Cleaning house

Out with the old, in with the new — the commonsense mantra feels a little strange when applied to Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, where radically new art depends on relics of old times and ways. But Guyton, world renowned for recycling stuff from the streets, alleys and abandoned buildings of Detroit into postmodern sculptures, paintings and the once-mammoth Heidelberg installations, will soon be taking a really new approach. And this time the public can lend a hand.

As Guyton puts it, standing before the notorious OJ House (as in “Obstruction of Justice”), “It’s time to move to another level, another phase of commitment.”

OJ was his statement on civic apathy toward the decay of inner-city neighborhoods. In 1995, he transformed an old wood-frame house on Heidelberg into an overwhelming phantasmagoria of found sculptures and urban-surreal combines. It’s this very building that Guyton plans to remake into the “House that Makes Sense,” a new community center including a children’s gallery, a visiting artist’s studio, a library and much more.

But before the next phase can shift into gear, the art covering OJ will be taken down and auctioned off piece by piece. This momentous recycling of Heidelberg art takes place Saturday, June 7, with live auctions and a public celebration featuring poetry, music and presentations of project plans by Guyton and his partner, Jenenne Whitfield.

“We’re collecting pennies that will be affixed to tiles,” Whitfield says, “and the tiles will cover the whole house, except for the roof. People can contribute by buying parts of OJ or a penny-covered tile.”

Well before the pair moved ahead on the “House That Makes Sense,” Whitfield thought she’d better talk to the feds: “I called the Federal Reserve and explained what we were planning to do with the pennies. They referred me to the CIA, where an agent said, ‘Hey, there’s no law against it.’ But he did want us to let him know when the house was complete.”

As Guyton and Whitfield speak, the drone of earth-moving machines on a nearby street plays an ominous music under their words. The often-embattled artist, who has witnessed the destruction of much of his Heidelberg efforts by city bulldozers, says that companies are being contracted by City Hall to level older homes in the neighborhood.

“They’re tearing the area down,” says Guyton. “In 10 years, there won’t be anything left around here.”

Clearly intending to defend whatever has survived the devastation of neglect on Detroit’s east side, Guyton embodies a number of traditions. The historic preservation impulse, in his hands, joins up with avant-garde strategies to honor the memories of local inhabitants and provide their children with hope: hope through art and hope for life’s possibilities. And because of his relentless labors and courage, Guyton keeps inspiring folks to help him.

One of those volunteers is Sonya Pouncy, a Detroit poet who has organized the literary segment of Saturday’s program. She explains her contribution to the event as a simple act of gratitude: “I appreciate the art that Tyree has given to the city, and I believe in his mission and vision.”

Pouncy will MC but otherwise won’t take part in the 3 p.m. reading that will feature four of Detroit’s finest poets: Melba Boyd, Ted Pearson, Leslie Reese and Willie Williams. And it’s pretty clear that the readers, who are also donating their services, share Pouncy’s feelings about Guyton and Heidelberg.

European surrealists André Breton, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst and their fellow travelers down the irrational highway couldn’t have imagined Heidelberg in their wildest dreams. When they came up with the idea of bringing different objects together (the more different from each other the better) to create a new kind of aesthetic reality, they couldn’t have foreseen that their “shock” techniques would one day rock the Motor City.

But since the ’80s, Guyton and his crew have done more than just freak out the powers that be. They have inspired young and old alike with their compassionate creations. And now the people have a chance to take a bit of this history home with them, while helping to lay the foundation for a new start on a very old street.


“Makin’ Change” at the Heidelberg Project (Heidelberg Street, three blocks south of Mack, between Mt. Elliot and Gratiot), 1-5 p.m., Saturday, June 7, includes 2 and 4 p.m. live auctions of Tyree Guyton’s art. Admission is free.

George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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