As Flames Consume Heidelberg Project, Tyree Guyton Rebuilds

As fast as his world-famous Heidelberg Project burns, artist Tyree Guyton rebuilds.

He has already begun to install the whimsical found objects for which he is famous on the ruins of the OJ House, which burned to the ground Oct. 5.

There is the beginning of objects on the House of Soul, the old home covered with vinyl records that a fire destroyed Nov. 12.

And Guyton has more to work with Thursday, after a suspicious early morning blaze left his Penny House a charred mess of soggy timber, crumbling bricks and singed images of pennies that gave the artwork its name.

The fire was the sixth this year at the public installation, which sprawls across several blocks near Mack Avenue and Mt. Elliott on Detroit’s East Side. 


Arson investigators, left, reportedly had detained a person of interest after Thursday’s fire.

The fire broke out on the morning of the project’s annual fundraiser, which takes place tonight at the Fine Arts Theatre on Woodward at 6 p.m.

“More sad news this morning,” says a post on the Heidelberg’s Facebook page.

“We need your help in ending this madness! PLEASE support and share our fundraising efforts for security; WE CANNOT DO THIS ALONE.”

Guyton appeared at the scene before dawn and inspected the damage, but said he needed to process the incident before he said anything publicly.

“Gonna be a beautiful day,” Guyton told Mike Campbell of WWJ-AM.

That upbeat attitude has remained consistent even as flames consume the installation that has made Guyton an art-world star from New York to Europe to Japan and brought hundreds of thousands of visitors to the downtrodden neighborhood that inspired Guyton in the mid-1980s to start the project.

Guyton’s first New York exhibition, titled, ironically, “Three Faces of God on Fire,” closes this weekend at the Cue Art Foundation on W. 25th Street.

After the OJ House was destroyed Oct. 5, Guyton posted a statement on the Heidelberg's website that expressed sympathy for the arsonist, whom Guyton appeared to know.

“We want you to know that we understand your pain,” Guyton wrote. 

“We recognize that there is a fire in you and we are here not to extinguish it, but to offer you a better reason to fuel it. Though you have tried, you cannot destroy the Heidelberg Project; it’s bigger than all of us now. Instead, we invite you to join our family in creating a better neighborhood, a better Detroit, if not for anyone else than for yourself. “

At the site of the OJ House, Guyton has covered the surface with things that make viewers smile and wonder, things like a pink toy jeep with a doll behind the wheel wearing sun glasses, his trademark faces painted on wood, a stuffed Spiderman figure and a sign that features a red heart and, in Latin, Detroit’s motto:

“We hope for better things; It will rise from the ashes.”

On the ruins of the House of Soul, right, a Guyton-designed American flag on a board sits atop the debris.

On Thursday, Geronimo Patton, a volunteer photographer for the project, stood across from the Penny House as arson investigators combed through the debris.

Patton said Guyton sees the wreckage as a “new canvas” that allows him to build anew.

“The Heidelberg Project is not dead,” Patton said. “It’s like a caterpillar. Eventually it’s going to become a beautiful butterfly.”

Previously in Deadline Detroit:

Heidelberg Project Adds Nightly Patrol, Gets Help Offer From Oakland Firm, Nov 13

Suspicious Fires Are Destroying the Heidelberg Project, Nov. 12

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