Art from the Ashes: Thirty Years of the Heidelberg Project

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In the 1980s, artist Tyree Guyton returned to his home on Heidelberg Street in Detroit and found it in a state of disrepair. Thirty years later, his iconic Heidelberg Project exists as both a symbol of Detroit’s challenges and a cultural sanctuary for the city’s rich history and artisanship. Dubbed an “outdoor wonderland of wit and whimsy” by the Detroit Free Press, the project has become a staple in Detroit’s culture and continues to inform and influence observers today.

At the project’s inception, Guyton was frustrated with what his hometown had become. He also saw poverty and decay, not only on his own street but throughout the city. His grandfather, Sam Mackey, encouraged him to look beyond his anger to see potential in the destruction. That vision became the Heidelberg Project.

In 1986, Guyton, Mackey and children from the community began work picking up the neighborhood. They swept all the streets and cleared all the alleys to make room for Guyton’s urban sculptures. He turned  waste and nature – old car parts, trees, roads, broken signs and everything in between – into beautiful paintings and sculptures. Arrays of colors and polka dots, at the request of Mackey, were used in his pieces to highlight the energy and life that still existed in Detroit, despite the looming poverty and decay. The project was completed by 1988.

Guyton explored social and cultural themes with his work, including concepts of time and the racial history that is embedded in Detroit’s culture. Clocks are positioned throughout the street, symbolizing reflection on the past and awareness of the present and future. Hundreds of pairs of shoes also hang from trees, fences and other items on Heidelberg Street. Guyton said these items are tributes to victims of lynching. He was once told the horrors of finding victims by their hanging feet and felt it was necessary to portray that in his own curated cultural history.

Despite his positive intentions, not all neighbors and representatives of the community encouraged or accepted his art. The project has seen its fair share of opposition, and unfortunately only two of the original houses still stand today. In the 1990s, former Detroit Mayors Coleman Young and Dennis Archer each ordered three houses to be demolished. Arsons in 2013 and 2015 destroyed 12 more of the houses. The hateful crimes couldn’t discourage Guyton, they only made him feel stronger about his message. “I’m going to kick their ass with love,” he responded. “I just want to send out love.”

In 2016, the artist decided to take his project in another direction. Rather than limiting it to his own creations, the project expanded to become what he calls an “outdoor art environment.” Guyton now invites the public to participate and interact with his art in more intimate ways through tours, lectures, and educational and leadership programs. Group tours of the Heidelberg Project can be scheduled on the organization’s website, heidelberg.org.

Until Jan. 6, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit is displaying “2+2=8: Thirty Years of Heidelberg.” The exhibition showcases a series of items created by Guyton himself and streams a documentary about how his project came to be. For more information about the exhibition, call (313) 832-6622 or visit mocadetroit.org.