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A World Gone Mad : Tyree Guyton battled the sadness of Detroit--and his own life--by turning abandoned homes into canvases. His latest attempt at redemption is the O.J. House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The spring morning unfolds slowly and without glory beneath a swirling, gray sky. Frosty cars belch white vapors, and passers-by--bundled up and hunched over-- walk stiffly with their hands thrust in pockets.

Tyree Guyton arrives in a paint-stained coat and duct-taped car. He parks on Heidelberg Street behind a polka-dotted AMC Hornet, then dashes inside a polka-dotted house. He turns on the stereo, and the music of saxophones begins flowing softly over the neighborhood. Guyton emerges from the house with a ratty broom and quietly begins sweeping the street.

There is a sense of pallor, emptiness as Guyton pauses in front of his latest creation, the O.J. House, to flick a piece of paper into the long-handled dust pan. Something seems missing from the day.

Guyton, 39, grew up on this street on the city’s near East Side, where his heart still lives. It is in the thick of all the chimeras that haunt the city: crack houses, torched homes, vacant lots, homelessness, gunshots fired into lachrymose nights.

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In 1986, Guyton, along with his former wife, Karen Guyton, and his grandfather, Sam Mackey, attempted to break the momentum of their neighborhood’s downward spiral. They began covering abandoned homes with the leavings of streets and alleys, turning Detroit into a canvas, and Heidelberg Street into a voice known as the Heidelberg Project.

In creating their art, they have shown how there is value in the derelict and hopelessly abandoned, how there is hope for resurrection among the maimed and mangled.

Father of six children, Guyton covered an abandoned house with baby dolls, some of them disfigured, dismembered, many standing stiffly at attention like broken soldiers--their still, shiny eyes staring coldly upon the streets. If the house had a voice it would have wept and squalled, “This is what we have done to our children.”

Then there was the whimsical Fun House. Junk of every type cascaded down from the roof to form colorful heaps. House by house, Tyree, Karen and Grandpa--as they were known around Heidelberg--went to work. They covered one house with tires, placed an old boat on top of another.

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They handed paintbrushes to children in the neighborhood so they could experience art and be partners in a unique form of urban renewal.

People began donating items. Foliaceous chairs and bicycles were strung from boles of towering trees. Even the street itself was painted.

A playground was built, and the project took on an unlikely park-like, almost bucolic atmosphere. Benches were placed among sculptures of clustered car hoods and washing machines, suitcases and tires.

Interesting things began happening. People who previously had no reason to drive through the neighborhood started coming from all over the world. They came in cars and buses, stopping to stroll in amazement or disbelief, sometimes in disgust.

Landscape architects began studying the project, which branched throughout the neighborhood but was concentrated on one block. (The project itself grew into a nonprofit corporation with a board of directors and executive director.)

The Detroit Institute of Arts hosted a show by the three artists. Newspapers, magazines and television began showing Heidelberg to the world, yielding mixed reviews from readers, viewers and art critics. And Guyton was characterized as everything from madman to charlatan to genius, as he described how during the process of creating art, the houses “talked” to him.

A documentary was made. It was called: “The Voodoo Man of Heidelberg Street.”

On burned-down houses in the surrounding area, Guyton has painted the initials L.A. Even here, Los Angeles has become a symbol of blight and violence.

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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.

*

Some in the neighborhood would say it was Guyton, not the world, who was going mad as they looked out their front windows and saw piles of junk growing taller each day. Reactions in the neighborhood were mixed, and complaints led the city to raze four houses early on Nov. 21, 1991, two years after honoring the artists with the Spirit of Detroit Award. The city, then under the leadership of Mayor Coleman Young, came in with bulldozers, police and a helicopter.

The Guytons and Grandpa watched as their five years of work was destroyed in less than an hour. Much of Guyton’s paintings and sculptures, stored in one of the houses, also was destroyed, and shortly after, Guyton noted with anger and irony that nearby crack houses and charred structures were left standing.

The destruction of the houses, along with the death of his 94-year-old grandfather the following year, triggered a period of inner-struggle and grief for Guyton.

It was Grandpa, a commercial painter and handyman, who first placed a brush in Guyton’s hand. He was 9 years old, and it was like being handed a magic wand. The two became inseparable, best friends.

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It was a childhood of darkness on Heidelberg, a block away from where Wilson Pickett once lived. There was never enough money to go around. There were times when there was no food or electricity.

Grandpa once gave him a green toy car, salvaged from the scrap heap. Faces of a smiling family were painted on the car’s windows, and Guyton recalls wishing that one of the faces could be his.

One of 10 children, Guyton never went on a family drive. He was different from other children; while they would be playing, he would be strolling the alleys collecting items, studying their shapes and colors as if they were butterflies or birds.

Other children would make fun of him and tell him to go away. They told him he was crazy, and sometimes he believed them.

He never developed a feeling of belonging anywhere but with Grandpa. When people called him crazy, told him that he would amount to nothing and that his work was not art, it was Grandpa who told him not to listen, to seek his own inner voice and salvage himself from the heap.

After graduating from high school, Guyton spent 1980-82 at the Center for Creative Studies, an art school in Detroit. He spent hours working in his grandfather’s basement, listening to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, creating art, much of it dark and sanguine.

As they worked on the project, it was always Grandpa, a tiny, wobbly man, who painted the polka dots. When he died, Guyton reached over and closed his grandfather’s eyes. The old man was laid to rest in a casket covered with polka-dots, representing the jelly beans he so loved.

