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The Heidelberg Project: Folk Art in Detroit Michigan

Found Object Folk Art on the Streets of Detroit

by Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder


"Son, don't stop."

Those were the last words spoken by Sam Mackey to his grandson Tyree Guyton. They were words not soon forgotten by Tyree, the face behind the colorful city blocks found in the East side of Detroit.

Sam Mackey, born in 1897, was a house painter and at the urging of his grandson Tyree, he began to draw when he was nearly 90. By the time of his death in June of 1992, Sam had created no less than 2000 pieces. Many of his crayon images appealed to an international audience and today can be found in the collections of lovers in USA, France and Switzerland.

Grandpa Sam greatly influenced the life of Tyree Guyton. When Grandpa put a paintbrush in (then eight year old) Tyree's hand, he fostered in the youngster the idea that with paint, he would be able to transform any object in his surroundings. Tyree has been painting ever since.

Tyree Guyton was one of 10 raised by his mother on Heidelberg Street, in the east end of Detroit. In 1967, while in his early teens, he saw the impact of the riots that tore apart entire neighborhoods. Poverty was no stranger to Tyree. Watching his Mother searching for useful objects and ways to make ends meet for the family left a lasting impression.

After serving in the U.S army for two years and working at various jobs, Tyree could not forget his desire for creating art. So with the support and encouragement of Sam Mackey, Tyree decided to make art. In 1986, along with his friend (later wife) Karen and his Grandpa Sam, Tyree began the colossal job of not only creating art, but at the same time reclaiming his neighborhood. The Heidelberg Project was born.

Taking abandoned and drug infested houses on Heidelberg Street, the three visionaries began collecting objects of all sorts, like shoes, old bicycles, vacuum cleaners and any kind of discarded junk you can imagine. In a very short time city blocks of trees and houses were covered in a colorful array of items. Bit by bit a long streets of outdoor art began to appear. Eventually, the Heidelberg Project attracted enough attention to drive the drug dealers out of the area as thousands of people started to drive by the strange new street gallery. Tyree's canvases consisted of empty lots, streets, houses, trees, utility poles and abandoned vehicles. It was wonderful!

Despite this ambitious effort to clean up the neighborhood and instill pride in the many children of the area, the Heidelberg project had many problems with the city fathers. More than once the bulldozers were sent into take down the beautifully decorated buildings. But Tyree never gave up. Today, years later the kids from the neighborhood who have grown up with the Heidelberg Project, continue to work on it and wish to protect it. Tyree has instilled in hundreds of youngsters the same desire his own grandfather gave him - to take back the neighborhoods, the places they call home and to take pride in their achievements.

Studies indicate the Heidelberg Project is the third most popular tourist attraction in the city of Detroit
The Heidelberg Project faced battle after battle as Tyree and his supporters fought those who wished to tear Heidelburg down. Let's hope that the ever growing living outdoor/indoor art gallery will live on.

Tyree Guyton, we - your supporters - collectively repeat the words of your Grandpa Sam,

“Son, don't stop.”

One outstanding effort taking back the neighborhood, we salute you Tyree Guyton.

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Text © Jantje Blokhuis-Mulder; Photos Reprinted with Permission

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