A hearty band of Detrit artists are transforming their beleaguered city into a modern art masterpiece, one abandoned building at a time.
Author MATT THOMPSON
JON BRUMIT’S NEW ART PROJECT ISN’T MUCH TO LOOK AT. A TINY SIX-ROOM AFFAIR ON THE WEST SIDE OF DETROIT with boards over the windows and a tumbledown garage out back, the edifice is coated in a thick layer of soot from an arson attempt and illuminated by an eight-foot gash in its roof. Still, the Whitney Biennial veteran isn’t fazed. He loves this piece, which he bought for $100, so much he plans to live here when he’s done with it. “I’m going to take out the upstairs floor back to here,” he says and whips out his iPhone to show off an architectural rendering. “And then knock down the downstairs walls so I’ve got one big room.” He points to piles of moldering carpet and knocked-in drywall, describing his plan for a sleek, self-sufficient art space drenched in natural light.
It sounds like your typical gut renovation, but for Brumit, it’s much more. “This house is one of two works of art my wife and I have ever bought,” he tells me. “The other was this ceramic wall hanging a friend of ours did. Of course, the wall hanging cost more.”
For a growing number of artists like Brumit, Detroit’s blighted zones have become both a medium and a workspace. With more than 30,000 vacant homes (the second most in the U.S. after Las Vegas) and a patchwork of ruined parcels to choose from, these artists have commandeered lofts, houses and empty lots, creating studios, underground installations and even organic farms around the city. Now, with a sprinkling of just-opened galleries, a new museum of contemporary art and the frisson of international press attention, they are out to remake the Motor City in their image.
The grandfather of this unnamed movement is widely acknowledged to be one Tyree Guyton, a reserved vet who began painting his Heidelberg Street house with multicolored polka dots in the mid-’80s.
Intrigued by the visual effect, he kept going, converting old TVs, tables, vacuum cleaners, tires, stuffed animals and a block of abandoned houses into a Rauschenberg fever dream erupting from the neighborhood of Black Bottom. Though his work has been bulldozed twice by the city, Guyton has always cheerfully rebuilt, and today his oeuvre is something of an institution, visited by more than 275,000 people a year. With his creative impulses organized under the banner of the nonprofit Heidelberg Project, he and his wife, Jenenne Whitfield, coordinate a growing network of events, educational programs and public art installations.
I run into Guyton as I wander through his creation on a sunny Friday afternoon in spring. He shakes my hand and abruptly looks down. “Pleased to meet you,” he mumbles, and then, when I ask him what he’s working on these days, adds, “Lunch.” Though he remains friendly, he’s not one for conversation.
Whitfield, who’s also the executive director of the project, happily speaks in his stead. “Tyree was able to see beauty in the chaos of Detroit,” she tells me. “Rather than working like a trained artist with a canvas, he used what he had: everything that everyone else had cast off.”
More artists are following his lead. “I work with Detroit as a medium, as a material,” Motown native Scott Hocking explains, standing in his southside loft, surrounded by painted plastic animals, rusted signs and piles of scrap metal. He wears standard-issue artist black and chain-smokes, and has pioneered a process that combines sculpting and photography with breaking and entering. “I spent a lot of time going into abandoned buildings, finding materials, and taking them back to the studio,” he tells me. “But it wasn’t until about two years ago that I thought of actually working there.” Hocking’s new technique, he says, is to build large-scale installations in abandoned buildings, photograph them, and then leave them to the elements.
Art lovers eager to study his pieces up close will likely be disappointed. “I never take people to see my work sites,” Hocking says. “Some of them are dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. People you can always negotiate with. Packs of wild dogs—not so much.” Anyway, it’s not about the final product so much as the process and the resulting documentary photographs, and a lot of the time, as Hocking points out, there’s nothing left to visit. “Scrappers pull stuff apart, buildings collapse. One time I came back to this old factory where I built a giant pyramid out of wooden floor tiles to find it had been sealed up by the EPA.” When the Feds left six months later, the pyramid was gone.
A prime mover in the Detroit scene is Object Orange, an anonymous collective that paints abandoned houses bright orange. Greg, a member who asked to be identified by his first name only (the mayor’s office opposes the Object Orange crew), picks me up in his Mazda and shows me around. “As artists, you look around a city and see space as materials for art,” he says as we zoom through a maze of rundown blocks. Around us, the landscape changes from decaying to postapocalyptic. Entire blocks of caved-in houses alternate with fields of knee-deep switch grass. “So we thought, Why not use a house?”
