When Tyree Guyton returned home from a stint in the army 1985, he expected at the very least a change of scenery. Instead his childhood neighborhood in Detroit was as barren and forlorn as any battlefield. Bitter residue from the 1967 riots seemed to have settled into parts of the city like a rot, unyielding and hard. From his parent’s home on Heidelberg Street, rows of decrepit, torched or drug-soaked buildings sat abandoned and hopeless. Or at least they seemed that way.

While Guyton could have easily fled to happier shores, he did something really odd instead. He and his beloved grandfather Sam Mackey collected tons of debris and conceived a work of artistic redemption on a colossal scale for his neighborhood. Thus the vision for the Heidelberg Project was born.

The initial 1986 project consisted of painting brilliant colors and dots on a group of vacant homes on Heidelberg Street and attaching salvaged items such as tires, an old boat and washing machines from heaps of debris as decoration. These deserted homes had become symbols of drugs and crime in a place where people were afraid to walk even in daylight. Mistrust and fear were tangible. In this setting, Guyton, his former wife, Karen, and Sam Mackey inspired each other in their mission to transform the neighborhood into a huge canvas as a unique means of urban renewal.

This was not merely gentrification but an attempt to break the downward spiral of decades. Abandoned and abused homes stood for abandoned and abused families. Guyton covered one house with trashed dolls as a testament to lost children from Heidelberg street. A father of six himself, he also lost three members of his extended family to drugs or violence. The decorated houses have themes and symbolic content, suits for lawyers and a cash register symbolizing the love of money. One of his recurring symbols is a cross, often next to a portrait.

Heidelberg Project

Neighborhood children were the first fans and helpers, while many adults reserved judgment on the admittedly loud and frenetic house fronts.

Guyton’s team used what they had at hand. Dizzying piles of trash artistically sculpted from vacuum cleaners, stuffed rabbits and baking pans faced perplexed residents and visitors. A tree sprouted shoes for leaves.

This was a far cry from generally formal and sophisticated public art made of steel or stone, and it was not always appreciated. Guyton also had no proposals, no funding and only a few supporters. It was controversial. It was strange. The comments ranged from “it’s wonderful, a miracle” to “it reminds me of Auschwitz.”

Twice the city condemned and razed the decorated homes, and they started all over again. Guyton had legal battles all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court.

Through sheer tenacity and the rallying of the neighbors, the project built momentum. People began to donate items or money and show up to just to see what would happen next. Gradually the entire city took note, as thousands of visitors descended on the sites. When art groups and journalists publicized the work, the area began to change. Musicians, rappers, dancers, filmmakers, writers and poets all began to collaborate with Guyton and the Heidelberg Project as it grew in scope and direction.

The gaudy, patterned homes, sculptures, street paintings, parks and signs have become a source of pride and revenue for the city of Detroit. Executive director Jenenne Whitfield estimated that from a yearly budget of $400,000, there is an annual return of at least $3.7 million back to the city – even more if all indirect income such as travel, hotels and dining for visitors are included. For those who feel art is never financially productive, studies show the Heidelberg Project as third most popular tourist attraction in Detroit.

Guyton, his family and staff also support themselves and others through books, royalties and an ever expanding series of small institutions linked to the original concepts of using art for renewal and hope in the face of urban blight. Guyton and Whitfield lecture and do workshops on the project around the country. Their goal, partially accomplished, was to develop the Project into the city’s first outdoor museum, host an artists’ colony, creative art center, community garden and amphitheater. Impressive goals considering it all began with piles of trash.

Guyton’s family history and background influences his art on many levels. One of 10 children who were forced to attend church while his parents stayed home, he questioned the reality of God but hasn’t rejected him. His searching is evident through some of the themes he chooses.

“Faces of God” series,l Tyree Guyton

One of those is the series, “Faces of God.” His thoughts concerning them: “How would I talk about God – what would he look like?”

On spiritual issues, Guyton speaks of a corrupt world where “values no longer exist and rules are broken everyday.” This is where he hopes art will promote life and creativity.

Guyton constantly evokes and memorializes his grandfather Mackey as his strength and early collaborator. Grandpa, originally a house painter, believed any object could be transformed with color and paint. He first handed Guyton a paintbrush when he was 9 years old and was his inseparable, best friend and co-worker until his death at 94. In the years between, Mackey encouraged and inspired Guyton in the face of poverty, violence and depression. The trademark polka dots are from grandpa who used them to cover his many woodshop projects. The last words he heard from Mackey were “Son, don’t stop” – and he hasn’t.

At 25 years, the Heidleberg Project has been wildly and improbably successful for Guyton and Detroit. He’s received international honors and recognition as an artist, educator, mentor and community leader. His work is now spread across the world in art galleries, museums and through the Art in Embassies program. Films and documentaries track the progress and theories of urban art renewal in Detroit and how it may impact other parts of the world. Other artists are eager to collaborate with Guyton and he has definitely made his mark on the world. Landscape architects study his work, and he is definitely a “household name” in the region.

Still, the big problems persist.

Guyton’s neighborhood, and Detroit as a whole, is far from entirely healed, and there is still poverty, violence, drugs and racism to deal with. Yet the immensely popular Heidelberg Project has generated ideas, dialogue and hope about the bigger issues in the city. It is a parable of the derelict and neglected with the possibility of resurrection and transformation.

People show up from all over the world to see what the Heidelberg Project is about.

“They tell me my work gives them hope, gives them something to think about,” says Guyton as explanation for his endurance.

Although not traditionally religious or affiliated with a church, Guyton asks whether a place like Heidelberg Project can be a type of ministry itself.

Is it possible the words of the prophet Isaiah may at times apply to art also?

“Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” – Isaiah 58:12

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.