Tyree Guyton

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

Born: August 24, 1955
Detroit, Michigan
My art is a medicine for the community. You can't heal the land until you heal the minds of the people.
Tyree Guyton

Summary of Tyree Guyton

More than any other Urban Environment artist, Guyton has taken on the adage "one man's trash is another man's treasure" by effectively transforming his devastated Detroit neighborhood into a living art gallery. His great project, realized over decades, gained international renown under the name, The Heidelberg Project. Taking discarded and found objects - from shoes and bicycle parts; to toilets and tombstones - Guyton revitalized abandoned houses, sidewalks, and vacant lots through his belief in the transformative powers of art. Although his project angered many residents and politicians (several pieces falling foul to arsonists and the mayor's bulldozer), his supporters championed Guyton for beathing new life into an economically depressed inner-city "combat-zone" that, through his intervention, ultimately welcomed visitors from all around the world. Latterly, Guyton has turned more towards gallery projects that typically reinforce the strength and resolve of his religious worldview.


The Life of Tyree Guyton

Guyton calls his art "a medicine for the community", and he is firm in the conviction that, "you can't heal the land until you heal the minds of the people".

Progression of Art


The Heidelberg Project

The overarching title for Guyton's multi-faceted urban installation project is The Heidelberg Project. It encompasses several city blocks, and is comprised of interventions and installations on, in, and around, vacant, and run-down houses and lots on Heidelberg Street in the McDougall-Hall neighborhood of East Detroit. The first installation of the project was in fact Guyton's grandfather's house, which he painted with brightly colored polka dots. He went on to decorate other houses, such as the Party Animal House, which he covered with stuffed animals, and the House of Soul which he covered in vinyl records.

The project has not been without controversy with many calling it "junk art", a "neighborhood nuisance", and an "eyesore". For Guyton, however, his "Visionary Environment" was born of a love for the neighborhood in which he grew up. After returning from army service, he was dismayed to find that his neighborhood had become a hotbed for drug violence and prostitution, and he became driven to reinvigorate the area with "good vibes". Jenenne Whitfield reinforced her husband's vision when she stated, "The basic concept is that in recycling'things' we are actually recycling the human spirit. In other words, art becomes the catalyst to revive a community and what makes up a community is people".

Arts writer Michael Hall asserts that "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." Likewise, art historian Marion E. Jackson believes that "[Guyton] frequently combines polka-dots and stripes and uses unexpected color combinations to create a visual syncopation" similar to "the musical improvisations of jazz". Despite his many distractors, Guyton's Heidelberg Project has gained a David A. Harmond memorial scholarship and the Spirit of Detroit and Humanity in the Arts award. The University of Michigan's Museum of Art hosted an exhibition on the project and said that it offers a "lively and unexpected juxtapositions of objects, words, colors, and symbols create a strange and wonderful immersive world".

Multimedia installation - Heidelberg Street, Detroit


The Baby Doll House (The Heidelberg Project)

The Heidelberg Project received numerous complaints from residents, with District Councilman Conrad Herndon claiming that Guyton was on "some psychedelic trip [and he] needs to be confined. This is hurting the neighborhood, not helping it". Indeed, the project has been the target of at least twelve arson attempts. Yet Guyton declared: "I just want to send out love [...] When you come to the Heidelberg Project, I want you to think-really think! My art is a medicine for the community. You can't heal the land until you heal the minds of the people". Guyton went further, stating on his website that "For me, art is a way of expressing life. My work is a science that deals with colors, shapes, objects that brings about a rare beauty to the mind and eyes of people, a type of esthete. My art is life, life that lives on with time because the entire creation is an art form".

Yet these statements should not distract from the fact that not all components of the Heidelberg Project were created for aesthetic effect. Some works, such as the Baby Doll House, which involved affixing broken, tattered, dismember, burned, and naked dolls to the house exterior, were created with the blunt aim of drawing attention to negative aspects of society. Guyton intended for the work as an unambiguous reference to child abuse, missing children, abortion, and prostitution. The work also drew on his own childhood experience of being punished for playing with dolls. As he explained, works like this were meant to "talk about life here in this area [...] to talk about the craziness".

