“The main thing is to be moved, to love, to hope, to tremble, to live.”
~ (French sculptor Auguste Rodin)
It’s easy to get caught up in the way things used to be or, more specifically, the way things no longer are. Of course, all you need to do is drive around pretty much any community (from small one-stoplight towns to big cities) and you’ll find a lot of left behind.
Strip malls and super-centers, mom & pop stores and farms, homes and even entire neighborhoods that are nothing more than shells now, empty and abandoned and often decrepit remnants of what used to be.
These places represent, in more ways than one, the collective experience of a 21st Century life. Their flickery-florescent-lights-dangling-loose-from-the-ceiling aesthetic mirrors the way many people feel inside.
Unrecognizable. Ruined. Lost.
There seems to be a pervasive sense of crumbling and collapse in the psyche of many people these days. A feeling that everything once great and promising is gone. But not forgotten!
Anything but forgotten actually.
At the same time, there’s also this expansive movement of mindfulness and of people not merely seeking answers or direction, but the means by which to have some say again in their own lives.
“Creativity” is a buzz word and with good reason. Life, as we know it, requires a creative approach. It’s not just business as usual. It’s not just anything as usual.
But hope is still out there!
A hope that isn’t muddled or diluted by contentment for simply existing, for merely getting by. A hope that things can and will and should get better. That individuals and communities and businesses will find new ways to thrive.
With this blog, we intend to inspire, to inform, to educate, and to empower. That’s part of the The Best Me’s mission.
We want to introduce you to people who are finding ways to make a difference. In their communities, but also in their own lives. People who have incorporated their creative side in some way – whether they’ve built their own rowboat and paddled it 3,600 miles across the Atlantic or they’re seeking ways to help people and communities become healthier and more self-sustainable.
Why? We want you to see yourself in the people with whom we talk. That’s why we’re talking with them in the first place.
“The artist is not a different kind of person,
but every person is a different kind of artist.”
~ Eric Gill
Today’s post is about a personal project and a community project started by one man twenty-six years ago that has moved beyond inspiring his neighbors to inspiring people all over the world.
One might not find Tyree Guyton sharing his memorable smile in the streets of Detroit this summer, since he’s spending the year in Basel, Switzerland doing research, working on a dissertation and a project or two, but you will most certainly find his indelible fingerprints on a city that can use a new identity. Not because its collective imprint isn’t worthy, but because the rest of the world sees it as it has seen itself for a very long time, because those perceptions are stuck focused on what used to be, not on what is. And what it is, among other wonderful things, is home to The Heidelberg Project, an outdoor community art exhibit.
I have to admit, I used to think art was something you usually went to a museum or a gallery to view. But that’s the thing about being creative, you tend to see things differently from most people. And Tyree Guyton saw discarded objects and abandoned houses and vacant lots, things that are generally perceived as eyesores and as evidence of failure, and he saw promise. He saw purpose.
It more or less started with a broom. Not with some specific plan. Not with some grand design. Just a desire to make a difference. And that’s important for anyone who wants to begin a project (whether it’s starting that novel you’ve been dreaming about or trying to get your feet back under you after a layoff or a divorce or the death of someone you love).
He wanted to clean up his neighborhood, to infuse it with life again, but he didn’t try to change everything all at once. So he started by sweeping one room. And sweeping the street. He started with the vacant house that was next to the house his family had owned since 1947. “He always says the house spoke to him,” says Heidelberg Project Executive Director Jenenne Whitfield.
If you go to Heidelberg Street in downtown Detroit (and if you have a chance I strongly recommend you check it out), you won’t find marble statues or oil paintings in gold-gilded frames. You won’t find lapelled docents or audio tours in a dozen different languages.
The Heidelberg Project has, or maybe is its own special language – the language of found objects. And what it says, loudly, is that the thrown away, the discarded and discounted, the outright deserted still have value. More value, it would seem, than they may have had in their original state. Not a monetary value, but a personal value, a self-worth value, a yes-I-do-matter value that seems to have gradually begun to make its way back into the blood and bones of the people who live there.
It’s something that people, regardless of what country or country club they come from, regardless of whether they’re blue collar or white collar or can’t even afford a shirt let alone a collar, have come to appreciate and are starting to understand on a much more profound level than merely for the colorful painted polka dots you’ll find throughout the project.
The value of this installation is the human spirit.
According to Whitfield, the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood, “the community we work from, is the oldest African American Community in the city of Detroit and yet, at the rate the housing stock is disappearing, the last house will be standing in 2020.” She goes on to add that the average mortality rate for African American males in the McDougall-Hunt neighborhood is about 55% and “that really translates to young men between the ages of 14 & 28 only having about a 45% chance of escaping either death or jail.”
So those statistics and the condition of the community, the fact that the artist was raised in that area, “all became the reason why he took his work off the canvas, out of the basement, and onto the streets.”
Cathy’s youngest daughter visited this “open-air art environment” when she was in fourth grade for her teacher, recognizing the impact such an experience might have on her students, organizes a field trip each year. And a student’s initial reaction is often different from that of an adult.
The young are often struck by the playfulness and the color and the energy, yet even they become aware of the way things are different from what they may have come to expect. The concept of a doll house, for example, takes on new and startling meaning here. It isn’t a place of escape. A wonderland. But, even with all the reused “junk,” it’s not a wasteland either. It becomes, perhaps, an emblem of a second life.
