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