Guyton, Tyree 1955–
Tyree Guyton 1955–
Tyree Guyton, primarily a painter and sculptor, has also been described as an urban environmental artist. He has waged a personal war on urban blight on Detroit’s East Side, transforming first a street in his neighborhood and then two city blocks into a living indoor/outdoor art gallery by using discarded objects he found—everything from old shoes to bicycles to baby dolls— to embellish abandoned houses, sidewalks, and empty lots.
The work of art for which Guyton has gained the most attention, the Heidelberg Project — named after the neighborhood street on which it is located— was shown during a segment of NBC Nightly News and Guyton himself has appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and ABC’s Good Morning America. As news of his work spread beyond Detroit, visitors from New York City and Canada and from as far away as Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Japan, began coming to view the project. Though the artist has sold his bigger works for as much as $10,000, he and Karen Smith, whom he married in 1987 and divorced in 1994, lived mostly off her earnings as a hairdresser.
In the mid-1980s Guyton, a working but as yet unrecognized artist, began the Heidelberg Project, which became a major work in progress and the driving force behind a nonprofit community arts project. In his neighborhood, with its abandoned, drug-infested houses, he gathered discarded objects from the streets and used them to decorate the outsides of the houses, transforming them into urban art, or to make roadside sculptures. With the help of his grandfather, Sam Mackey, and Smith, Guyton painted the objects he attached to the exteriors of the houses and surrounded them with everything from tires to toilets to tombstones, depending on his theme for the house. He also filled empty lots with rows of drinking fountains and old appliances.
Through his work Guyton has challenged the boundaries between art and life, as did French artist Marcel Duchamp, who took ordinary objects and presented them as art, and American artist Robert Rauschenberg, who combined painting and common objects in collages or “combines.” Guyton’s work falls outside what is commonly recognized as art. Part of a group of “outsider” artists—Western artists who draw inspiration from sources outside traditional art—Guyton draws from the lives of the urban poor and makes their experiences and human spirit visible to people who have come from all over the world to see his work. He also shows how fragments of city life can be turned into art.
Born August 24, 1955, in Detroit, Ml; son of George and Betty (Solomon) Guyton; married Karen Smith, July 19, 1987 (divorced, 1994); children and stepchildren: Carmen, Darren, Sean, Tyree, Jr., Towan, Omar. Education: Studied art in the Franklin Adult Education program and at the Center for Creative Studies, Wayne County Community College, and Marygrove College; studied with Charles McGee and other artists.
Painter, sculptor, and mixed-media artist. Inspector, Ford Motor Company, Dearborn, Ml, c. 1979-84; firefighter, Detroit fire department, c. 1979-84; instructor, master residence art program, Northern High School; Franklin Adult Education program; and Marygrove College; president, Heidelberg Project (an artwork in progress), Detroit, 1989—. Work shown at Detroit Artists Market; Michigan Gallery, Detroit; Le Minotaure, Ann Arbor; Cade Gallery, Detroit; Trobar Gallery, Detroit; Alexa Lee Gallery, Ann Arbor; Ledis Flam Gallery, New York City; and elsewhere; work featured on television shows, including Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News, Oprah Winfrey Show and Good Morning America; work shown and installed at Detroit Institute of Arts, 1990; work shown at Liberal Arts Gallery, Detroit. Military service: U.S. Army, private, 1972.
Selected awards: David A. Harmond Memorial Scholarship, 1989; Spirit of Detroit Award, 1989; Michiganian of Year Award, 1991; Governor’s Arts Award, 1992; Humanity in the Arts Award, Wayne State University, 1992.
Addresses: Office— Heidelberg Project, P.O. Box 19422, Detroit, Ml 48219.
