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One cannot talk about the relational art projects in Detroit without discussing the Heidelberg Project. Begun in 1986, the Heidelberg can be billed as one of the first artist projects in the city to tackle issues of site, ruin, dilapidation, blight, and poverty. The project was created by Tyree Guyton, an artist and activist who can be considered the father of the site-specific public art initiatives in Detroit, and rightly so. Guyton was one of the first to use the house as a platform for communicating the contemporary issues and concerns of Detroit to the local government, while bringing national and international attention to the city.
Guyton began in the mid-80s, and legend has it that the artist returned to Heidelberg Street and found that the neighborhood that he grew up in had fallen into severe disrepair. Urged by his grandfather to do something constructive with the blight, the artists began collecting debris around the neighborhood and installed it onto the houses and in the open lots in the neighborhood. The houses quickly received attention and for years, the Project was threatened to be demolished by certain members of the city government. The artist’s retort to these threats was to paint large colored dots on abandoned buildings around Detroit, which he felt would be a more constructive use of the city’s demolishing efforts. In the early 2000s, the city moved on its threats, and part of the Heidelberg was torn down.
But what’s with all the shoes?
This year, The Heidelberg Project is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and is also participating in the Art X Detroit initiative. Art X Detroit is part of a larger public art project in the city, funded by the Kresge Foundation. It is a move to transform public and private areas in the city into devoted art spaces for a duration of time that runs concurrently with the 2011 Rust Belt to Artist Belt III conference. Guyton, a Kresge Fellow, was asked to create a public project in the same stylistic vein as the Heidelberg Project. He decided upon a site-specific assemblage titled Street Folk.
Many of Guyton’s works are successful in communicating to multiple audiences and Street Folk is no exception. The artist created Street Folk as a critical response to the staggering rise in the homeless population on a local, national, and global scale. He painted over 1,000 donated shoes and installed them onto Edmund Place and the intersection of Woodward Avenue, a main thoroughfare near downtown Detroit.
The shoes pay homage to the multitude of transient citizens in the city, and the artist invites people to take the shoes if they need them. The artist has been in residence at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and photo exhibitions, ephemera taken from the site, and sculptural portions of the site have traveled throughout Europe and the States. The Heidelberg has won numerous local and national awards, works locally with Detroit area children on arts education initiatives, and has worked as an inspirational model for many projects locally and abroad. Read more about the project here.