When I pulled to the side of the curb and got out, I was struck by the in-your-face nature of some of the installations and by the tongue and cheek nature of some as well. Detroit still clings to its Motor City identity and Tyree has paid homage to that by reusing all sorts of automotive parts in his art from tires to hoods to mangled automobiles in different states of disrepair.
You’re not going to see perfection.
If what you look for in art is order and symmetry, you might find it here if you look hard enough. There’s an order of sorts and a symmetry in the asymmetry and the chaos that seems to be taking place for it reflects the neighborhood as Tyree discovered it upon his return from the army. It represents the turmoil and disarray that has resulted in a city built to accommodate two people for every one person still here. That means there’s an exorbitant amount of abandonment. Of unwanted. Of left behind.
You’re not going to get a typical off-to-the-museum experience. For museums, regardless of what is being exhibited, seem to always nudge you with an inherent order, with a tucked-in feeling, and even, perhaps, a certain preservation of innocence. The Heidelberg Project is different. This is visceral. And emotional. And intellectual. All of it.
But, where you might visit a gallery and be moved by the work and come away changed, your experience here can get right up under your skin, so to speak. It can’t not be personal and intimate. It forces you to consider – your definition of art, of uselessness and usefulness, of so many things you might not even expect. You can’t not react in some way. At least I couldn’t. I can’t.
And, if you ask me, that – in and of itself – is significant.
The inescapable juxtaposition of colorful art that connects people (in the neighborhood, as well as across the city, the nation, the globe), that is re-building community, with all this falling down is powerful. And it can be, at times, confrontational – in a sense that it “provokes” one’s sensibilities and perceptions and preconceptions, they are confronted in part by the fact that this is not an exploration of art made in a nice neat space created specifically for it, but one made amidst the harshness and the reality of human struggle.
There’s a rawness here and that playfulness too. It can be saddening and maddening, intriguing and inspiring. It’s hard to visit Heidelberg and not wonder, not ask questions.
And that’s the point as well.
Whitfield alluded to Tyree’s time in Basel so far and how quickly he’s discovered areas in that very affluent city where people have created “visually stimulating environments that attract people and then from that you get questions, dialogue, ideas, exchange.”
And isn’t that what art does? It offers an exchange of ideas. It enters into (and brings us into) some larger dialogue. When you visit Heidelberg Street you’ll become quite aware that there’s a lot being said.
The colorful polka dots that appear throughout the project and in the artist’s other work were inspired by Tyree’s grand-
father’s love for Jelly Beans. That same grandfather, Sam Mackey, gave Tyree a paint brush when the artist was a young boy and told him to “paint the world.”
Tyree’s been doing just that on a number of different levels. The polka dots are a symbol of connection and that “we people, no matter what race, nationality, color (many different colored dots) are essentially all the same.”
One of the payoffs, says Whitfield, is seeing how the project has affected children and the community in general. Much of the transformation that began twenty-six years ago has happened with children. The children have helped transform the community and doing so has helped transform them.
“I think the absolute greatest success story that is a testament to the transformative power of art,” says Whitfield, “is the young kid, Justin. He’s in all of our power points. He was just two-years-old when he first toddled down the street. We mentored him. And his teachers couldn’t understand how his other siblings went totally wayward, but this kid has something in him and they saw our film. Tyree holds him up and he makes the first polka dot.” Her voice cracks as she says this, not from pain, but from pride. Justin’s 18 now. “He held an A-B average in school and is in college on a sport’s scholarship, but his major is Biochemistry. That’s right. No art in his repertoire, and yet art was the catalyst.”
Like Justin, other members of the McDougall-Hunt community have started to realize that they can change their own lives. They’ve gotten jobs and have started businesses. They make their own art every day in different ways. One man makes canes that Whitfield says are phenomenal.
There are other Heidelberg influenced projects that have sprung up over the years in other Detroit neighborhoods as well as all across the country. “If people are branching off what you’re doing,” says Whitfield, “that’s good. You’re onto something.”
The Heidelberg Project has helped change the perception of the community – how other neighborhoods view it, how the world views it, how the inhabitants view it, and how those inhabitants are starting to view themselves. With affection, admiration, and pride, Whitfield mentioned a few by name, including the African Bead Museum on Grand River. “He’s got a real funky exterior. It’s glass and beads and it’s phenomenal. Dabls,” she adds, “is older than Tyree, but he calls Tyree his spiritual godfather because Tyree gave him the courage to go further.”
“Creativity takes courage” ~ Henry Matisse
Life takes courage. Giving yourself a chance takes courage.
The Heidelberg Project has come a long way in 26 years. They’ve developed their own philosophy, which they call Heidelbergology, based on three guiding principles: art is a catalyst for change, art is a medicine, and art is an abstract advocacy.
“Art,” wrote Thomas Merton, “allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” The act of creating allows us to turn inward. In some ways it provides an escape from the turmoil around us, while at the same time allowing us a different way to grasp it and to try to make sense of it. But this is more than art. This is one man touching the lives of others by saying our city matters, our neighborhood matters, even these buildings no one lives in anymore matter. Because you and I matter.
And that’s the starting point really. For anything!
Photo Credit (we were graciously granted permission to use these photos by the following artists):
Heidelberg – The Face of Yesterday, Today; A Different Kind of Tree; and Heidelberg Face #2 courtesy of Malena
Heidelberg Project Panorama – Heidelberg Street in Detroit; So Much Color; and Growing from the Remains courtesy of Larry Brown
Second Life for an Icon & Hanging Out courtesy of Cara Jo Miller
Polka Dot House courtesy of Michael Calandra