On Detroit’s East Side, The Heidelberg Art Project is a symbol of spiritual fortitude in a city that aims to go from blight to bright. I saw two blocks of quirky, urban outdoor art - upended grocery carts on the tops of trees, slogan placards, and house fronts layered with stuffed animals. Amid the piles of debris-into-art, the word, “God” appears in unexpected places.

On Detroit’s East Side, The Heidelberg Art Project is a symbol of spiritual fortitude in a city that aims to go from blight to bright. I saw two blocks of quirky, urban outdoor art - upended grocery carts on the tops of trees, slogan placards, and house fronts layered with stuffed animals. Amid the piles of debris-into-art, the word, “God” appears in unexpected places.


Named after it’s street location, the installations of found objects are displayed on stretches of grass where abandoned houses once stood. For example, within a jumble of bedsprings, discarded car parts, and small dolls was a sepia wedding photo, it’s circa 1940 image intact. To me, it symbolized how life will pile on responsibilities, with all the attendant headaches and garbage, but centered within, a human connection fuels the desire to keep striving. Every grouping had a secret little story, unique to the viewer.


“The tree with the shopping carts turned upside down represent the wasteful consumption of Americans and how we must re-think how we use resources,” said executive director Jenenne Whitfield about another display.


On a nearby wall, the word “God” was printed banner-like. Elsewhere, “God” took on a smaller, every day size. In unexpected spots, “God” turned up like a sly joke, reminding me the divine is present in all things, whether it is blight or beauty. Artist Tyree Guyton and his grandfather, artist Sam Mackey, co-founded the Heidelberg Art Project in 1986 and it was Guyton’s hand that credits God’s hand.


“Why is the word God everywhere?” I asked.


“Because God is everywhere, and she’s pulling the strings. She is the ultimate puppet master,” said Guyton, age 55.


Colorful circles are another major motif, like the mosaic-looking “Dotty-Wotty House.”  At 3658 Heidelberg Street, “The New White House,” festooned in bright polka dots, is the former home of White House journalist Helen Thomas. Guyton explained, ”The circles stand for the circle of life.  We just keep going around.”


He’s right. We cycle through life, often with the same issues, ideally, trying to improve on the next go-round. Our more successful attempts are the bright spots.


Everywhere whimsical shoes hang from walls, from fences, from trees. Guyton said, “Shoes represent the journey we take.” One fanciful creation was made up of sneakers, sandals, wingtips and platform shoes that hung like ornaments from a fat tree. But an amusing first impression belies the pain behind “Soles of the Most High.”


Guyton, an African-American artist, said his grandfather used to tell him stories about “Negro lynchings,” “You couldn’t see the people, but you could see the soles of their shoes.” 


Yet the artwork goes beyond hatred. “It is a haunting reminder of lynchings in the South, but today the positive message is that we are lifting up the souls of the community,” said Whitfield.


Over 30 years ago, after serving in the army, Guyton had returned to his old neighborhood. It pained him to see its rapid deterioration after the 1967 riots. He set out to heal his community by creating outdoor art, which also served as a political protest against city neglect and lack of resources. He enlisted the help of other artists and children. A creative colony evolved. Twice, the art installations were deemed illegal by the city and bulldozed. But Guyton and other artists just kept on creating, and today, the Heidelberg Art Project has not only endured, but now draws acclaim, both nationally and internationally.


“The basic concept is that in recycling ‘things’ we are actually recycling the human spirit. In other words, art becomes the catalyst to revive a community and what makes up a community is people,” said Whitfield.


And I did feel oddly revived by house fronts layered in toys, or peering into the salvage, both playful and feisty, attached to walls. Rubble to reclamation, that day God spoke the language of art, sole-to-soul.


Email Suzette Standring at suzmar@comcast.net or visit www.readsuzette.com. She was in Detroit with the National Society of Newspaper Columnists and is a past president. She is syndicated with GateHouse News Service.