Interview by Jeanne Dasaro
The Heidelberg Project is an open-air art environment in Detroit’s East Side. I first encountered it when I was maybe 10 years old. My father’s company maintained several properties in Detroit. Each weekend we would drive from site to site to check the progress of the previous week’s work. With its famous polka dot house and other colorful attractions, Heidelberg Street was like something out of my imagination. At the time, I had no idea about The Heidelberg Project and its mission to improve lives and neighborhoods through art. Heidelberg Street was merely the highlight of my weekend.
Now, some 20 years later, I can say I recently had the opportunity to meet with Jenenne Whitfield, Executive Director of The Heidelberg Project, and to tour the art studio of Founder and Artistic Director, Tyree Guyton. In this interview, Jenenne and I discuss the importance of using art to rebuild the fabric of under-resourced communities and, as they say at The Heidelberg Project, “create a way of living that is economically viable, enriches lives, and welcomes all people.”
NPi: Can you tell me about how The Heidelberg Project began and your role within it?
JW: Heidelberg will be 25 years old next year. I’ve been involved with The Heidelberg Project for 17 years, and it’s because I took a wrong turn down a street.
I was born and raised here in Detroit. I was a banker, climbing the corporate ladder. I was driving back from work through the area where Heidelberg is now, and I remember having a feeling of nostalgia. I remember being a little girl and my father—most African American people have roots in that community—I was trying to turn down a street to get a closer look at the neighborhood because it was sad, it was so beat down.
I tried to turn down Benson, but a car was on my tail and forced me down Heidelberg Street. My mouth just dropped open. This was in 1993. Unbeknownst to me, the artist, Tyree Guyton, was sitting on the curb. I rolled down my window and asked him, “What in the hell is all of this?” I remember thinking: I want to help this guy because he obviously has way too much time on his hands. Help him get a grip on the real world. Taking a turn down Heidelberg Street changed my life.
As for why Tyree started The Heidelberg Project, what he may tell you is that he wanted to take his artwork off the canvas and do something to affect change in his community. He is a product of that neighborhood. He watched the 1967 riots as a kid at 12 years old. He says, “The city of Detroit has been burning ever since.”
He watched the neighborhood go from what he called a very diverse mixed neighborhood to one with abandoned house after abandoned house. In 1986, he said he had an epiphany. He looked out on the porch—at this time he was painting in the basement of his grandfather’s home, which is the polka dot house—and decided he would paint the house next door. He said the house spoke to him.
One house became two, two became three. By 1991, he had literally transformed four abandoned houses into these giant works of art—this most ridiculous thing that he had the audacity to call art. He was setting a course for himself that changed the way people look at art today.
I had no idea what Tyree was actually doing when I met him in 1993, but I recall seeing him—not on the Oprah Winfrey Show—he was on Oprah in 1991—on the news when the city of Detroit had destroyed his work. I thought, finally. I didn’t know him.
When I drove down Heidelberg Street and rolled down my window, that scene of him being on the news came back to me. He ended up autographing a postcard with an image of one of the houses that he had created that was destroyed in the 1991 demolition. I thought this was just amazing, but what really stuck with me was all these little children around him vying for his attention. Some of them didn’t even have shoestrings in their shoes. These kids were in need.
The kids just wanted to paint… That touched me. He asked me a question that day—and the reason I’m telling you this is that it set the course for changing my life—he asked how I was giving back to the community. It kind of pissed me off because I couldn’t answer it. It bothered me and stayed with me. But I eventually began to go back to that neighborhood. I think I went back and forth for about four months, and I’d bring people with me each time. I became a regular.
One day Tyree asked me if I would help him, and I said no. I told him, “I don’t understand what you’re doing.” I was basically bringing people there for a laugh. But there was still something in my heart about those kids. Then Tyree handed me a letter from the Oprah Winfrey Show asking him to come back on the show because of the way he had been treated when he was on the show in 1991. I asked him, “Who is responding to these requests?” He showed me other requests from around the world and said, “Nobody.” So I blew the dust off of my computer and began typing a response to the Oprah show letter, and that’s how it all started.
This is a story of a man who literally built a house without a foundation. What he needed was someone to build a foundation for his vision. That’s what I brought to the table in 1993.
I brought in the business savvy, and we wound up making a good team. There was a kind of electricity between us. I lived on the west side of Detroit, he lived on the east side—that was a problem from the very beginning. We were just two completely different people who taught each other something. I came to respect art in a way that I had never known before, and he came to respect the need for structure. Together we developed the work.
What are we doing? The whole concept and idea of The Heidelberg Project is that combination of arts education and community development.
For arts education, we’ve developed a comprehensive program that aims to teach children about the principles of community and environment. From the community development perspective, our goal is to transform that two block area—the 3600 blocks of Heidelberg and Elba Streets between Mt. Elliott and Ellery—into a functioning cultural village with artist residencies, green space, gardens, sculpture, you name it. Heidelberg already exists as a cultural village, but we want to polish it a bit more so it can become an economic engine for the community.
