For 28 years the artist Tyree Guyton has been transforming the east side Detroit neighborhood where he grew up into a found-object sculpture landscape recognized around the world. The Heidelberg Project is named for the main street of artworks.
Tyree Guyton, artist and founder of Detroit's Heidelberg Project, is no stranger to calamity.
On two occasions in the 1990s, city bulldozers flattened abandoned houses — five, in all — that the idiosyncratic artist had "decorated" with found objects..
But nothing could have prepared Guyton, 59, for the events of the past 18 months, as shadowy arsonists torched six houses that he had meticulously worked into sculptures with his child-like, oddly beguiling art.
In the Book of Job, the beleaguered prophet — stripped of all he held dear — refused to curse the God who tolerated his afflictions. Similarly, despite losing much of his life's work, Guyton will not renounce his faith that the art is medicine to heal a distressed neighborhood.
"I refuse to give up," Guyton said.
That tenaciousness will be on vivid display starting Friday, when "Spirit" opens at Inner State Gallery at Eastern Market, Guyton's first solo show in three years. Among other works, the exhibit will feature a group of Guyton's signature car hoods, pulled from the ashes of the Nov. 28 fire at Heidelberg's War Room House.
"The story behind the hoods is one of the most important story lines of this exhibition," said Inner State co-founder and director Jesse Cory. "It's a story of struggle and survival. Each of those hoods was salvaged from a 1999 city demolition, painted, and then nearly destroyed again in a fire. It's like the nine lives of a cat. Now they're repainted, again."
Guyton launched the Heidelberg Project in 1986 with his first wife, Karen, and his grandfather, artist Sam Mackey, as an act of artistic protest to spotlight the blight and abandonment in the east side neighborhood around Heidelberg Street and Mt. Elliott where Guyton grew up.
Explaining his tenacity, Guyton says, "I hear my Grandpa Mackey, the last night he was alive. He said, 'Son, don't you stop — no matter what happens.'"
Guyton says the identity of the arsonist, or arsonists, remains a mystery.
"I wish I knew," he said. "I've heard so many things. It's been said that I was probably doing it. I've heard it all. I've heard it's a conspiracy, somebody wants the land. But the only thing I'm listening to is what's in me, and that says, 'Don't you stop.' "
As for the hoods that will star in Friday night's show, Guyton insists he's delighted with what the conflagration did to the dozens he'd stored in the War Room House.
"The fire, along with the elements, created a rust-like effect on the hoods," he said, "and I decided I'd play with that. It's a way of seeing the magic that came out of the fire."
"Magic" might be a little strong, but there's more positive energy going on at the project itself, denuded of most of its houses, than you might think.
The O.J. House (for "Obstruction of Justice") burned to the ground one year ago. But the evidence of the fire, as with all the lost houses, has been carted away. The house's foundation now hosts a cheerful new installation, an encircling wall piled high with found objects from teddy bears to what the artist always calls "baby dolls."
And just half a block away on Elba, a new frame structure with its roof set at a rakish angle has risen from the ashes of the House of Soul, which burned Nov. 12. Built by UAW volunteers over the past several weeks, the new House of Soul is designed to be a mobile installation that will be able to travel.
"Tyree's one of my heroes — one man with a paint brush trying to make a difference," said Joe Auito, the Chrysler engineer who organized this urban barn-raising. "Every time something happens down there, it's devastating. But Tyree's always upbeat about it."
Guyton's spirit may strike some as uncanny, even a bit nuts. One might well ask why he doesn't walk away from the beleaguered project he's tended for decades. (City officials cited health and safety concerns in razing the abandoned houses years ago and no one has ever been charged in the more recent spate of fires.) But Omari Miller, an MTV associate producer from New York touring Heidelberg one recent Friday, said he thinks he gets it.
"If I had a 28-year-old baby," Miller said, "I don't think I'd give up on it."
Artist Tim Burke, whose own house in the middle of the project burned Sept. 18, frames the issue as one of giving into your attackers, or fighting back. "You can't roll over and just die," he said. "You basically say to the person who did it, 'Bug off. I'm not going to let you stop me.' If you do stop," he adds, "well, then you're done."
Mame Jackson, professor emerita of art history at Wayne State University, has been involved with Heidelberg from the very start, serving for 10 years on the project's board of directors. She calls Guyton's upbeat response to the onslaught "magnificent — and it's not like he hasn't gone through a lot of pain."
But Jackson argues there's more than just fighting back going on.
"I think Tyree sees his role from a higher level," she said. "It's interesting how resilient he's been, but it's not just resilience in the face of brutality. It embodies a larger view — thinking about art as a process rather than a precious object. You can wreck the physical thing," she added, "but you can't wreck the spirit."
Guyton, who's been reading a lot of Plato and Nietzsche over the past year, gives the question a metaphysical twist.
"The fires have given me new eyes to see deeper," he said. "I feel like — what else can you do to me? You can kill the body, but my spirit is going to live on."
'Tyree Guyton — Spirit'
Through Nov. 15
Opening reception: 7 p.m.-10 p.m. tonight
Inner State Gallery, 1410 Gratiot, Detroit