Guyton creates in Philadelphia, renovates in Detroit
World-renowned artist finishes major work in Philadelphia, while Heidelberg 3.0 progresses in Detroit with first major renovation project
It’s a season of reinvestment and change at the Heidelberg Project, which only three years ago — after a long string of arson attacks — looked like it might be on its last legs.
Instead, the project is renovating one of two remaining original structures, the “Numbers House,” with more big plans in the works. And founder Tyree Guyton just wrapped up his largest project to date outside Detroit — “The Times” — in which he adorned a warehouse in a derelict part of Philadelphia with his signature clocks.
“The world is calling me now,” Guyton said, “but Detroit gave me the foundation. So like a baby bird, I’m going to fly out into the world.”
The artist stresses that while he may do more work elsewhere, he’s not abandoning the sprawling, outdoor installation at Mt. Elliott and Heidelberg on Detroit’s east side that’s been a tourist draw — and source of controversy — ever since its founding 31 years ago.
“I can do two things at once,” Guyton said with a smile. “And Jenenne,” Guyton’s wife and Heidelberg president and CEO, “will take over the project.”
Jenenne Whitfield, who’s long been a key part of running the arts nonprofit, will manage Heidelberg on a day-to-day basis, freeing up Guyton for more of his own work.
Heidelberg raised $110,000 over the last year to rehab the “Numbers House,” which will ultimately house a studio and gallery for emerging artists, and quarters for an expanded artist-in-residence program.
“Tyree and I have had a vision to renovate this area since 1996,” Whitfield said. “One might ask why it’s taken so long, but the fact that we’ve hung in there shows our sustainability and commitment to Detroit.”
Guyton’s Philadelphia enterprise, by contrast, involved collaborating with Mural Arts Philadelphia, the nonprofit that’s famously covered walls all over the City of Brotherly Love with high-quality street art.
Located in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, “The Times” was one of 20 projects sponsored by Mural Arts that explored what monuments are appropriate for the city today.
Guyton’s completed installations outside Detroit before, but surely never in a neighborhood whose distress far exceeds that found around Heidelberg.
“Kensington is a really interesting area, but it’s the Philadelphia epicenter of the heroin and opioid crises,” said Jane Golden, Mural Arts’ executive director.
“It’s infested with drugs and the walking dead,” Guyton said. “My job was to put new life into the community, and Heidelberg prepared me for something like this.”
So Guyton covered a four-story brick warehouse with his trademark clock paintings, whimsical timepieces that often lack hands or have numbers that run backwards.
The artist ferried two SUV’s full of art to the site, and locals in the area — including those from a nearby veterans’ center — pitched in during “summer paint days” to create their own clocks.
“The Times” was formally dedicated in mid-October, and Golden said it’s helped residents read the building and its environs in a completely new light — which was precisely the point.
“The veterans and others were able to identify both with the art and with Tyree,” she said, “and in the process the building became monumental.”
Golden adds she was thrilled to have Guyton on board.
“I’m fascinated with the Heidelberg Project,” she said. “I’d never seen anything like it. So when Tyree and Jenenne came to Philadelphia, I felt like I was meeting celebrities.”
Meanwhile, back on the Heidelberg block that started it all, the interior of the “Numbers House” has been stripped down to the studs in advance of a redesign by Detroit’s Laavu architects, who did the restaurant Gold Cash Gold, among other projects. But work has temporarily been halted due to the extreme weather that hit the southeast this summer.
“The metal roof is delayed because of the hurricanes,” Whitfield said. “We were hoping it would be on by end of October, but now we’re hoping it’ll be on by winter.”
It’s another bump in the road for a scrappy organization that’s weathered more than its share. But Guyton and Whitfield wear their scars proudly.
“Through it all — the demolitions by the city, and then the fires — we’re still relevant,” Whitfield said.
“People are still coming. We can’t control the crowds. And now we’re renovating our first structure. It’s taken a long time,” she added, “but it’s happening.”