Guyton’s paintings and sculptures have been shown solo at the Detroit Institute of Arts, which also acquired two of his works; in a group exhibit at the Detroit Artists Market; at art galleries in Michigan and New York City; and elsewhere. When Guyton’s mixed media works were shown in the fall of 1994 at the Alexa Lee Gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Roger Green wrote in the Ann Arbor News, “Works in the current show also bring to mind paintings by Jean Dubuffet, inspired by the art of children and the insane. Yet despite these affinities, Guyton’s art is his own. His creations are affable and gratifyingly accessible. Through them, he seems to be committed to saving the world…. Guyton is a gifted, committed artist to whose probing, good natured truths attention should be paid.”
Guyton’s so-called “junk art” on Heidelberg Street has been described in the press as being controversial, political, and public—in short, the art of a revolutionary. An Art News writer commented, “Guyton’s compositions consist of the houses, the vacant lots, the streets, the trees, the telephone poles. The power of his imagery is what touches people—so much so they have composed music about it, held concerts around the works, and given money for new projects.” His Heidelberg Project has attracted so much notice that some of the drug dealers and prostitutes using the vacant houses and lots in the area have been frightened off.
In an essay on Guyton for the Detroit Institute of Arts Ongoing Michigan Artists Program, Marion E. Jackson of the University of Michigan School of Art observed, “[Guyton] frequently combines polka-dots and stripes and uses unexpected color combinations to create a visual syncopation” similar to “the musical improvisations of jazz.” Jackson also noted that the artist evoked the emotions of viewers by using dolls and random combinations of shapes and forms. However, in his essay in the book Art in the Public Interest Michael Hall observed, “A stroll down Heidelberg Street (despite the rawness of Detroit’s East Side) recalls a stroll down the main street of Disneyland. Guyton, like Disney, delights, entertains and beguiles with his fantasy facades.”
Despite the honors he has won—including a David A. Harmond memorial scholarship and the Spirit of Detroit and Humanity in the Arts awards—Guyton’s offbeat street works have generated considerable controversy in his home city of Detroit. Some neighborhood residents apparently viewed them as eyesores, and the artist has been ticketed for littering. In addition, reportedly after complaints by neighborhood residents reached the ears of Detroit’s former mayor, Coleman Young, four of the abandoned houses that Guyton had decorated with objects were suddenly demolished by the city government in November of 1991. Guyton then sued the city for the destruction of his work, a suit which was later dropped in good faith under the new mayoral administration of Dennis Archer.
Guyton believed that at least one of these houses, The Babydoll House, which, through its use of broken, naked dolls, dealt directly with issues of child abuse, abortion, and prostitution, was demolished because its images were so powerful. The work stored in the fallen houses—estimated to be worth as much as $250,000, based on what Guyton’s work was selling for at the time—was scheduled to be part of an art tour sponsored by the Detroit Council for the Arts.
Guyton responded to those who have questioned his motives in creating such controversial works. “This is my art,” he maintained in Newsweek, “Most of the things used are things that I didn’t have coming up. We didn’t have a phone, we didn’t have toys to play with. So a lot of the stuff that I relate to is stuff that has played a part in my life—stuff that I didn’t have, stuff that I wanted.” But he noted that his art is driven by his need to “talk about life here in this area … to talk about the craziness.”
Tyree Guyton was born on August 24, 1955, in Detroit, Michigan, to George Guyton and Betty Solomon Guyton. He has been painting since his difficult childhood, during which he was reportedly mistreated, ignored, and laughed at. An aunt apparently pronounced him stupid, while his mother supposedly believed artists were nuts. But his grandfather nurtured young Tyree’s artistic inclinations. “Grandpa was a housepainter,” Guyton told People magazine. “When I was eight years old, he stuck a paintbrush in my hand. I felt as if I was holding a magic wand.” This gave him the idea that he was an artist and could use paint to effect change.
It was his mother, however, who influenced Guyton’s graphic style. “We were poor,” he told a People correspondent. “[My mother] had 10 kids and raised them by herself. 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. Today I paint with stripes and polka dots, and it works too.” Perhaps the memory of the way his mother searched for things to make ends meet for the family later influenced Guyton’s decision to collect abandoned objects in the city’s streets.