The magic of this project is the same reason it’s been hard for us to write and receive grants. Our work has always been different from, for example, a campaign aimed at feeding people or assisting people at a homeless shelter. Our work is more abstract. We call our work “abstract advocacy.” We’re introducing new information and energy that in the short-term changes attitudes and in the long-term changes behavior.
NPi: That’s a great definition.
JW: Isn’t it? It’s phenomenal because we have the stories to back it up. For example, we’ve only been here five months. We used to be in the community center. Friends of ours made this space available to us because there was no way we could afford it on our own. But they love our work and so they didn’t want anybody else to be here.
We looked at this place, and it didn’t look like this. We got people to help us remodel it. The gentleman who laid the floor in my office was a homeless man in the community who had been watching Tyree for a very long time.
Tyree has said people in the community used to complain that his work is junk. He would say, “Yeah, but it’s bringing people here from around the world. Now, what can you do with that?” It took him, and all of us, a long time to figure that out.
It took a young man, Steve Snead, 18 years to finally start thinking “Maybe I could build a water booth on Heidelberg Street and sell water to all of these people coming in to our community.” He started getting people to think about what was possible. Sometimes when life beats you down, you begin to hunch over. You begin to literally wear what you’re going through inside. But Steve’s back started to straighten up. He takes the doo rag off his head now. He’s discovered that he carves canes now. That, to me, is the most important kind of work you can do—to affect change in a person’s mind, make them get up and do something different. Then they can take that energy and [transfer it]. Steve can transfer it to his seven-year-old daughter.
Our work changes people’s minds. It helps children understand that they don’t have to leave their neighborhood to make something happen. Tyree is an example of someone who never left his neighborhood, and yet he’s a world famous artist.
NPi: Just to be clear, what communities do you serve? How do people become involved in your programs? Are there requirements? You talked about working with youth. Is there formal programming?
JW: Sure, some of it is. We look at community in a couple of different ways. We look at it from a geographical perspective, the people in the community we’re trying to serve. We’re trying to uplift the community. But then there’s another larger community that wants to be a part of what we’re doing so we open our arms to other communities as well. Mostly, it’s a lot of students from the colleges that see this as a real life example of something they can get involved with.
Our children’s programs [take place within] Bunch Elementary school in our neighborhood—they’re sort of our poster school—but we extend our programs to all the schools in the area. That’s the symbolism of the polka dots. We don’t make a distinction necessarily between races.
Tyree says when you look at any of the faces he paints, a lot of times you can’t tell what color they are. He just sees people. All people need this type of energy in their life. It’s under the disguise of art, but it’s really about this energy of connecting with people. We welcome everyone. There is no prerequisite [for getting involved]. We can find a place for anybody.
NPi: What solution would you view yourself a part of in the larger scheme of things?
JW: That’s a good question! Where did you get that question from? I think we’ve lost something through technology… I like to think that we’re touching the heart and soul of a person [through our work]. I don’t mean to sound ethereal, but there is something to be said for inspiration and motivation.
What makes you get up in the morning? I’ve had butterflies in my stomach in the 17 years since I’ve known Tyree. What the hell is that about?! That’s motivation and energy keeping you excited.
Fear and excitement are the same emotion. How can you transfer energy to somebody else to make them want to get up and do something, be committed to something—opposed to this malaise that we see, most particularly in underserved, underprivileged communities. Sometimes you find more riches in communities of people who don’t have because they’re forced to think beyond [material things].
NPi: What do you think is changing locally and globally that affects the work of The Heidelberg Project?
JW: What’s changing locally is that we’re no longer the automobile industry, are we? Detroit has to search for its new industry. I think Detroit has historically been a great forward thinking, pioneering city. It still is, but it’s as if it’s the dark before the dawn. It’s beautiful because we have this wonderful clean canvas now that we can use to rebuild. The whole world is watching us. Everybody is watching Detroit because of its history. I think that’s exciting, as opposed to some of the depressing articles you see being written, asking what Detroit is going to do. What we have here is opportunity.
What is it going to take to get people to really think and come together and make the world better? How do we do that? I think that the challenge now is that we’ve been the greediest people in this country. That [way of living] fell though. Our environment is crumbling around us. We’ve done a lot of damage, and now we’ve got to do some repair work.
That repair work, as Tyree says, starts on the inside. You cannot heal the land until you heal the minds of the people who are screwing up the land… The challenge is just being able to reach people, but we can do that. It’s a time of opportunity.
NPi: I used to work for a company that had a slogan, “Problems are treasures.”
JW: As a Doctor of Metaphysics, you might say I think differently. People say, “Don’t start singing Kumbaya or something,” but I want to say, “What are you so afraid of?” The things that you can’t see are the most important. Like air. People say if they can’t see it, they can’t believe it. Well, let somebody put his or her hand over your nose and mouth and you will fight for something you can’t see.