Here’s how they work: A small group scouts for an appropriate building—one that is both dilapidated and clearly visible from major roads. Then another group arrives at night to paint it—in “Tiggerific” orange. “We want to spark a dialog, to make people ask ‘Why is this structure here? And why is it so invisible?’ Hence the orange paint.”
Greg slows the Mazda and looks around tentatively. “Where the hell are we?”
Finally, after a couple phone calls, we arrive at our destination in a decimated northern neighborhood in the shadow of Interstate 75. A row of wrecked houses in a lazily shifting field of weeds have been hit by Object Orange, and the contrast of the bright paint against the green background is striking. As if on cue, a pit bull pops its head above the window frame of one of the structures and begins barking at us. The neighbors don’t mind the orange paint: There is not a single occupied house in any direction.
Of course, not everyone has embraced this urban art movement. The Heidelberg Project’s Whitfield acknowledges that they haven’t always been welcomed by Detroiters. “Our twenty-year history has been turbulent,” she acknowledges. “There are people who say, ‘Well, I wouldn’t want this in my community.’ I always tell them that’s because they don’t need it in their community.” She points out that people from the neighborhood have found ways to benefit from the project, selling bottled water to tourists or sending their children to Heidelberg Project–funded art programs. Also, the art has helped to reduce crime. “These houses that Tyree has transformed used to be magnets for drugs, for prostitution, for crime. You won’t really find that there anymore.”
Other artists have taken an aggressive approach to community relations. Mitch Cope and Gina Reichert, a husband-and-wife team that owns a retail space/gallery in the Hamtramck neighborhood, recently purchased a residence for $1,900. They plan to convert it into an off-the-grid “Powerhouse” covered in solar panels and running direct current into other houses on the street free of charge. “We’ve worked hard to educate the community about what we’re doing,” Cope says. For instance, inviting local children to paint the exterior of the building, sharing vegetables from their garden, taking the time to give tours when neighbors ask them what they’re up to.
It’s been working. “A month or so ago we had these guys try to break into the Powerhouse,” Cope says, marveling at the response. “It’s kind of amazing when the neighbors will go out in the street with baseball bats on your behalf.”
On my last night in Detroit, Object Orange’s Greg takes me out to a gallery opening in a converted airplane factory called The Russell Industrial Center. The opening seems sparsely attended, but that might be because the space itself is massive, a two-million-square-foot hive of galleries, artists’ work spaces, recording studios and boulevard-size hallways that seem to go on forever.
“The crazy thing is that there are bunches of other factory buildings like this in the area that are just sitting empty,” Greg says.
On the way home, he points out a lone house in the middle of a field of vacant lots. “A group of architecture students built that for practice,” he explains. “They bought the land from a strip-club owner for $500 and two go-go dancer cages.” I turn back to watch the house recede into the night. Soon it is lost in a sea of urban pastureland—a space that’s just a mile away from a massive shopping and office complex called the GM Renaissance Center—where people have reported seeing deer and pheasant.
Later, Brumit stands in his wrecked attic clearing out chunks of drywall and prying out the old floorboards. His family is in Chicago, waiting for him to finish the renovation. Meanwhile, though, he’s consumed with his vision for a new life in Detroit. “I want to stage a show at Mitch and Gina’s Powerhouse,” he says, “where, instead of a PA system, everybody brings radios tuned to the right frequency and that will be the amplifier system for the event.” He smiles.
Rain begins to fall. Though Brumit has covered the hole in the roof with clear corrugated plastic, a curtain of water cascades along its edge and into the house. Brumit looks up at it and scratches his neck.
“I’ve got to fix up this place, but I’ve also got to learn to weave for a class I’m team-teaching this fall and commute back to Chicago, because, oh yeah, my wife is having a baby! People ask me how any of this makes sense. Well, it doesn’t. It just feels right.”
He shrugs, ignoring the rain, and gets back to work. “What can I say? Being an artist is…well, it’s a messy business.”
MATT THOMPSON is a writer living in New England. He hopes someday to buy a house—fire-damaged or otherwise.