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Heidelberg fires in Detroit energize Tyree Guyton to make more art

An open air art installation in Detroit has become the subject of a suspected arson rampage.

It's had 6 suspicious fires in 7 months.

The fires have demolished several homes that are key to the art project, but the artist behind the project says he’s energized by the wreckage and is ready to begin another stage of his art project.

The Heidelberg Projectis on the east side of Detroit and takes over two city blocks.

The street is covered with colorfully painted polka dots, the sidewalk is painted with colorful abstract faces. One house is an electric color of gold, another is covered with stuffed animals. There are sculptures in vacant lots where houses once stood along with piles of toys and shoes.

Stephen Snead grew up a block away from the Heidelberg Project. He now lives on Heidelberg Street in the big white house covered in colorful polka dots. He says back in the early 80’s, the neighborhood looked dead.

“It was kind of rough. [There were] desolate houses, windows bust out burnt out houses,” Snead says.

But in recent months, the kind of destruction this art project has helped keep at bay returned.

A house covered with political messages and signs, another covered with vinyl records and a third plastered with images of pennies have all been burned to the ground.  An arson investigation is underway.

The day the Penny House burnt to the ground the Heidelberg Project was scheduled to have its annual fundraiser. Hundreds of donors filled a theater covered with decorations made from recycled materials. Long and twisted ribbons made from plastic bags hung from the ceiling. Tyree Guyton, the artist behind the Heidelberg Project, addressed the crowd from the stage.

“I woke up this morning and went over there and the Penny House was, I couldn’t believe it, I thought I was dreaming,” Guyton says. “But I want to say, as I leave the stage, we are going to do it again and we are going to do it bigger and we are going to do it better than before.”

A few days later, I met up with Guyton in his studio near downtown. He’s showing two paintings to Larry Gant. Gant is a professor at the University of Michigan in the schools of social work and art and design. The pieces are two abstract looking faces that kind of resemble something Picasso would have painted.

Guyton reads a linefrom the German poet Friedrich Nietzsche. It’s about creating good no matter the obstacles. Gant says he sees that in the paintings.   

“Look how resilient they are. Through huge pains, through the knock downs and everything else that happened to the houses. Look at that. It’s almost like, we got this,” Gant says.

Gant says he sees that optimism in Guyton too. Gant says even when the city bulldozed parts of the Heidelberg Project—twice in the 1990’s—Guyton remained resilient.

“When the ticketing happened and when the houses got knocked down I remember you kind of looking there, and I saw you had lots of thoughts, but then you said, 'What’s the next piece of art?'” Gant says. “I was like, 'Wow! This guy’s work got plowed - was destroyed, and what’s the response? More art.'”

Guyton says the wreckage has motivated him to make more art.

“No matter what happens, the arson fires, the demolitions, that magic in here keeps telling me, do it, do it, don’t stop. Oh, it gives me energy, I’m saying turn it up. I’m like, that’s the best you got?,” Guyton says.

Guyton’s team has launched a crowd funding campaignto buy lights and cameras to monitor the Heidelberg Project, and to ramp up security patrols.

Guyton says the project is here to stay, and it’s going to be bigger and better than ever before.

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