In life, in order to get shoes to shine, you have to buff and polish them. To get clothes clean in a washing machine—that process is called agitation. To get light, you need negative and positive charges. It just depends on what lens you’re looking through. If you choose to view things negatively, that’s what chases you. All of this is incorporated in the work we do.
People say that Heidelberg is like a magnet. There’s a reason for that. And it’s not only about the art; it’s about the people involved. That’s what is more important than anything else.
NPi: How do you think you or your organization can change people’s thinking about the connection between arts education and social change?
JW: We’re doing it already. The beautiful thing about The Heidelberg Project is that it attracts people like me. I’m a convert if you will. It attracts people who love classical music, people who love sports. You come to Heidelberg and see that it attracts all these different people.
We had a festival in 2008 on Heidelberg Street. You’ve got the CEO of Daimler Financials talking to a girl who’s got big hair, big earrings, popping bubble gum. They’re having a conversation. That’s profound to me. That’s what Heidelberg does. I can only explain it by saying it has something to do with the energy and the power of art. The way Tyree has been moved and inspired to create art, to stand up to controversy and have his project twice destroyed, to keep coming back—you have to ask what is it in him that allows it? Sometimes you’re driven by something you can’t see. I call it energy. It’s an intelligent energy though.
I lost the question. What was it?
NPi: How are you changing people’s thinking about the connection between arts education and social change?
JW: It has to do with the connection we make with people. I wanted to connect with you when you came in here… I know when you walk out of here you will be different than when you walked in. What do you do with [this conversation]? Maybe you recycle it through your faculties and pass along that energy to somebody else.
NPi: Our mission is building prosperity by connecting people. I don’t know if you know that.
JW: I like the word prosperity. That’s why you’re sitting here. I’ve turned down interviews with news programs, all of these big names—I don’t want to be played with. I don’t want to fit into somebody’s agenda.
NPi: Where could your organization use help?
JW: It’s always the green stuff. I have worked without a salary for 16 years… I work very hard. I manage Tyree. We sell art. We do projects in different parts of the country and the world. This has been a true sacrifice and a major labor of love, but it shouldn’t be. In other words, the work that we’re doing is just as important, probably even more important, than what a doctor does for others, and it deserves to be funded. We could do so much more.
What we’ve managed to accomplish on a shoestring budget is amazing, but we could do so much more if we could get people to understand sometimes that it’s more important sometimes to teach a person how to fish than to stick a fish in his mouth.
NPi: That’s true. It seems to be a recurring theme in many of the interviews we do. Everyone is doing such great work.
JW: I’m glad to hear it.
NPi: The money issue is the common thread.
JW: But historically, nonprofit organizations have always been expected to work on a small budget. Now our corporate for-profit structure has fallen. Maybe it’s going to shift now. I hope so.
NPi: I hope so, too. So what keeps you coming to work every day?
JW: I truly love getting up each day not knowing what the day is going to bring. Because you don’t. You know how you have your life all mapped out, and it always goes a different way? I open my heart to that now. I have things planned in my little Franklin planner, but I’m open for what will actually occur in the real world… It’s also like you go to school for something and then you’re given a real world example to work on. The Heidelberg Project is my real world example.
My mother used to say I was her “why?” child. When I worked in corporate America, I would learn a job and then have to move on. I couldn’t stay. My mother used to say, “This is the challenge that will take me to my grave.” We’re making history though. I guess it was a great work that I was supposed to be involved in. I like my work. It gets me up and keeps me going. It just doesn’t pay.
NPi: Neither does mine. [Laughter] You do it for the love, I guess.
JW: And let me just say this. This is important. When it does start to pay, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. People say when you start getting money you’re spoiled. But that’s because you forget your priorities. When the money starts coming in, you start rethinking and shuffling things in a way that you hadn’t before. You just have to stay focused.
NPi: That leads me to my next question. Is there a particular lesson you would pass on to other leaders, perhaps in the nonprofit sector?
JW: Keep your eye on the prize and stay focused. Also, people always talk about collaborations now and partnerships. But if you have not been taught how to collaborate and how to build partnerships, you don’t know how to do that… You have to keep your eye on what you’re trying to accomplish. [People lose focus] when money starts to come in. Instead of looking at money as a tool to help them do the work, people try to manipulate it. Keep your eye on the prize.
NPi: Is there anything else you would like to share or let us know about The Heidelberg Project?
JW: Yes, that The Heidelberg Project is global.
How to Get Involved:
For more information, to read about current programs, see more photos, or watch short videos about Heidelberg, please visit: http://www.heidelberg.org.
Click here to make a secure, online donation.
To contact Jenenne Whitfield or schedule a tour, call their offices at (313) 974-6894 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.