WMU News

Internationally known Detroit artist visits WMU

Sept. 15, 2005

KALAMAZOO--In what promises to be one of the area's biggest art events of the year, an internationally known Detroit artist, recognized for his artistic innovation and efforts to transform blighted inner-city neighborhoods, will visit Western Michigan University in late September.

Tyree Guyton, who has been labeled an urban environmental artist and waged a personal war on blight in Detroit, will visit WMU Sept. 29 and 30 as a King-Chavez-Parks Visiting Professor. Accompanying Guyton will be Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the critically acclaimed Heidelberg Project, which Guyton started in the mid-1980s. They will make a free public presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 29, in Schneider Hall's Brown Auditorium. Reservations are not required.

The presentation will begin with the screening of the 30-minute, Emmy Award-winning documentary, "Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton," followed by a talk on the Heidelberg Project, the creation of art, and art's role in community activism and transformation. Earlier in the day, Guyton and Whitfield will meet with WMU art students, which will provide students with a special opportunity to learn about the creation, objectives and goals, and political responsibility of the Heidelberg Project. Guyton and Whitfield will also visit selected classes and meet with other students and faculty.

On Friday, Sept 30, Guyton and Whitfield will make a presentation to students at Kalamazoo's Maple Street Magnet School for the Arts and also will work on a polka dot project with students. They then will visit Smartshop, an art education, metal working studio and gallery run by local sculptor Holly Fisher.

Also as part of Guyton's visit, the Heidelberg Project Timeline will be on display. The 8-foot-long, cloth tapestry was first exhibited in Berlin as part of the Shrinking Cities project in November 2003. The project brings together architects, academics and artists to investigate recent developments in Detroit and several European cities to address the challenge of depopulation. The piece is now in Showcase No. 3 in Sangren Hall and can be viewed through Sept. 30.

In addition to the King-Chavez-Parks Program, Guyton and Whitfield's visit is sponsored by the WMU Department of Geography and School of Art. Dr. Deborah Che, WMU assistant professor of geography, proposed bringing Guyton here and has organized activities surrounding his visit.

"I feel this visit is important in raising awareness of the role of culture in urban rebirth," Che says. "It will also bring attention to problems such as economic and racial segregation and the flight of capital, jobs and population facing Michigan's older cities. While Detroit may exemplify these problems in their most extreme form, other cities, including Kalamazoo, must confront them as well."

Guyton is world-renowned for his art, which transforms abandoned buildings, sidewalks and empty lots into works of art using lots of paint and discarded objects he collects--everything from old shoes to bicycles to baby dolls. He began with one street in his neighborhood, then expanded his art project to two city blocks, converting them into living, indoor-outdoor art galleries. Named after the street where Guyton's community art began, the non-profit Heidelberg Project has become the driving force behind Guyton's art, which has generated headlines across the country and been featured numerous times on television. The Heidelberg Project was the subject of an "NBC Nightly News" report, while Guyton has appeared on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and ABC's "Good Morning America."

A so-called "outsider" artist, Guyton's creations draw on the lives and experiences of the urban poor and convey that human spirit to viewers. People have come from across the country and world to see Guyton's work. In addition to his community art, Guyton's paintings and sculptures have been shown solo at the Detroit Institute of Arts and at a long list of exhibits and galleries in Michigan and New York.

Though his work has won praise, it also has generated controversy. Some see his work as an eyesore, and Guyton has been ticketed for littering. Four of the abandoned houses he decorated were torn down by the city in 1991, sparking a lawsuit by Guyton, which was later dropped after former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer took office. One of the houses, the Baby Doll House, dealt with the issues of child abuse, abortion and prostitution because of its use of broken, naked dolls. Guyton and others believe it was torn down because its images were so powerful.

"Others made this an issue," Guyton says on the Heidelberg Project's Web site, "but it's never been a controversy in my mind. It's my art and there is no controversy for me."

Guyton had a difficult childhood and grew up in a poor, single-parent household with 10 children. He was neglected much of his early life, and an aunt even pronounced him as stupid. Yet it was his mother's unique ability to take secondhand clothes, furniture and other household items and somehow make a fashion statement that formed the underpinnings of his artistic style.

"Clothes, furniture, everything came from a secondhand store or was given to us," Guyton told People magazine. "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. Today I paint with stripes and polka dots, and it works too."

Luckily, Guyton's grandfather nurtured his artistic bent.

"Grandpa was a housepainter," Guyton told People. "When I was eight years old, he stuck a paint brush in my hand. I felt as if I was holding a magic wand."

For more information, call Dr. Deborah Che at (269) 387-0604.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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