Greener Schools visits Heidelberg Project

May 5, 2011

DETROIT -- Approximately 35 students from the Detroit Institute of Technology and the Detroit Community School took a guided tour of Detroit's world-renown outdoor art exhibit the Heidelberg Project on January 14 on the city's East side. The students, who are also taking part in the East Michigan Environmental Action Council's "Ugliest School Yard Competition" under the Greener School Program, not only got to see and learn the history behind the colorful array of artwork now decorating an entire block on the street for which the project was named, they also had an opportunity to meet the man whose visions inspired it all, Dr. Tyree Guyton.

"I think it was overall really great," said EMEAC's Greener Schools Program Director Elizabeth Baskerville. "Having Tyree speak was really important. I think being able to explore spaces that are in Detroit is really important. People come from all over the world to come here, and people who live here don't even know that it's here. I think there's something wrong with that."

The Heidelberg Project came about in 1987 when Guyton, his former wife Karen and his late grandfather Sam Mackey began their unique reclaimation project. Motivated by the blight that enveloped the formerly integrated middle class neighborhood in the aftermath of the Detroit riots of the late 1960's, Guyton and his assistants began decorating abandoned crack houses with discarded materials found around the neighborhood. The project eventually expanded to the entire block and earned noteriety in artistic circles for its unique approach to art.

The symbolism of taking someone else's trash and turning into treasure was lost on many political leaders of Detroit at the time. Despite many awards and acclaim garnered by the Heidelberg Project, Guyton's vision of the neighborhood was at least partially demolished in 1991 and 1999. Guyton stood before the Greener Schools students in a fully restored and expanded version of his vision on a snowy Friday and spoke from experience about the power of believing in your dreams.

"I came up with this idea because I believe we are all put here for a specific reason and I found my purpose for being here in life," said Guyton. "I would have to say that the creator of the universe gave me this vision for me to share with the world. So, here it is.
Once again, I'm going to repeat it again. What is art today? How do we educate knowing we can't go back? How do we redefine what our community should look like and be? We're redefining that."

Both DIT and DCS were winners of Greener School's 2010 Ugliest School Yard Competition, which centers around the same transformative ideals. The most recent field trip to see the Heidelberg Project should give those students a leg up to keeping that distinction in 2011 according to Baskerville.

"These two classes have been studying landscape design with a University of Michigan post graduate Landscape Architecture Ph.D. student M'Lis Barlett and Dr. Beth Diamond. They were learning about how you can transfer concepts of culture and identity onto a landscape," Baskerville said. "We have been talking about different parks and things like that. Then we watched a movie about the Hidelberg Project.

"One person had been here before because he lived down the street, but most of the students -- who live in the Detroit -- had never been here before. So, this was just an great opportunity for them to come here and check out all this amazing art that has completely changed the landscape of this neighborhood."

One of the people directly influenced by Guyton's work and vision is DCS art instructor Kaieteur Claxton, who once met Guyton by happenstance as a 12-year-old during a trip to Brazil. Claxton brought a snap shot of that chance meeting and showed it to his students during Guyton's presentation to the students.

"Growing up as a student, you really don't have the knowledge and the awareness about what is really good for you and what isn't," he said. "Indirectly, (Dr. Guyton) didn't know he was a part of my world, but I can see it now. Right now, I see myself as that same student. Now, I see my students listening to him and listening to me.
"I just wanted to let them know that in due time when they are confronted with real knowleldge -- no matter what age you are at -- you will learn. I just took a class recently and my instructor was a very knowledgeable fellow from Nigeria. He said, 'Everybody will learn in the knowledge that they are picking up. Everybody is capable of demonstrating some knowledge that they are picking up. It may be in doing, or it may be in thinking about it; but everybody is not going to learn it at the same time. Everybody is capable of learning.'

"I remember and maintain everything that my advisor, who was in that same picture that I showed everybody, was trying to show me. It came just now nine years later. I said I know I've met him and I've got to find his picture. I wanted to point Dr. Guyton out, so he can continue what he's doing. Then the children can understand that we've been where they are so they will continue what they are doing."

To the Greener School's students who braved the snow to participated in the Heidelerg Field Trip, the transformative messages can no doubt be the inspiration to transforming their schools and community -- if not themselves -- in the future.

"I think one of the most evident messages to come out of the Heidelberg Project is that this is created almost entirely by one man's energy," said Laurie Robinson of the Heidelberg project who acted as tour guide for the field trip. "This is raw. This is low budget. We see pieces of our society that had been relegated to the trash heap. We see a community and people in a community that had been relegated to the same type of situation that these discarded remnants of our society had been. I don't want to say that people were relegated to the trash heap. That hurts my heart personally, but there are people who would say that's exactly what's happened to this community.

"What Dr. Guyton has done by the exemplifying the 'Souls of the Most High' and 'The Installation which were based on his grandfather's recollections of horrific things that he had seen as a young man. He learned how to make a history that will benefit his grandson. He created the inspiration that exists here now."

"I want (the students) to really be able to think about what that means and take some of the ideas here and see if they can transfer that out to their own school," Baskerville added. "They'll be designing an outdoor space at their school, and I think they were very inspired by Tyree speaking today. I think they get it now. Before they kind of got, but I think now they really get it. I think they'll be more inspired to put their own kind of flavor to their own designs. I'm really excited about that."