Others are gone from the neighborhood. An old-timer named Prentis lived a few blocks away in a beat-up bus, which he made available to homeless people for no charge. Guyton wears a copper bracelet Prentis gave him. It serves as a reminder that everybody has something to give, a way to help. Prentis was shot to death last year.

Gone, too, is Diamond Jim, a male stripper in his 70s, one of Grandpa’s buddies who drove around the neighborhood in a sports car made from a kit.

Something Grandpa often said still haunts Guyton. When they were sitting at the old man’s kitchen table or working outside, Grandpa, in his low, toothless, mumble, would describe how he could see the wind. When Guyton would ask what he meant, the old man would tell him he was too young to understand but that he would see it some day.

Since his death, Guyton has pondered Grandpa’s puzzle, sensing there is strength or wisdom in its answer. He has lacked both in dealing with the tragedies since 1991.

In 1993, a brother died of complications from AIDS; in ’94, a nephew was gunned down in the street. Earlier this year, Tyree and Karen were divorced after nine years of marriage. He spent nights driving around the city because he had nowhere to stay.

Sale of his art has always been sporadic, and the couple depended on Karen’s income as a hair stylist. With the split-up, Guyton found himself broke.

It wasn’t alcohol or drugs that he turned to. One night a couple months ago he found himself clutching a .25 automatic, wanting desperately and finally to stop a lifetime of pain that even now reaches in and twists his soul.

“People are coming from all over the world to see what I do,” he says. “They tell me my work gives them hope, gives them something to think about, gives them a reason to come to the city of Detroit. It makes them happy, and here I am in pain. . . . Isn’t that something?”

With Grandpa and Prentis and Diamond Jim gone, Guyton now walks alone--searching for answers, looking for the wind.

*

The year 1967 is painted on the side of the O.J. House. It was the year of the Detroit riots when Guyton, then 12, saw police shoot a man fleeing from a store with a case of wine.

The city has never recovered from the riots, Guyton says. Detroit has never been the same. “What I see happening here and in Los Angeles with African American and Caucasian folks is that everybody’s talking, but nobody’s listening,” he says.

Guyton has been criticized by other African American artists. “They say I should be more ‘black’ because at times I speak out about being universal. There’s a painting on the house that says, ‘The Black God: Cochran,’ and somehow people began to look at me that way, ‘You’re out there, so you got to say something on behalf of your people.’ And I say, ‘My people is everybody.’ People didn’t want me to be universal. They wanted me to take a stand, stand over here, and I said no.”

Numbers and initials--LAPD, NBC, CNN, DNA, USA--are used symbolically throughout the project. O.J. also stands for “Obstruction of Justice,” Guyton says. As he gazes at the house, he reads it like a book. There is meaning behind the chaos. Suits hanging in the windows symbolize the media attention to attorneys’ wardrobes, the cash register on the front porch says the trial is as much about money as it is about justice.

Most incredible of all, he says, is the attention the case is receiving. “We have taken our eyes off everything else that’s in the world, and we have focused on this O.J. thing,” Guyton says. “There are people right here who are starving, people who are being killed, so now that’s not important. The O.J. trial takes precedence over everything. That’s so sad. It’s crazy.”

Even his mother, Betty Guyton, has been drawn in. Inside the polka-dotted house where Grandpa once lived, she sits with a bowl of potato chips at her side. The shades are drawn, as they always are. The only light illuminates from the television screen, reducing the world to a Los Angeles courtroom.

*

A snowstorm is moving in as a woman in a wool coat with a silk rose on her lapel climbs out of a pumpkin-colored cab. She breathes in the Heidelberg Project as if she were standing atop a mountain inhaling the fragrance of a summer day.

“Isn’t this wonderful, Dennis?” she asks without looking at the cab driver. Dennis shakes his head in agreement, but gives the impression that wonderful is not necessarily the word he has in mind.

Maria Riva, daughter of the late actress Marlene Dietrich, is in Detroit on business from New York and has taken time to visit the project for a second time.

“I think it’s a statement against the ugliness of what this was before,” she says. “I like the youth of it. It’s wonderfully young. . . . I think I have an appreciation for the spirit of the artist, the fight against conformity. All great art was a rebellion.”

She walks across the street and sees a field of shoes. “What does this remind you of, Dennis?” she asks.

Dennis is reminded of Imelda Marcos. Riva laughs heartily. “It reminds me of Auschwitz,” she says, suddenly serious.

“What do you want to bet me that they’re going to tear this down?” she asks.

It’s a bet Dennis won’t take.

The city, now under the directorship of Mayor Dennis Archer, has not decided how it will deal with Heidelberg. There are 2,000 abandoned homes demolished in the city each year, and the O.J. House could be among them.

Angela Wilson, an assistant to the mayor, says she is hoping to find a way to save the project and at the same time address concerns of some neighbors.

“People have a right to choose where they live,” she says. “These 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.”

Guyton says he will battle the city, unafraid of a second defeat and more bulldozers.

“I used to feel fear, but what happened to me in ’91, and what’s happening to O.J. now, I realized that they can take all these material things, but your spirit, your soul, as long as I got my spirit and soul, I can create this again. Realizing that has made me fearless.”

He is spending more time in the studio. His work is sold through an Ann Arbor gallery. He and Karen are working together on the project, and there is a chance they will get back together.

Bit by bit, he is searching for pieces to put his life back together, resurrect his inner voice, salvage himself from the heap.


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