Heidelberg artist approaches home decor like his art

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Step inside the three-bedroom apartment that iconic Detroit artist Tyree Guyton shares with his wife, Jenenne Whitfield, and you’d likely be surprised.

The man known for nailing stuffed animals to houses and painting them with polka dots at the Heidelberg Project doesn’t like clutter.

If anything, the decor is minimal. White walls showcase not just Guyton’s bold, colorful art but sculptures, portraits and walking sticks the couple has collected from around the world. And everything has a place.

“This is who we are. This is our home,” says Whitfield, Guyton’s spouse of 17 years who also serves as Heidelberg’s chief executive officer. “It’s like this. For a junk artist, he is so meticulous. His shoes are spit-shined. His house and his space have this amazing order.”

Guyton and Whitfield’s apartment, to which they moved a year ago after renting a large loft in Midtown for many years, reflects a different side of Guyton’s personality. Located in the Colonial Building in Detroit’s West Village, it’s right next door to the corporate offices for the Heidelberg Project.

Whitfield says they moved to the Colonial after the building they had been living in for many years was sold. Word got out that the couple needed a new space to live and work and a friend of a friend introduced the couple to Colonial owner Jason Hill, who has been restoring the 1901 building. It has eight units — six primary units and two at the garden level.

“He (Hill) found us,” says Whitfield. “We didn’t know where we were going to go.”

Now they’ve found a place to both live and work. And while it may be only temporary — they’re in the process of buying a new building on Heidelberg Street where they may live — Whitfield says they may keep the apartment when and if they do move just as a “hideaway.”

“We like it here,” Whitfield says.

Guyton, who Whitfield says handled 65 to 70 percent of the decorating, says his approach to home decor in some ways is very similar to how he approaches his art.

“I’ve learned to listen. You listen to the space,” says Guyton. “And it has a way of telling you. And that’s where I’m at in my way of creating. That’s part of my process. I hear it and then I create it.”

Still, Guyton says if he had his way, the apartment would have more color.

“I love art and I love color,” says Guyton. “If I had my way it would be real colorful in here.”

But even with white walls, color already plays a role throughout the couple’s decor through their art. So does symbolism. Each piece tells a story and is often a metaphor for the couple’s lives and careers.

In the large front sitting room where Whitfield says they often entertain guests, a sculpture that came from the Heidelberg Project itself is perched between two antique chairs. It was burned in one of the many arson fires that has plagued the art installation in recent years.

“That’s the million dollar piece,” says Whitfield. “When you look at it closely, it represents the 30-year struggle. It represents the stress. The layers of what we’ve gone through. And the fire burned it into a free-standing sculpture.”

“It’s an analogy for life,” says Whitfield.

Two more sculptures flank the burned sculpture — one by Frank Dooley and another by Jason Huffines, or Doormouse, a Detroit artist. Nearby, built-in bookshelves display Guyton’s book collection, which includes books on everything from meditation to “Moby Dick.” A taxi is perched on a shelf.

“I collect taxis because the whole world is coming here,” he says. “Take a taxi to the Heidelberg Project!”

Whitfield and Guyton first met in 1993. The first time Whitfield saw the Heidelberg Project, she rolled down her window and said, “What in the hell is all this?” Sitting on a nearby curb, Guyton told her to get out and check it out.

“That’s how it started,” she remembers.

A year later, she left 14 years in banking to work with Guyton. And they were total opposites, says Whitfield.

“Everything was opposite,” says Whitfield. “I was from the west side, he was from the east. I was in banking, he was an artist. And boy, were we like fire and water. And then that started to blend.”

They married in 2001. Settling into a new home has come while the Heidelberg Project itself is also at a crossroads. After a string of devastating arson fires, Guyton is in the process of dismantling the project and drawing up sketches for the installation’s next evolution, called Heidelberg 3.0.

In his light-filled studio at the back of their apartment, drawings, or studies, scatter over a table while Whitfield’s vast collection of plants suck in light in a large bay window. Guyton starts with small drawings, which Whitfield puts into photo albums, and then increases in scale to bigger ones.

There’s no specific timeline for the next phase of Heidelberg — which will include art installation buildings which will also have programming inside — but Guyton is working on drawings.

Next to the studio is Whitfield’s office, the master bedroom and then what Guyton calls his “man cave.”

Downstairs is a quaint separate area with two bedrooms and a kitchenette that serves as a space for guests to unwind and stay. Guyton, Whitfield and Hill, the landlord, collaborated on the decor, which has a contemporary spin accented by not just Guyton’s art but artwork from his grandfather Sam Mackey. Mackey gave Guyton his first paintbrush and started painting himself at the age of 88.

Whitfield says she’s learned a lot from Guyton about decorating or at least displaying art — the way you arrange art, balance and blending colors.

“You don’t crowd” art, she says.

Still, their art collection is a mix of pieces from both of them. It includes photographs Whitfield has collected along with her unique walking stick collection, collected from places all over the world.

“This is a mutt,” she says with a laugh, referring to their decor and their organic approach. “There would never be an interior decorator.”

Guyton says it’s about having fun.

“I do what makes me happy,” he says.


(313) 223-4686

Twitter: @mfeighan