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Tyree Guyton - Biography and Legacy

American Urban Environment Artist, Outsider Artist, Painter, Mixed Media and Installation Artist

Born: August 24, 1955 - Detroit, Michigan

Biography of Tyree Guyton

Early Life

Tyree Guyton was one of ten children, born to George Guyton and Betty Solomon Guyton. He was raised on Heidelberg Street in east Detroit by his mother and elder siblings. He recalled that his neighborhood had been "really beautiful, with well-kept houses on all the lots and happy kids playing in the street". But that changed abruptly in 1967 when race riots spread across the city leaving 43 dead, hundreds injured, and some 2,000 buildings vandalized or destroyed by fire. Many residents and local businesses abandoned their homes and premises and headed to the suburbs. Those who remained became the poor and disenfranchised and drug and gang culture duly took hold. Guyton recalls that "Clothes, furniture, everything came from a secondhand store or was given to us. On the floor we had squares of linoleum. On the sofa were stripes. On a chair there were polka dots. Nothing matched, but my mother made it work".

Guyton's grandfather, Sam "Grandpa" Mackey, who worked as a house painter, was the most inspirational figure in Tyree's life. Mackey often took the young Guyton to visit the Detroit Institute of the Arts and presented his grandson with his first paintbrush when he was nine years old; "I felt as if I was holding a magic wand", the artists said later. Guyton recalls with fond humor that the rest of his family "felt that art was for white people, and crazy people. Homosexuals and folks who smoke dope. And I said, 'I want to hang out with those people' ". He attended Northern High School and took adult art classes at high schools and colleges in Detroit, including the Center for Creative Studies, the Franklin Adult Education Program, and Marygrove College. His most influential teacher was American multi-media artist Charles McGee, who first encouraged him to turn to abstraction and the use of found objects.

The five-day riots of July 1967 significantly impacted on Guyton. The city swarmed with military troops and tanks, and for the young Guyton, it felt like "the world was coming to an end". When he finished high school, he enlisted in the army, mostly because Detroit's unemployment rate was so high. After two years in service, he returned home and worked as an inspector for the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn; as a firefighter with the Detroit fire department; and as an art teacher at his old high school. All the while he continued to paint in his downtime.

Early Career

While Guyton's <i>Heidelberg Project</i> was a labor of love, many city officials and local residents found it appalling, and considered it to be an eyesore made of trash.

Back in Detroit in 1986, Guyton found Heidelberg Street (as with many parts of the of the city) much changed, due largely to a sharp upturn in drug-related crime. He decided to use art to improve the area which he did by creating a massive installation, reminiscent of the "Visionary Environments" (that is, large-scale immersive, architectural installations often made of found objects that do not conform to any "traditional" art historical architectural style). Guyton founded the Heidelberg Project with wife, Karen Smith, and "Grandpa" Mackey. Various elements of the project involved hanging shoes from trees, painting run-down, vacant houses and vehicles with bold patterns, and creating whimsical outdoor installations. In 1988 the Heidelberg Project started to receive national attention from publications such as People and Newsweek magazines. Explaining the project to People magazine, Guyton offered, "I had no plans. It just happened. I heard a voice, and I did what the voice told me".

In 1990 Guyton held his first one man shows at the Detroit Institute of Arts. The following year, Guyton and his first wife, Karen, were invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show to talk about the Heidelberg Project. To his surprise (and alarm), the show was not about neighborhood attractions at all, but rather, neighborhood nuisances. A local resident, Otila Bell, berated Guyton on national television for vandalizing an area in which he no longer lived and for creating "garbage". The media exposure led to a sharp increase in the number of visitors to Heidelberg, including the current mayor, Coleman Young. Guyton believed Young's involvement would act as an endorsement but under the mayor's instruction the city sent bulldozers, police, and even helicopters, to demolish the project. Having taken four years to construct, the Heidelberg Project was razed in less than an hour. Young told Guyton he was just "trying to make the people happy" to which Guyton replied, "in making the people happy, he was giving the people exactly what they were already living with: nothing".

