Heidelberg on wheels

Nov 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

Thanksgiving morning on Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit will most certainly be cold and crowded, full of children, color and brass. This is the way it’s always been — this is the way it will always be. Immutable. Monstrously inflated cartoon characters will share the street with marching bands, and Santa Claus will be given the key to the city. Immutable. We’ll acknowledge these icons of mirth and pomp by pulling our hats over our ears and pouring cocoa into Styrofoam cups from a million Thermos bottles. This is the way it has to be — this is the way it will always be.

And Tyree Guyton, the renowned sculptor and painter, will never be officially accepted by such a monolithic ritual. He’ll never be accepted by the machinery of a city that he embarrassed with his baby-doll heads and discarded shoes and toilet seat covers on Heidelberg Street. One of the world’s largest corporations will not finance a project that allows Guyton to outfit a garbage truck with all of his images, all of his discarded footwear, all of his painted faces and polka dots, and roll it down Woodward with the floats and bands and waving clowns … all of this seems quite certain.

It seemed certain, until we were told that a company in Troy called Northstar Imaging Solutions had a garbage truck in their installation area that we should see. And a man named Tyree Guyton who wants to talk about this garbage truck. And a company named General Motors that, with the City of Detroit’s Cultural Affairs Department, is bankrolling the whole deal.

This can’t be. A city that once bulldozed the centerpiece of the Heidelberg Project, “The Babydoll House,” has now embraced its errant son. A corporation known for building shiny, brand-new rides is putting its dough in a garbage truck, and what was once accomplished with junk and nails and paint is now being executed with Macintosh computers and high-tech vinyl adhesives and a mile-long machine called a Vytek Printer.

Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project, calls this project “Tick, Tock, On the Spot,” and the story behind it holds so much irony, it could barely be contained in the garbage-hold of this revamped beauty.

The man who got the city to knock down an abandoned house by organizing and celebrating the junk he found around it, actually has quite a few admirers within the labyrinth of the city administration. According to Marilyn Wheaton, the city’s cultural affairs director, Guyton was a perfect match for the new “Motor City Makeover” that Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was implementing. An edict from on high was put out, asking all city departments to contribute something to the mayor’s effort to “clean up the city and make it beautiful,” according to Wheaton. The Cultural Affairs Department’s idea was to symbolize this mission by acquiring “the largest and most visible thing to keep the city clean.” They asked the DPW to find them an old garbage truck.

“We would commission an artist, and we knew we wanted kids involved,” explains Wheaton.

Fast-forward to September on Mackinac Island at the regional chamber of commerce’s annual leadership conference. Wheaton met up with Sissy Gross of the Parade Company who suggested that Guyton would be perfect for the job. Because it involves kids, cleaning up the city and a garbage truck-sized canvas. Guyton gladly accepted the offer.

“He takes things and makes them happy,” Wheaton explains. “I would love to be at the wheel on parade day.”

As Guyton shows us a gilded award from the city, he also reveals a certain amount of skepticism about this newfound respect he’s enjoying:

“Only time will tell how things progress between me and the mayor,” he says with a smile. This is a man who is allowed a bit of cynicism when it comes to being embraced, because “The Babydoll House” is gone forever.

So Guyton gets an old garbage truck with the help of General Motors and Cultural Affairs. Politics and money are off the table now, just like Guyton likes it. Time for the fun part.

Guyton passes out paper to his young friends at Bunche Elementary, his alma mater, a school he’s still closely associated with through the Heidelberg Project. He tells them to draw what they think this garbage truck should look like. He takes those drawings and incorporates them into his “big idea.”

He then amasses the things he knows well — the old clocks, the old shoes, the old baby-doll heads — and paints them up, courtesy of Paulie’s Thrifty Hardware in Detroit.

“It makes me feel good to involve the whole community,” Guyton proudly asserts.

Desmond Jones, a friend of Guyton’s and president of the Imagatec Company, takes all the images and configures them using Photoshop. Jones produces a final sketch that’s then used by Jim Hartson, the graphic designer at Northstar Imaging Solutions, to render these images onto a substance that is then layered onto the truck. The stuff looks and feels like bumper-sticker material — but big bumper stickers, huge mats that cover an entire garbage truck.

The big finish? The children at Bunche Elementary are designing and painting special hubcaps for the truck, which will be installed at the parade warehouse. Around the same time, Guyton will finish this installation on wheels with a well-placed shoe over here, a dirty doll head over there and an old alarm clock right about here. Back to the Heidelberg way of doing things.

Will Guyton ride this monster in the parade?

“I’m not sure. I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But I will definitely be there, one way or another.”

So will a million other folks, cold and happy, young and old. All there to watch the icons roll by, drinking cocoa and waving at the clowns. “Tick, Tock, On the Spot” will roll by too. Give it a wave. It’s taken a real long time to get there.


“City Business,” Tyree Guyton’s tribute to the city of Detroit, opens at 4731 gallery, 4731 Grand River, Detroit, on Saturday, Nov. 30, 7-10 p.m. Call 313-894-4731.

Dan DeMaggio writes about food and mind-food for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]