The Baby Doll House (as well as the Fun House, Truck Stop, and Your World) was demolished by the city in 1991, following an doomed appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show about neighborhood nuisances which duly provoked the then-mayor of Detroit, Coleman Young, to call in the bulldozers.

Multimedia installation - Heidelberg Street, Detroit


Dotty Wotty House (The Heidelberg Project)

After much of the Heidelberg Project was demolished by the city council, or razed by arsonists, Guyton strengthened his resolve to rebuild the project. The Dotty Wotty House, adorned with large, brightly colored polka dots, also happened to be his mother's house. The polka dot motif grew out of two major inspirations: his grandfather's love of jellybeans, and the quote by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "We are all the same color on the inside". For Guyton, polka dots represent the multi-colored exteriors of the local community, but also "the circle of life" in the way human beings "just keep going around". He carried the polka dot motif through various other installations, too, including a vintage bus like the one Rosa Parks would have ridden in, which he titled Move to the Rear (or The Rose Parks Bus) (1995-2000) and other, abandoned, houses.

Guyton uses the Heidelberg Project as a springboard to host arts education programs for children. However, the community-building aspect of the project is lost on many local adult residents one of whom stated: "Art is not good when it is outside. Art belongs in a museum, caged in, in a museum". Other community members called the project "unsafe", with the project's biggest supporters living outside the area. When the city brought a criminal case against Guyton for trespassing, his lawyer successfully argued that polka dots were no different than the political advertising the city allowed on the buildings. Art educator Melanie L. Buffington considers The Dotty Wotty House, as well as other installations of the Heidelberg Project, to be powerful teaching tools that prompted students to consider the role of art in community building, the potential controversies such large-scale public projects can provoke, and the very nature of what qualifies as art.

Heidelberg, Detroit


Soles of the Most High (From the Heidelberg Project)

Guyton's grandfather, had told his grandson of his family's traumatic experiences of growing up in the American South in the early twentieth century. When the artist asked his grandfather about his experiences of seeing lynched bodies, he responded: "You couldn't see the people. But you could see the soles of their shoes". This dreadful anecdote prompted Guyton's installation Soles of the Most High, which involved hanging shoes from a tree. It was intended as a commemoration of the lives of those who had been lynched. The title of the work carries a double meaning, however, with "soles" not only describing the shoes, but also serving as a play on words: the taking of "human souls".

This evocative work draws from the tradition of the readymade, as in the works of Marcel Duchamp, who took everyday objects and presented them to the public in a way that altered their meaning. Despite the tragic theme of the work, Guyton's wife Jenenne Whitfield sees a message of hope in the installation: "It is a haunting reminder of lynching in the South, but today the positive message is that we are lifting up the souls of the community". Shoes also played an integral role in an October 2004 project that Guyton was invited to participate in, in Sydney, Australia, called "Singing for that County". As part of the project, Guyton invited children from the United States and Australia to paint their shoes and put a note inside as part of an exhibit called "If My Shoes Could Talk...". For the artist, shoes not only reference the tragic history of lynching in the United States, but also represent "the journey we take".

Art critic Marion E. Jackson compared Souls of the Most High to the "bottle trees" made by African American artists working in the South of the country. She wrote: "The fragmentation, isolation, and juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar [shoes and trees in this case] may even affect us subliminally [and that] difficult themes such as abortion, child abuse, homelessness, and abandonment [become] jarring aspects of a complex and ever-changing mosaic".

Tree sculpture - Heidelberg, Detroit


Singing for that Country

In 2004 Guyton had spoken of "feeling stuck" with his art and of a compulsion "to go deeper" but without knowing quite how he might achieve this. The answer came to him after an invitation to visit Australia where he discovered Aboriginal art. He traveled back and forth to Australia to participate in a collaborative project called Singing for that Country, headed by the performance artist, and a fellow native of Detroit, Aku Kadogo. Their goal was to develop a public art project in Sydney for which they had received financial support from the Mayor of Sydney and the US Embassy. Guyton's shoe/polka-dot installation was situated on hills and paths of the expansive Sydney Park.

