Friday, Jun 22, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

Detroit artist's mission is to transform the city he loves

DETROIT - Jenenne Whitfield, a conservatively tailored, rising young bank loan officer, couldn't believe her eyes. She happened to turn onto an unfamiliar street on Detroit's east side, and saw a riot of color.

She was surrounded by old, nearly falling-down houses, covered with huge brightly colored polka-dots. There were dozens of shoes hanging high in a tree; dolls and mannequins nailed to houses, discarded toilets with crosses and bibles, and primitive-appearing art on car hoods half-buried in the ground.

"What the hell is this?" she asked a tall man she saw talking earnestly to a prominent local judge. "The Heidelberg Project," he said with a slow smile. When asked who was responsible for it, he said "me. I'm Tyree Guyton."

"And that is how it all started," she grinned. That was nine years ago. Not long after that, she became executive director of the project, which is probably the most controversial artistic statement ever made in Detroit.

"I took a massive pay cut to do this," she said, laughing. But the more she learned about it, the more she decided that what Tyree Guyton was doing was about far more than wild art. It was a political statement about the city itself.

Some of the symbolism is obvious; over and over, "1967," the year of the horrendously destructive Detroit riots, appears in his painting, as do the themes of God and war. It seems apparent that Mr. Guyton doesn't think much of either.

Detroit's power structure has been mostly not amused.

Mayor Coleman Young sent the bulldozers in and destroyed some of the first decorated houses in 1991. He would have destroyed it all, but he was prevented by the courts. Detroit City Council bulldozed more of it in 1999.

But Tyree Guyton simply went back to work. Today, there is a large open-air exhibit of broken vacuum cleaners, lined up like marching soldiers, which his friends say symbolizes City Council.

"This is a mission. A mission about transformation, of the city and ourselves," said Mr. Guyton, a tall, soft-spoken man who was born in 1955 and grew up on this street, which is one of the last surviving remnants of Black Bottom, one of the first African-American neighborhoods in Detroit.

Today, after surviving a torrent of criticism, what Mr. Guyton is doing has begun to attract international notice. The city of Sydney, Australia, has commissioned him to help design a new city park, and decorate it with his famous polka-dots. He has been feted in Europe and Japan. An award-winning video documentary, "The Faces of Tyree Guyton" has been widely shown on public television.

Each year, according to Ms. Whitfield, at least 275,000 people spend enough time strolling the street to sign a guest book that is displayed outside on sunny days. Collectors can buy some of the works; others deteriorate from the effects of the elements, which suits the creator just fine.

"I want this to be a city where we care about our people, where you don't have to leave and go somewhere else to be recognized," he says,

Increasingly, it is a city that is accepting its most eccentric artist. Elementary schools bring their classes to Heidelberg Street to tour the site. Unlike his predecessors, Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick has had nothing but good to say about the Heidelberg Project - in large part perhaps because one of the mayor's heroes, rap impresario Russell Simmons, is a big Heidelberg fan.

This month, Tyree is on his way to Albuquerque to accept a major award for environmental design. Ms. Whitfield, meanwhile, is hot on the trail of grant money which, she hopes, will eventually allow the Heidelberg Project to expand to encompass four square blocks.

"Jenenne is a fighter," Tyree said admiringly. Sometimes, it seems she is a bigger believer in his vision than he is. A couple of years ago, in fact, she further deepened her investment by marrying him.

Currently, Tyree is working on transforming what had been the "OJ House," which was largely a sarcastic statement about our media and cultural obsession with celebrities, into "The House That Makes Sense," which will be covered with 700,000 pennies (donations are welcome.)

And he believes deeply in what he is doing, a project that was partly inspired by his grandfather, Sam Mackey, who was also his best friend, and who inspired him during the darkest times, after the city destroyed much of his work.

When Sam died at 94, his last words to Tyree were "Son, don't stop." His grandson then covered his casket, and later his house, with bright polka-dots.

"This is about community, and renewal," Ms. Whitfield said, watching the tourists circle the block on a bright Wednesday morning. After two decades, the city Tyree Guyton has always loved finally seems to be accepting him.

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