What followed was a series of personal setbacks. Soon after the "Heidelberg Street incident", Guyton's grandfather passed away (and was buried in a casket painted with polka dots by Guyton), then, in 1993, one of his brothers died from complications due to AIDS, and, in 1994, his nephew was shot and killed. To compound his misery, his wife left him. Guyton was at such a low point in his life he spent a night pointing a .25 automatic pistol to his head. His will to live won out, however, and he set to work on renewing activity in the Heidelberg Project with the help of the newly appointed Jenenne Whitfield as an Executive Director.

Indeed, in 1994 the Project relaunched through its first "official" street festival with legendary Motown singer, Martha Reeves, performing with a Spanish Marching Band and the following year Guyton created the Obstruction of Justice House (O. J. House) as a response to the infamous O. J. Simpson murder trial. The LA Times wrote: "The Simpson case represents many of the issues Guyton has addressed in all his work, and the O.J. House is about more than one man's guilt or innocence. It is about violence, pain, children, issues of race and justice, the media. The five-bedroom, two-story building stands next to a tree with shoes for leaves. It is about a world gone mad".

Mature Period

By 1996 Guyton's reputation was starting to gain international recognition through a photographic exhibition that toured Europe. His rising profile saw him receive his first significant grant from the City of Detroit Cultural Affairs Department in 1997. The money was used to develop a Café and Welcoming Center in Heidelberg. Although he still faced strong opposition from local government officials, by 1998 the Project had become the third most visited cultural destination in Detroit, with over 275,000 visitors.

Guyton held a special respect for Rosa Parks (who he met in the 1990s) and dedicated many of his later artworks, including <i>Rosa Parks, Heidelberg</i> Fragment (1986), to her legacy.

In 1998, in response to complaints from residents and city officials (including City Councilwoman Kay Everett who labelled the Heidelberg Project "glorified garbage") bulldozers were sent in to demolish the project. Although the planned demolition was blocked by protestors, Mayor Dennis Archer, who had already successfully ordered the demolition of several works, argued that the "people who live there did not choose to live in the middle of the Heidelberg Project. It's just the opposite - the Heidelberg Project chose to impose itself on them. That's the issue". In 1999 the newly elected Judge Hathaway removed an order protecting the Heidelberg Project and within one hour the city began demolishing three Guyton house installations.

In October 2001, Guyton married Whitfield in New York, their wedding making the New York Times, Society Pages (he would become father and stepfather to six children: Carmen, Darren, Sean, Tyree, Jr., Towan, and Omar). Whitfield had been her new husband's strongest supporter, she said:"[his work] transformed my life. The work was so compelling. I gave up everything I had to help him build a foundation under his vision". In 2002 Kwame Kilpatrick (affectionately known as the "hip hop Mayor") was elected mayor of Detroit, and under him, Guyton was commissioned by the Cultural Affairs Department to participate in Detroit's historic Thanksgiving Day Parade which he did with a decorated garbage truck called Tic Tock on the Spot.

In addition to the Heidelberg Project, Guyton was producing paintings, sculptures, and mixed-media works. In the early 2000s, he took the Heidelberg Project a step further by adding an archive, a visiting artist residence, and a center for children's art, furthering his goal of using the Project as a catalyst for community outreach and arts education. It was at this point that Guyton began to receive international acclaim, with around 50,000 overseas visitors arriving each year. The Project raised close to $2.5 million, allowing Guyton to hire nine employees and rent an office in the Brush Park area near downtown Detroit.

Art historian Roger Green argues that "Guyton's art is his own. His creations are affable and gratifyingly accessible. Through them, he seems to be committed to saving the world [he] is a gifted, committed artist to whose probing, good natured truths attention should be paid". Likewise, art education professor Melanie L. Buffington notes that "An important aspect of Guyton's work is that it encourages people to talk about difficult issues including politics, racism, religion, poverty, homelessness, and consumption." According to Guyton, meanwhile, the Project is "about hope for the future, freedom, and working toward solutions to contemporary problems".

