Artist Tim Burke leaves Heidelberg Street, explains rift with Guyton

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Detroit — The other artist on Heidelberg Street has sold his exuberantly ramshackle house and moved on. That would be Tim Burke, the one who doesn't paint internationally famous polka dots.

Tim Burke poses with one of his scrap-and-spare-parts robots, installed on Fort Street  near Griswold in downtown Detroit.

So: Anybody need 10 leftover tons of granite from the Detroit Institute of Arts?

Burke spent 18 years across the street and in the shadow of Tyree Guyton and the Heidelberg Project.

Along the way, he became friends with Guyton, married, had a daughter, gave neighborhood tours, found hand-written letters from Rosa Parks in a trash bin, had a falling out with Guyton, and repurposed chunks of some of Detroit's most iconic destroyed buildings.

Artist Tim Burke kneels next to 10 tons of granite that he received from the DIA ten years ago. The granite sits behind his former Detroit home, across the street from the Heidelberg Project.

Tiles from a demolished YMCA became jewelry. Slate from a fire-gutted Fisher mansion became tabletops. Charred timbers from the Studebaker factory became towering totems. If you have vision and nerve and you can beat the bulldozers, the city is 139 square miles of art supplies.

But after 18 years on Heidelberg, Burke has closed his chapter with the house he actually copyrighted as the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

Tim Burke's  former home at 3647 Heidelberg Street.

Repainted frequently and boldly, its final incarnation has a fuchsia front with an aqua door and lime green sides. Lettered in white on the facade, an emphatic 15 times, is an annoyed advisory for tourists: "This is not the Heidelberg Project."

Within days after the sale was finalized a few weeks ago, the words "not" and "Heidelberg" had been painted over. An unknown hand with an obvious affiliation had spray-painted "Sold" dozens of times on the wooden slat fences and side walls. Encircled in some of the Os was a happy face.

"I'm Tim Burke," the seller says, "with my own identity." He insists that being eclipsed didn't bother him; what grated were things like a promotional video for Heidelberg that showed Guyton strolling past Burke's house as though it was part of the installation.

Some of the art work that Tim Burke created is still on the property of his former home at 3647 Heidelberg Street.

The Heidelberg connection

Burke, 58, is friendly and curious, white-bearded, maybe 5-foot-8, with a fondness for skullcaps and bandanas that make him look like a genial pirate. He's primarily a sculptor, sometimes in wood, but mostly with scrap metal and spare parts.

The creations he calls his "robots" — think Easter Island Industrial, with big, colorful heads made from gas tanks and such — stand guard at places like a Fort Street bus stop downtown and the Lafayette Greens urban garden a few blocks away.

He builds furniture, too, mostly tables and benches, and paints on antique plat maps of the city. He says his old work is still for sale,  and he kept his tools, so don't give up on him.

His family lives in a smallish rental in Grosse Pointe Woods, though, which leaves little room for heavy welding, and he wants to try writing a book. Leaving sculpture behind probably doesn't gash as large a hole in the art world as it should — but it creates an opportunity for the Heidelberg Project, which Burke once embraced but came to resent.

Heidelberg 3.0, the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that began with Guyton and a few buckets of paint, involves turning the area into an art collective.

Burke bought his 720-square-foot house at 3647 Heidelberg from an artist friend at the turn of the millennium. Once the deed passes from the new buyer to Guyton's organization, maybe other artists will occupy the property.

It's highly unlikely, however, anyone will match Burke's talent, persistence and formerly strong back as a salvager of history from torched or demolished places. And few beside Guyton, whose installations were bulldozed twice by the city, can match his perseverance.

"I should have walked away when the house was set on fire," Burke says. That was 2014, three years after he began using it solely as a studio and gallery and about the time the Heidelberg Project was dealing with an epidemic of arson.

The roof was never fixed and looks like a Tyrannosaurus took a bite out of the crown. The floor is bowed. The city had started writing him tickets, one of the reasons he finally decided to sell.

But there's Pewabic tile in the bathroom that Burke didn't have time to chisel out. And outside, spread across the three other lots he bought from the city for $500 apiece? There lie treasures.

And OK, some junk. Bricks, wood scraps, general debris. But treasures, too.

In the old days, "we'd trade trash," he says. Burke wound up with a haul of faux body parts when Mario's Mannequins closed, and Guyton nailed some of them to a house. Guyton tossed out a metal S&H Green Stamps sign, and Burke fashioned it into a skirt for one of his robots, which he says sell for as much as $5,000.

