'Dot Project' to put Heidelberg's trademark polka dots right on street

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroit city officials are giving their dot of approval to the Heidelberg Project.

On Tuesday, the Detroit City Council gave its OK to a project to paint large, permanent Heidelberg-style polka dots, a trademark of artist Tyree Guyton, down a half-mile stretch of Heidelberg Street from Mt. Elliott to McDougall on Detroit's east side. The street painting, appropriately named the Dot Project, will happen Aug. 5 to honor the longtime outdoor art installation.

"People around the world have appreciated Heidelberg for some time," said Rochelle Riley, Detroit's director of arts and culture, who played a key role in bringing the project together. "I have been out, during times, where I stopped in and bumped in to people from different states and countries. It's one of the cultural treasures of the city."

The Heidelberg Project features its trademark polka dot house. Now, Heidelberg Street will be painted with polka dots as part of a project approved by Detroit City Council on Tuesday.

The Dot Project comes amid big changes for the Heidelberg Project. Jenenne Whitfield, its longtime president and CEO, is leaving to take the helm of Baltimore's Visionary Art Museum in September. Whitfield, whose last day is July 31, calls the street painting the perfect goodbye before she leaves.

"It's another indicator we're here to stay," she said.

Guyton, Heidelberg's founder and Whitfield's husband, will stay in Detroit but split his time between here and Baltimore. Jessica Williams, a longtime Heidelberg employee who currently is its director of strategy and development, has been named the project's interim director. She starts Aug. 1.

The Dot Project marks the latest twist in the Heidelberg Project's complicated relationship with Detroit city officials and how much its evolved in the last four decades. Guyton started the outdoor installation known for not just for its polka dots, but stuffed animals and other found materials, in 1986 in Detroit's McDougall Hunt neighborhood.

Twice, city officials tore the project down but Guyton built it back. But an indication of peace happened last fall when Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan awarded Guyton a Lifetime Achievement Award.

"When the city was fighting us, the world was celebrating us," said Whitfield in an interview earlier this month. "There's a real irony in that."

The resolution Tuesday was approved by the nine-member Detroit City Council as part of a large batch of agenda items. It was their final meeting before they recess until Sept. 5. The Heidelberg Project will have to get permits for the Dot Project.

Whitfield said the street painting really seals Guyton's Lifetime Achievement Award and the goal is to get it done before she starts in Baltimore right after Labor Day. The dots will be permanent and will end adjacent to Heidelberg's headquarters on McDougall.

It's "a great sendoff," she said.