Once in Australia, Kadogo introduced Guyton to the work of many indigenous artists. Guyton found what he was looking for: "I saw something so beautiful in the people themselves - so in tune with nature and with the spirit world. The experience said to me that I needed to go deep inside myself". He returned to Australia later in the year spending two weeks living in isolation in a small apartment owned by Kadogo's ex-husband. As he recalled, "There was no radio or TV - just art and books [...] I was in this room for two weeks - just painting and reading. I got up very early - 6:00 a.m. - and I just painted. I started very early, in the silence".

As art critic Marion Jackson wrote, "Guyton had always considered his multi-colored polka-dots representative of the varied people and cultures of the earth. In Australia, however [he] was astonished to find parallels between his polka-dots, Grandpa Mackey's figure drawings, and the shapes and forms in aboriginal paintings. The patterns of contemporary aboriginal paintings have been a part of aboriginal culture for centuries and represent to aboriginal people a deep and fundamental reality called 'Dreamtime,' the transcendent spiritual, natural, and moral order of the cosmos. Although aboriginal paintings contain multiple layers of meaning with the most sacred messages legible only to the initiated, lines typically denote pathways and circles suggest points of significance, gathering and nurturing".

Installation - Sydney, Australia


Him and Her

Following his creative "rebirth" in Australia in 2004, Guyton supplemented his installations, with an increasing number of paintings and gallery pieces many of which reflected his lifelong religious faith. In 2009 the Martos Gallery presented Love, Sam, Guyton's first New York solo exhibition. It featured portraits, assemblages with the former presented under the collective title, "Faces of God". For Love, Sam, Guyton pays tribute to Sam Mackey; Guyton's friend, mentor and a man who taught him how to mix colors and reminded him to always clean his brushes. Guyton stated: "When I gave the paintbrush back to my grandfather at the age of 88, he began to draw and paint displaying a great sense of play and rhythm. He created until his last breath at the age of 94".

In all the Love, Sam portraits, which reflect the artist's ongoing drive to represent the diverse groups amongst whom he grew up, the characters featured "large choppy teeth". For Guyton, this feature represented the resilience and inner strength of human beings who, through a faith in God and the promise of a better afterlife, can learn to smile no matter what hand life deals them. Says Guyton: "I believe that there is something greater to this whole creation [...] Plato says that we are all a toy of God playing our parts here in this creation. I believe that we, every single one of us are here for a divine purpose, and when your time is up here, you will leave here. You were born into the world at a certain time and you will die at a certain time, and I believe this, there is something greater to this equation that awaits me on the other side of this life".

Pain on wood - Martos Gallery, New York New York


The Times

The Times was a collaborative mural envisioned by Guyton and Mural Arts Philadelphia's Porch Light program, Impact Services, and several other local partners. Guyton's idea was to reinvent the civic clock tower by covering the former rug factory in the red brick Kensington neighborhood with numerous painted clock faces. The building is situated close to a veterans' housing facility and was conceived of as a monument to time, recovery, resilience, and an acknowledgement of the processes of healing after adversity (something that the artist himself had come through). The project also touched on the themes of a changing neighborhood with the clocks, which ranged dramatically in size, shape, color, and style, signifying the passage of time. During the year-long project, Guyton invited local residents and visitors to paint their own clocks with total freedom of expression encouraged (some clocks having no hands and others employ jumbled up numbers).

Clocks are motif in Guyton' works. For him they are a symbol that encourages us to "appreciate the present time. A time to act, think, be, and do, here and now". As for The Times installation, he dedicated it to the city of Philadelphia, but also to America, and indeed, the whole world.

Wood, paint, and mixed media - A Street and E. Indiana Avenue, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Biography of Tyree Guyton

Childhood and Education

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

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.

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

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".

Related Artists

Related Movements & Topics

Cite article
Correct article