What are the limits of a single piece of art?
If you ask Tyree Guyton, there might not be any at all. His magnum opus, The Heidelberg Project is an installation piece — although not the kind of installation you would be familiar with. Instead of fitting comfortably in a museum gallery, or fitting on a pedestal, The Heidelberg Project takes up an entire Detroit neighborhood!
This free art experience is part of our Free Outdoors Art Experiences For Kids list, included in IPaintMyMind’s Arts Education Curriculum & Resource Guide. It’s just a fraction of our A La Carte Art Resources, which make up the last part of the curriculum power-building resource, alongside lists of artists, interviews, and more. However, we loved learning about the project so much, we had to share!
Tyree Guyton returned back to Detroit’s East Side Heidelberg neighborhood in 1986, after completing his undergraduate degree. He found that his childhood neighborhood was full of abandoned lots, addiction, and systematic disinvestment. When he shared his anger and sadness at the state of his beloved childhood home, his grandfather encouraged him to pick up a paintbrush.
Guyton roamed through the streets, cleaning up vacant lots with his grandpa and a group of local children. They collected the debris and created art from the pieces, filling the previously empty lots with art and splashing joyful color on empty buildings. Nothing was off limits to Guyton’s expansive imagination, and he tied roads, trees, and sidewalks into his artistic vision.
Guyton’s distinctive style is characterized by bright saturated colors, polka dots, and found object assemblages. He also loves to incorporate snippets of poetic phrases, numbers, and words into his works. Many of Guyton’s surfaces transcend into the three dimensional, with sculptural outcroppings and found objects jutting out from flat painted areas.
His work is fun, joyful, surreal, and influenced by the work of Detroit artist Charles McGee. McGee’s dense, organic linework inspired Guyton’s fluid and organic style, as well as his relationship to linework in his pieces. Overall, Guyton’s style is welcoming and endlessly fascinating. He made Hedidelberg a place of mystery and curiosity. There is never a shortage of places to look, and new details to discover.
In 1988, The Heidelberg Project was officially established, and Guyton’s massive artwork was immortalized. The project aimed to use art as a medicine for social ills, and to educate folks who may not have had any access to art otherwise. Today the Heidelberg Project provides jobs to people from the community, hosts lectures and youth leadership academies, and throws festivals.
Despite all of this, Tyree Guyton’s vision of boundaryless art is still a divisive one. After a rash of arsons in the early 2010s, parts of the Heidelberg Project have been dismantled and moved to museums to protect them. However, Heidelberg is still studded with pieces of the original project, including the Dotty Wotty House, which is being converted into a museum.
Recently, the tech firm Isobar has released a virtual reality app that allows you to tour the Heidelberg Project. The app is free and available to enjoy whether you are going to go visit, or are sitting at home. It’s especially great for solo tours during COVID-19 and is a free way to get a super in-depth experience.
The Heidelberg Project is a perfect example of how art can revitalize, provide opportunities, and strengthen communities. Heidelberg went from a neighborhood that had been abandoned by the city government, to a community that took care of itself, looked after itself, and became known across the country for its unique and creative identity. Tyree Guyton was the spark, but the entire neighborhood were truly the artists who created and cared for the Heidelberg Project.
At IPaintMyMind, we believe in the power of art to transform and of art education to change lives. The Heidelberg Project is exactly the kind of art we want to celebrate.
Learn more about how you can get involved with IPaintMyMind’s effort to continue Tyree Guyton’s vision by providing quality and accessible arts education, and coming together to foster creativity.
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