Admirers bid farewell to Heidelberg HQ in Midtown

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Breezing through the Heidelberg Project’s headquarters and gallery in Midtown Detroit on Friday evening, scores of guests instantly spotted dazzling colors, images and shapes.

A steady crowd descended there to attend “Steppin’ Out,” a celebration and alley exhibition marking the site’s upcoming relocation from the building on Watson that housed its administrative, meeting, gallery and studio space since 2009. Officials also are prepping the next phase in the iconic outdoor art exhibit that attracts thousands of visitors to its home on the city’s east side.

For many of the well-wishers, admirers and supporters who long have eyed its evolution, greeting founder Tyree Guyton and glimpsing his work was another chance to honor a creative vision that has left a lasting impact.

DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons, left, was among scores who visited Friday to wish Heidelberg Project founder Tyree Guyton well.

“It’s kind of the end but it’s going to be a new beginning,” Ozie Norman, a Detroit-based artist, said as he stood amid an array of art pieces. “The legacy is still being told.”

Through Sunday, the event offers a last look at the Midtown spot, which also was the residence of Guyton and his wife, Jenenne Whitfield, the nonprofit’s president and CEO.

Once surrounded by vacant and run-down structures, the property now is nestled amid new development. Reflecting the shifting neighborhood and rising real-estate, the building was listed at $1.2 million and sold in December. Whitfield this week said Heidelberg tried to buy it “but the realities of the market are beyond the reach of our non-profit arts organization.”

The offices are now headed to temporary digs on the city’s east side, representatives said. Eventually, the goal is “to end up right back where we started,” Whitfield said.

This weekend’s sendoff — a collaboration between Heidelberg and Inner State Galleries — doubled as a meet-and-greet with Guyton and an opportunity to gain more of his work.

Attendees bought some of the many pieces comprising “Giant Steps,” the artist’s installation depicting huge shoes in varying hues attached to a three-story building next door.

The diverse visitors also toured the studio and glimpsed an assortment of his prolific output: colorfully distinctive artwork incorporating maps, doll parts, silverware, even electronics.

Some of the displays were a nod to the suspicious fires that have plagued the project Guyton started in 1986. Near one corner, families and even dogs passed a sizable metal segment adorned with a yellow-outlined face that had been a flat portrait before flames transformed it into a freestanding piece.

“The fire took it to another level,” Guyton said, adding: “My job as an artist is to create a visual — something I can share with the world.”

Those creations lured Shannon Ramelot of Detroit, who had admired the project since visiting with her family from the suburbs.

“I’ve been a fan of this artist for a long time,” she said while in front of a green-painted block. “It’s really important.”

As the sun set on an unusually warm Friday evening and jazz music filled the space, many devotees surrounded Guyton or paused to examine his art.

Among them was Elayne Gross, a longtime supporter from Oak Park. Like her father, she loved photographing the Heidelberg. “It’s history,” she said.

The move and celebration comes months after Guyton announced he would begin the long process of dismantling freestanding parts of the open-air Heidelberg Project. Officials have said they plan to transform the effort into an arts-focused neighborhood.

After 30 years, Guyton said, “It’s time to change. It’s time to go deeper. ... The best is yet to come. I’m excited.”