Tyree Guyton visits Morenci 2008.04.30 and 05.07

Written by David Green.

Story before visit:


Stair Public Library staff members aim to make well-known Detroit artist Tyree Guyton feel at home Thursday night when he visits Morenci.

The cultural differences are obvious—Guyton from inner city Detroit traveling to a small, rural community a hundred miles away.

However, several residents from the Morenci, Fayette and Hudson area have created their own pieces of art somewhat in the spirit of Guyton’s work—by taking common objects found in the environment and using them for a new purpose to make a statement.tyree.guyton.jpg

Guyton’s work transcends the mere act of creating art with found objects. The controversial “environmental installation artist” strives to rebuild the fabric of the Heidelberg neighborhood through his art.

The run-down Heidelberg area of Detroit has become a giant art installation, drawing thousands of visitors every year and helping to revive the district’s economy.

Guyton’s work has drawn international attention—both acclaim and criticism—and taken him on travels around the world.

And now, to Morenci.

Guyton and his wife, Jenenne Whitfield, the director of the Heidelberg Project, will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday.  A video about his work will be presented, an update will be provided on Guyton’s current projects, and questions from the audience will be answered.

The beginnings

Guyton, 52, wasn’t yet a teenager when the 1967 riots tore through Detroit. He watched as his neighborhood continued to experience tough times, and his own life was challenged by incidents such as the loss of two brothers to drugs and another from a shooting.

In 1986, he took action to change his local environment. Working with is grandfather and former wife, he began nailing found objects to trees and houses. He painted colored dots by the thousands on abandoned houses—promoting the harmony between people of all colors—and more dots on an old city—a tribute to Rosa Parks, who famous incident on a southern bus occurred the year Guyton was born.

The neighborhood became a living canvas. Car hoods were collected and faces were painted on each one. Trees were covered with stuffed animals, depicting the return of wildlife to vacant lots.

A collection of upright vacuum cleaners appeared in one yard, plastic rocking horses in another. Guyton combed the city for discarded objects that he transformed into art.

The works spread throughout a two-block area and were hailed by many as innovative expression, while decried by others as embarrassing collections of trash.

Petitions were filed for demolition of his brightly-colored houses and by 1999, nearly a third had fallen to the bulldozer.

Acclaim from beyond Detroit led to a change of attitude. The Heidelberg Project has now been visited by hundreds of thousands of people from several states and more than 90 countries.

Guyton continues on his quest to “demonstrate the power of creativity and its ability to transform lives.”

Tyree Guyton's talk in Morenci


As a child growing up in inner city Detroit, Tyree Guyton didn’t feel that he had much freedom. The racially-torn city pocked with impoverished neighborhoods didn’t appear to offer a ticket to a better life.

But Guyton found that ticket and it was called Art.

Art was his path to freedom, he told a standing-room-only crowd Thursday night at Stair Public Library. He freed himself through art; he used it as a process of healing.

Guyton said his high school art teacher showed him how art is a reflection of life, and life, as Guyton saw it, was really crazy.

One day he had his epiphany.

“It was like fireworks,” he said. “It felt like my head was on fire. I knew that my purpose in life was to create art.”

He had to choose between two approaches: Art to hang in galleries or art to use as a medicine to heal society.

That was an easy choice for Guyton. He would use art as a way to make changes.

tyree.house.2.jpg“Art has the power to make a difference,” he said. “It’s important to create bridges to connect people. There’s no limit to what can be done through art.”

For more than two decades, Guyton worked in his home area on Heidelberg Street to create an array of projects such as a house covered with painted dots and another with stuffed animals. A yard of vacuum cleaners. A parade of shoes. A brightly painted city bus.

The response was far from positive from many of his neighbors, but that fit in with his goals.

“I was glad to hear people respond,” he said. “Before that the neighborhood was quiet. I wanted to bring people together and interact.”

The magic of Guyton’s work, said Heidelberg Project executive director Jenenne Whitfield, is the dialogue that the art opens up.

What Guyton calls wacky, whimsical art works to make most visitors happy.

In recent years, Guyton has spent time outside of Detroit working on projects as far away as the Central Desert of Australia.

Guyton noted that people from small towns such as Morenci are hesitant to visit the neighborhoods of Detroit and, conversely, people from his neighborhood would be frightened of driving to Morenci.

He earlier spoke of the dot as a symbolism for life, the tendency of life to repeat again and again.

“Looking around tonight, I see that circle. It’s a medicine to connect people. Traveling around the world, I see how everything is connected. There’s a pattern to life. I see how things work together.”

He’s pleased with the connections created by his Heidelberg Project (“I bring the whole world there”) and he looks forward to making more connections around the planet.

Guyton was asked what he would like to do for a future project.

“If I had my way, I’d love to polka-dot the White House,” he said.

With that change, he added, he would have to rename it the People’s House.

• Community artwork created for Tyree Guyton’s visit will be displayed at the library through May.


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