Detroit artist inspires East Detroit students - 01/12/05
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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

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Daniel Mears / The Detroit News

Detroit's Heidelberg Street is home to Tyree Guyton's house and art project. His next project will be covering a house with pennies.

Detroit artist inspires East Detroit students

Teens provide pennies for Tyree Guyton's next project on Heidelberg

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Ankur Dholakia / The Detroit News

Artist Tyree Guyton, creator of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, talks to students at East Detroit High School about his artwork.

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EASTPOINTE -- Pennies turned precious at East Detroit High School when students offered them to Detroit artist Tyree Guyton for his latest project.

Guyton, famous for starting the controversial but critically acclaimed Heidelberg Project in Detroit, spoke last week with the students about the project and his latest effort.

"My next project is a house that we'll cover with pennies," Guyton told the students in the auditorium. "Can you visualize a house with 700,000 pennies (equal to $70,000) on it, right on Heidelberg Street?"

Apparently answering Guyton's question after the talk, several students solemnly offered Guyton handfuls of pennies from their pockets for the project.

Guyton said the new project -- "The House that Makes Cents" -- will serve as an office, residence and gallery. No pennies will be inside the house. Before decorating the exterior, the pennies will be placed on tiles. He wants the environment to affect the tiles, so the copper coins eventually weather to green.

Veronica Belf, an art teacher at East Detroit High School for 14 years, arranged for him to speak with the help of one of her students, Carlotta Diggs, an Eastpointe senior. One day Diggs asked Belf: "Do you know who Tyree Guyton is? He's my cousin." In fact, Guyton's work had influenced one of Belf's own art projects. So she asked Diggs if he would be interested in speaking to the students.

Before a question-and-answer session with Guyton, the students saw a video about The Heidelberg Project, its philosophy and controversy behind it. The project is located near Gratiot and Mount Elliott in Detroit, about eight miles south of Eastpointe. It's been an area, Guyton said, where no new homes have been built for 80 years, with lots of abandoned homes and crime. He asked himself how he could change it. He decided to turn the abandoned homes into works of art.

"Art can be anything you take and put some meaning to it, make it come alive, take it beyond itself, use it as a medicine to heal, to make you well again," he said.

Guyton has been decorating abandoned houses in his area since 1986. The decorations are unconventional, sometimes including large colorful polka dots or theme-related discards, such as hundreds of dolls or tires. In an area that he says is dark and gray, he adds bright colors and surprising combinations. Some have disagreed with Guyton's public artwork, and the city of Detroit has torn down some of his decorated buildings. However, people world-wide have come to see The Heidelberg Project, and Guyton recently returned from Sydney, Australia, after receiving a commission for artwork there.

Guyton said that when others told him as a kid that "artists were crazy," his grandfather, Sam Mackey, encouraged him to paint and study art.

"I remember the first time he gave me a paintbrush. It was like magic," he said.

His grandfather also told him about relatives who, as kids themselves, saw lynchings in the South and recalled seeing the soles of shoes in the trees. Those soles reminded him of the souls of slaves. So one of the trees in The Heidelberg Project is strewn with abandoned shoes as a memorial.

Several Eastpointe students who saw Guyton were affected by the presentation.

"I liked finding the meaning of his grandpa about the souls of the slaves," said senior Lea Wulbrecht, whose art classes include creative design, painting and photography.

"I've heard about it before," said senior Alex Konat about The Heidelberg Project. "The fact that he's overcome so much with his artwork destroyed and he keeps coming back, that's an inspiration."

Cindy Hampel is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.



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