What ultimately came between them, in Burke's telling, was a dinner tray. Guyton pitched it, and Burke plucked it. Ultimately, he put it on eBay with the back story. Maybe it would have been OK if he'd heard grousing from Guyton, Burke says, but instead, he heard from a lawyer.

'A good choice'

In fairness, while Heidelberg pairs a husband and wife — Guyton and CEO Jenenne Whitfield — it's no longer a mom-and-pop. It's a famous nonprofit with a budget of more than $650,000, and things aren't as simple as they used to be.

"I think Tim made a good choice" to give up on the block, Whitfield says.

She owns some of Burke's work and displays it in her home, she says. But when he put up a stockade-like fence a few years ago, with telephone poles for posts, she saw that as a rejection of the openness she and Guyton push for.

"Then you plaster all over, 'This is not Heidelberg,'" she says. "What the heck are you doing here, then?"

Burke had purchased the house for $25,000 on a land contract. Two blocks south on Benson Street, without Heidelberg's cachet, a house twice the size with an intact roof is estimated on to be worth $29,000. 

Burke's asking price was $399,000, art included. The selling price was $115,000, paid by a Heidelberg Project patron who lives in a $1.3 million home in Vermont. The art and artifacts weren't part of the deal, and Burke could take or leave whatever he chose.

He lugged away what he could: A terra cotta fleur-de-lis from the Lafayette Building, now the site of the urban garden occupied by four of his robots. A capstone from the Eastown Theater. Pieces of the facade of the Gratiot Central Market that toppled into a pit of meat after a fire in June 1995, and imagine what it was like to retrieve them in the heat a few weeks later.

With every truckload, there were memories. Triumphs and troubles. Tumbled buildings.

Wayne State professor Jim Brown likes the "human element he brings to his work," the way Burke sees importance in discards. But Brown, an assemblage and collage exhibitor for decades, also understands that not every artist's passion turns to prosperity.

"I think he deserves more attention," says Brown, the school's coordinator of visual arts education.

Carved, elongated cats are among Tim Burke's signature pieces.

Time to write book

If there's a road to at least minor riches for Burke, his wife, Rosa, and their 8-year-old, Emily, it's paved with something far lighter than 65 black granite rectangles from the outside wall of the DIA.

Burke first saw one of them in pieces in a dumpster, a strong sign that they were ultimately going to be thrown out. He leaped in to retrieve it, and a security guard told him to leap the heck out before the next chunk hit him in the head.

A 2005 renovation had the DIA adding insulation and a vapor barrier to its north and south wings. With the improvements in place, the granite no longer fit.

Ultimately, Burke bought 70 intact slabs from the demolition company for $10 apiece. They're 42 by 35 inches apiece, two inches thick, and 300 pounds.

At a point when he was making $11 an hour, he paid Guyton's late brother, Pops, $10 an hour to help unload them. He has since used five. The others he left behind, as much as it hurt: no way to lift them, no place to put them.

Whitfield says she doesn't know what she'll do with the granite, the reddish small-scale Stonehenge made from pieces of Detroit's original First Unitarian Church, or the rest of Burke's artistic residue. Officially, the Heidelberg Project doesn't even own the property yet, and she has more immediate issues to ponder.

As for Burke, it's out of his hands.

In his hands, as Rosa helps Emily with her homework at the kitchen table one recent night, is a chatty letter from the mother of the civil rights movement to her mom.

Burke insists that he has never plundered for profit — copper pipes, or the rest of what passes for building strippers' currency. He says that rather than chip away at a standing structure, he has waited years until it comes down. But the things people leave behind or throw away are astonishing.

Demolition permits from Corktown in the 1960s. Photos of homes the city plans to scrape to put up the Brewster-Douglass housing projects, justifying the condemnation. Ten thousand negatives of Detroit Jewish life from 1947-68. Documents, pictures, maps.

Two letters and three postcards from Parks.

He found them in the trash outside the Catholic school where she had an art academy. They're mostly chatty, unlike one unearthed elsewhere describing the 1957 bombing of a minister's house in Montgomery, Alabama. That piece sold at auction in August for $9,375.

Tim Burke, 59, stands in front of his former home at 3647 Heidelberg Street in Detroit. Burke is an artist who, like his neighbor Tyree Guyton, uses a lot of found objects in his art.

Burke doesn't know what his are worth. He doesn't know whether he wants to sell them. He's certain it was providence that led him to them and to much of what he's found.

That's part of what he wants to write about, instead of spending his days with statues. He already has the title for the book, based on the clue that has directed him so many times: "God Smells Like Mold."

He realizes it's a weighty subject, but he once moved 10 tons of granite. He's used to heavy things.