Twenty-five years ago, a blend of three ingredients — trash, polka dots, and blighted spaces — transformed a devastated city neighborhood, sparked heated debate, and, in the long term, propelled one man with an idea to international acclaim.
This year, the Heidelberg Project on Detroit’s east side celebrates its quarter-century mark. Its colorful history includes several milestones, including this: In 1998, Heidelberg was recognized as the third most-visited cultural tourist site in Detroit with more than 275,000 visitors annually.
Art, like fashion, bubbles up from street level. It happens when someone takes what we all see and places it in a different context, rearranging what already is, framing the view, spinning it into a narrative for publication, or interpreting it as drama fit for the stage.
The fresh perspective on Heidelberg Street began when Tyree Guyton returned to his neighborhood and found a stunning level of decay. His grandfather, as the story goes, urged him to grab a paintbrush instead of a weapon.
Next month, the children’s book Magic Trash (Charlesbridge Publishing, $15.95) will be released. In it, author J.H. Shapiro tells the story of Guyton and his grandfather, Sam Mackey. Half the proceeds from sales will benefit the Heidelberg Project.
Also during the project’s silver anniversary, Guyton will spend a year in Switzerland (beginning next month) on a residency in conjunction with the Schaulager art space (schaulager.org).
Working out of a provided studio space, Guyton plans to polish his written dissertation to accompany the honorary doctorate of fine art that he received in 2009. He also will serve as an unofficial ambassador for art in Detroit. All this from a seed of an idea about trash.
“Found-object art is a societal term,” Guyton says. “I see everything in the creation as art. Everything already exists, so you are only manipulating that which already is. Taking something, anything, and reforming or rethinking it to tell a story and make it come alive in a different way is what I do.
“I choose to work with things that have been rejected or discarded because it’s symbolic of how we often discard and reject people and communities.”