Museum, calls Heidelberg "a huge asset for the city of Detroit.

"It calls into question a fascinating range of issues," he said, "from what makes art to the effect art can have on politics and the social order."

Dissenters fight project

Not everyone agrees.

Some who live on the principal block or close-by have never gotten over their sense of violation, and fought Guyton for years in street protests and in front of the Detroit City Council.

Some neighbors object to the art itself, which they scorn as garbage. Others resent the tourists and the traffic that chokes the tree-lined street.

"We have people coming from everywhere," said B.B. Odums, whose backyard abuts the project. "We can't sit on our front porches because cars drive by, looking — as if we're on exhibit.

"And you can count on one hand the number of blacks that come and walk around," she said. "It's mostly the suburban people."

Responding to complaints, two mayors tried to level Heidelberg once and for all. In 1991, Mayor Coleman Young — who said the project was not art — sent in bulldozers to pull down three of the abandoned houses the artist had transformed. In 1999, Mayor Dennis Archer, citing rats, ordered another three destroyed.

Guyton sued over the 1991 demolition but lost. Opponents hoped the project would wither and die, but a bit like a scrappy weed, it kept popping back up. In the face of such tenaciousness, the city backed off.

That's just fine with some neighbors.

"It's a lovely project," said Teresa Woods, whose family lived several doors down from where Guyton grew up. "We'd all go out and help nail things up."

She recalls her mother inviting Guyton to have a go at their house.

"We came home from school one day, and my momma had numbers all over the house," said Woods, laughing. "She let Tyree do it because she wanted to play the lottery, and thought it'd help her find a winning number."

Woods denies the project is a whites-only tourist destination. "My friends like it, too," she said. "Everyone always comes to my house, and they're like, 'We're going down the street to look around.' They enjoy it."

Educational opportunities

At the 25-year mark, the Mayor's Office and Heidelberg now enjoy a friendlier relationship, said Sommer Woods, Mayor Dave Bing's liaison for film, culture and special events.

"The mayor definitely thinks what Heidelberg brings in terms of attention to the city is positive, because they do have a large following," she said.

Meanwhile, the project has pushed beyond exhibition into art education.

The nonprofit born in rebellion now employs eight people, several of whom coordinate programs with local schools. For almost 15 years, Whitfield said, Heidelberg sponsored art classes at nearby Bunche Elementary School until it closed.

In 2010, with $50,000 from the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, the project launched the Art, Community & Environmental Education Program (ACE2), which offers elementary school teachers an art curriculum complete with lesson plans supported by the Michigan Art Education Association.

Hoping to expand this mission, the project plans to build a $1 million arts complex on Heidelberg Street. The House That Makes Sense Center — named after a plan to carpet a house with pennies was abandoned (its foundation wouldn't take the weight) — will include classrooms, project offices, gallery, gift shop and the Heidelberg archives.

Just last week, Michael Kaiser, head of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., stopped by to advise on developing a donor base for a capital campaign.

"The Heidelberg Project is a fantastic community organization," said Kaiser, "really a model of how to serve the community in an interesting and artistic way, and how to empower people within that community."

The project has celebrated its 25 years with gusto, mounting a show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, throwing a Family Fun Day and erecting 25 of Guyton's painted car hoods — a fitting canvas for a Detroit artist — in front of sites including the Max M. Fisher Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The hoods will be up through August. And just hitting bookstores is a new children's book from a Boston publisher, "Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art."

All of this constitutes what John George at Blight Busters sees as inspiring pushback against urban decay and neglect, a hopeful counterpoint to the defeatism that often shrouds Detroit neighborhoods like Heidelberg pockmarked by burned-out houses and empty lots.

"Places like Heidelberg are portals that need to be nurtured," he said. "In so doing, you encourage everyone to participate in Detroit's rebirth."


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