In 2004 Guyton traveled to Sydney, Australia for what was his biggest public art project to date, Singing for that Country. He was invited by the internationally renowned choreographer and performance artist (and one-time resident of Detroit) Aku Kadogo. There he worked with a diverse group including Aboriginal youths who he helped to transform a school, community center, and skateboard park into a project called Singing for That Country. He said, "I am honored to have been invited to play a role in Singing for That Country [...] If we are capable of landing on the moon, building weapons of mass destruction and fighting wars, I say we are also capable of bringing hope, health and happiness to people all over the world". In 2005 Guyton held a solo exhibition at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, An American Show. This was followed, in 2006, when the Heidelberg Project celebrated its 20th anniversary with an international "Connect the Dots" festival directed by Kadogo (the festival giving rise to a tie-in book of the same name).

It was while in Australia that Guyton, who prior to his trip had spoken of "feeling stuck" and a need to "go deeper" with his art, discovered the work of Aboriginal artists who were fully "in tune" with the sacred and spiritual world. By his own admission, the experience led Guyton to a creative "rebirth" with many of his future installations and gallery shows, including 2009's Love, Sam exhibition at New York's Martos Gallery, expressing his own faith in God and the belief that "every single one of us are here for a divine purpose".

In 2011 Guyton was invited to Basel where he took up a one-year residency at the prestigious Laurenz Haus, founded by Maja Oeri and Hans Bodenmman. As a special leaving gift, the Erb Family Foundation commissioned an original piece, "The Heidelberg Suite" composed and performed by the notable Detroit Jazz trumpeter, Marcus Belgrave. In 2015 an exhibition at the University Michigan Museum of Art and the Department of Afro American and African Studies celebrated 30 years of the Heidelberg Project. Guyton was also invited to represent the US in the Shenzhen Biennale of Architecture and Urbanism in China where he and Whitfield created a large-scale house installation called Power to the People. He followed in 2017 with The Times project, in which he and local residents painted clock faces onto the exterior of an abandoned factory, in Philadelphia.

2018 was witness to a landmark event in the life of the Heidelberg Project when it was formally recognized in an agreement with the City of Detroit called a "Memorandum of Understanding (MOU)". In 2021 the Heidelberg Project hosted its first ever conference, 360° of Heidelberg. Whitfield also published her first children's book, Yeret Nutyog, to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the Project. For his part, Guyton became the inaugural recipient of the Detroit ACE Honors, a lifetime achievement award for artists who have contributed 25 years of service to the cultural life of Detroit.

The Legacy of Tyree Guyton

Guyton's work has been described variously as “Outsider Art”, “Environmental Art”, and “Art Brut”. His famous <i>Heidelberg Project</i> encompassed all three movements at once.

While it is not strictly accurate to refer to Tyree Guyton as an "Outsider Artist", his work, particularly his career spanning Heidelberg Project, is strongly reminiscent of "Visionary Environments" created by Outsider artists like Leonard Knight, Nek Chand, and Simon Rodia. At the same time Guyton's work falls within the category of Activist art and what the artist himself terms "Urban Environmental art". His work might also fall under the category, dubbed by the French artist Jean Dubuffet, of Art Brut, or "raw art", which is a term used to describe art (including graffiti and "naïve art") that is produced outside the usual confines of the academic tradition and fine art markets. In short, his work tends to be less about the aesthetics and more about community-building, outreach programs, and educational opportunities within one of the most economically deprived neighborhoods in America. His vision paid off with the Heidelberg Project which now welcomes visitors from around the world.

Through his work, Guyton has helped to provide housing and work opportunities to ex-convicts, recovering addicts and/or the homeless. He has brought together diverse members of the local community as well as garnered national and international recognition for his neighborhood. Guyton has used art to educate and empower otherwise disadvantaged children. He has also shown the drive and charisma to change entrenched attitudes. Even the neighbor who, twenty years earlier had berated the Heidelberg Project on no lesser public platform than the Oprah Winfrey show, in 1991, decided to follow Guyton's lead by decorating the exterior of her own home and by engaging in community outreach schemes of her own making. As she explained to Guyton, she realized that instead of being angry, she could be "having fun instead".

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Tyree Guyton Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 02 Mar 2022. Updated and modified regularly
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