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Architecture

Dot the eye

The Heidelberg Project is still connecting after 20 years of ups and downs

MT photo: Chato Hill
"Take bullshit and make it ironic"; Heidelberg lives.
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Published 8/23/2006

You've seen it in colors on abandoned buildings around Detroit. It's the dot, and it's Tyree Guyton's artistic signature. So it's fitting that Guyton is hosting a "Connect the Dots" festival to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his notorious Heidelberg Project on the city's east side.

If you haven't walked the Heidelberg Project's streets — on and around Mt. Elliot near Mack Avenue — and taken in the ever-evolving assemblage of so much junk-turned-art, it's difficult to conceive of the environment's power to perform a kind of visual, if not spiritual, magic.

As local Heidelberg fan Eric Mullins noted while strolling the art project with friends from Germany, Guyton's imagination "knows no boundaries." Picture hundreds of shoes dangling from trees, rusting car hoods slashed with abstracted faces and armies of vacuum cleaners; toilets, shopping carts, clocks and tires delectably decorated like so many luscious candies. And, of course, the abandoned houses chockablock with dots, pennies, numbers, stuffed animals and crosses. People are either awed or appalled by what they see.

It's well-known that Guyton encountered fierce opposition over the years for his Heidelberg work. In 1991, Mayor Coleman Young sent in bulldozers. Dennis Archer followed suit seven years later — this time without a court order — when the project was deemed "an illegal dump site."

Despite the setbacks, Guyton has persevered because, he says, "something was guiding me that was beyond my understanding ... a greater force was pushing me." He continued sweeping the streets and reinstalling his work, taking the time to chat with tourists and give local kids art lessons. But it's true: The project is now a shadow of what it was, for better or for worse.

Guyton's belief that his art might "change the world" could be called hubris, but he's a thoughtful man who chooses his words carefully — today, anyway. Back in 1998 Guyton proclaimed this to the media: "I'm going to challenge the system! Challenge the government! Don't tell me it's an eyesore! They want to take it down because they don't believe in truth and they don't want to see!"

These days, his vision is clearer, his resolve stronger. Guyton recently had a rebirth of sorts — from "angry young man" to respectful adult. In a series of recent community meetings, Guyton humbly acknowledged others' criticism.

"I went," he says, "and I had to apologize. I had made a lot of mistakes. When you hear the street talking to you and you try to convey that to people, they're gonna think you're crazy as hell!"

He realizes now that it behooves him to work within the system rather than against it.

Jenenne Whitfield, Heidelberg's executive director, sees the "Connect the Dots" festival as a way of thanking supporters for 20 years of encouragement and as a means of "putting our arms around ourselves." It's also an opportunity for critics and supporters to connect the dots between race, class, urban decay, beauty, poverty, privilege, political activism and the role of art in society.

But the more important point to prove publicly is that Heidelberg lives on. To that end, the contagiously energetic Aku Kadogo, a Detroit native who recently moved back after 32 years in Australia, is onboard as "an ongoing collaborator." With her background in theater and performance art, Kadogo intends to "animate the installation" during the festival with ongoing musical performances and improvisation. Kadogo left Detroit in response to guns, drugs and the "malaise" of the people, and was first energized by a visit to Heidelberg in 1996.

"Somebody said something. That's what struck me," she says. Kadogo admires Guyton's attitude, reading it, in her inimitable way, as: "I'm gonna take bullshit and make it ironic." She intends to continue helping out so that the Heidelberg's "spirit never dies."

The celebration not only marks the project's longevity, it's also a chance to lay out exciting plans. Guyton still dreams of polka-dotting the White House and renaming it the People's House, but he's also newly pragmatic.

"We recognize the importance of putting on our business hats to keep this thing operating," he says.

Guyton and Whitfield have been working with developer, architect and civic leader Sharon Madison Polk, as well as Marcie Brogan, who owns an ad agency, to implement plans for their Heidelberg Project Cultural Village. The intent is to turn the flotsam of decaying buildings and junk-art into a functioning, state-of-the-art cultural center, a place that could, for example, host an international design competition and promote Detroit's innovative approach to urban revitalization. Plans call for at least three totally renovated or newly built houses, one of which would serve as a satellite office for Brogan and Partners. The others would provide spaces for studios for artists-in-residence, classrooms, design labs, galleries, offices, a theater and a community center. They're hoping for a playground and community garden too.

Having just received some small grants, and hoping to win others — from Michigan's "Cool Cities" initiative, for example — Guyton and Whitfield are now focused. Sharon Madison Polk believes that Guyton's vision for Heidelberg is "unique," and that the project "can be an economic as well as an artistic and environmental statement" that can serve as a "catalyst" in the positive evolution of the neighborhood and the city. She envisions the project coming to fruition soon. Marcie Brogan thinks the re-envisioning of Heidelberg will help foster economic development in Detroit's east side neighborhoods.

At Heidelberg, the eye is prone to connect dots visible in church windows, with those on satellite dishes, fire hydrants, flowers, hubcaps and light fixtures. But, symbolically, the dots connect, as Kadogo suggests, "places, countries, peoples, cultures." They are perhaps beginning to connect the city to the suburbs too, just as Marcie Brogan intends, with a Guyton dot sculpture in her Birmingham office. The artistic and social brilliance of the Heidelberg Project is that it never grows tired. The dot — as a symbol of community spirit — is ready to jump 'n' jive as never before.

 

Connect the Dots is 2-8 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 26, at the Heidelberg Project, located on Mt. Elliot, two blocks south of Mack Ave. in Detroit. Call 313-267-1622 or visit www.heidelberg.org for info on shuttles to the Heidelberg Project from Eastern Market, Belle Isle and other locations in the city throughout the day.

 

SCHEDULE

Saturday, Aug. 26

   2-3 p.m.:    UR DJ rocks the house

   3-3:15 p.m.:   Photo shoot

   3:15 p.m.:    Bunch Kids and Casa Maria       Drum Line

   3:15-4:15 p.m.:    UR DJ Playing

   4-4:15 p.m.:    Photo shoot

   4:15 p.m.:    Bambuti featuring Efe

   4:35-6:15 p.m.:    UR DJ playing

   5-5:15 p.m.:    Photo shoot

   5:15 p.m.:    Amp that DJ Sound Up

   6:15 p.m.:    Soul Clique

   7 p.m.:    UR DJ

Christina Hill is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metro times.com.

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