As a teenager Guyton attended Northern High School. To further his art education he 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. He also received early encouragement from two Detroit artists named Charles and Ali McGee. After serving in the U.S. Army for two years in the early 1970s, Guyton supported himself by working as an inspector for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, serving as a firefighter with the Detroit fire department, and teaching art at his old high school. However, he continued to think about making art, and with the encouragement of his grandfather, he decided to do just that.
Guyton went on to create such works as Fun House, The Polka-Dot Tree, The Babydoll House, Tire House, and Lost and Found house, some of which were destroyed in 1991. Commenting on the topics in the artist’s works and their impact on viewers, Jackson wrote, “The fragmentation, isolation, and juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar may even affect us subliminally,” while “difficult themes such as abortion, child abuse, homelessness, and abandonment” become “jarring aspects of a complex and ever-changing mosaic.”
Jackson added, “A dismembered doll reminds us of a crucifixion … a boat, of an aborted escape… a fragment of quilt, of a comforting childhood hug. In worn-out shoes that seem to climb neighborhood trees, there is a playful irony between the melancholy of discarded usefulness and the unexpected independence of the objects as they themselves take on a new life.” Specifically, Jackson noted how the tree sculptures in The Polka-Dot Tree resembled “the ‘bottle trees’ of the southeastern United States in which artists of African-American heritage adorn living trees with bottles, vessels, and other objects to invoke the dead and ask protection for the living.”
Guyton’s cityscape art gallery has changed the city blocks on which it is located and those nearby from deserted combat zones to places where people stop and stare. Part of the fascination surrounding Guyton’s works, perhaps, is that they are forever changing due to weather or the environment, or through the artist’s whims. And Guyton has linked his neighborhood to the rest of the city, the state of Michigan, the country, and the world.
“See that house over there?,” Guyton, pointing to one of his works, stated in People. “That was a crack house…. After the first three police raids, it opened right up again. After the fourth raid we couldn’t stand it anymore. So we went on over and painted the place. Pink, blue, yellow, white and purple dots and stripes and squares all over it. Up there on the roof we stuck a baby doll and that bright blue inner tube, and on the porch we put a doghouse with a watchdog inside…. Now all day long people drive by and stop to stare at the place…. Believe me, in front of an audience like that, nobody’s going to sell crack out of that house anymore.”
Eckert, Kathryn Bishop, Buildings of Michigan, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 106.
Raven, Arlene, editor, Art in the Public Interest, Da Capo Press, 1993, pp. 329-33.
Ann Arbor News, July 29, 1994, p. A9; September 9, 1994.
Art News, October 1989, p. 27; May 1992, pp. 19-20.
Connoisseur, March 1989, pp. 124-27.
Crain’s Detroit Business, October 10, 1994, p. 7.
Detroit Free Press, July 30, 1994, p. 7B.
Detroit News, November 24, 1991, pp. 1A, 10A; March 18, 1992; November 29, 1994.
Guide to Cool Detroit, June 1994.
Metro Times (Detroit), July 13-19, 1994, pp. 26-7; July 20-26, 1994; August 10-16, 1994, p. 4.
Michigan Chronicle, July 27-August 2, 1994.
Michigan Journal, September 26, 1994, p. 7.
Newsweek, August 6, 1990, p. 64.
New York Times, July 2, 1990.
People, August 15, 1988, pp. 58–60.
Wall Street Journal, November 29, 1991, section B, p. 1.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Jenenne Whitfield, executive director of the Heidelberg Project in Detroit, MI, and the brochure 20th Century Art, Tyree Guyton, June 30 through August 19, 1990, Detroit Institute of Arts Ongoing Michigan Artists Program, pp. 3-9.
—Alison Carb Sussman
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