The first public screening of “The Help” in Mississippi (it’s nationwide on August 10th) was last weekend at the Malco in Madison. It was a fundraiser for the Baptist Town Community Development, Inc. for revitalization of the 100-year-old neighborhood in Greenwood. Robert Johnson once lived there, and several scenes from the movie were filmed there.
The Detroit News ran a story about the Heidelberg Project entitled, “25 years later, ‘outsider art’ vision still fuels fame, furor on Heidelberg Street”
And visitors come by the thousands — 200,000 plus a year from all over the world, according to Guyton’s wife and project executive director Jenenne Whitfield. Such visitors would ordinarily steer clear of such a blighted Detroit neighborhood, said John George at Motor City Blight Busters, a nonprofit that fights abandonment on the west side. But Heidelberg is different. “Suburbanites cruise through Heidelberg, cameras snapping, eyes big as saucers,” George said. “Then they pull over and actually get out of their cars.
For his part, Guyton, 55, is not surprised by the reaction. “The art is a medicine,” said the art school dropout. “It helps you forget your fears and takes you back to your childhood. It makes you laugh. It makes you happy.”
Some might think the academic art world would be dismissive. It’s not.
Harvard University art historian John Beardsley, who knows Heidelberg well, links it to the Southern custom of found-object yard art, which itself connects, he said, to the African tradition of decorating graves with objects sanctified by connection to the deceased.
Hoping to expand this mission, the project plans to build a $1 million arts complex on Heidelberg Street. The House That Makes Sense Center — named after a plan to carpet a house with pennies was abandoned (its foundation wouldn’t take the weight) — will include classrooms, project offices, gallery, gift shop and the Heidelberg archives.
Just last week, Michael Kaiser, head of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., stopped by to advise on developing a donor base for a capital campaign.
“The Heidelberg Project is a fantastic community organization,” said Kaiser, “really a model of how to serve the community in an interesting and artistic way, and how to empower people within that community.”
The project has celebrated its 25 years with gusto, mounting a show at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, throwing a Family Fun Day and erecting 25 of Guyton’s painted car hoods — a fitting canvas for a Detroit artist — in front of sites including the Max M. Fisher Music Center and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit. The hoods will be up through August. And just hitting bookstores is a new children’s book from a Boston publisher, “Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art.”
All of this constitutes what John George at Blight Busters sees as inspiring pushback against urban decay and neglect, a hopeful counterpoint to the defeatism that often shrouds Detroit neighborhoods like Heidelberg pockmarked by burned-out houses and empty lots.