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The woman behind Heidelberg

Working with neighborhodd youth   COURTESY PHOTOS

Working with neighborhood youth COURTESY PHOTOS

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen

Tyree Guyton is world-renowned for his work on Detroit’s Heidelberg project, which transformed vacant houses on the city’s east side into found-art mosaicked sculptural pieces. But Guyton was not alone in the creation of the project. During a decade-long period spanning the creation of Heidelberg Project and its rise to international prominence, Tyree Guyton had a partner in life and work, Karen Guyton. After a five-year courtship, the couple married. The story of that relationship, its highs and lows, is told for the first time in Karen Guyton’s new book, “In the Shadow of an Artist: The Heidelberg Project.”

Even though the marriage is long over, the book reads like the wounds are still fresh for Karen Guyton, who according to the work, was physically abused by Tyree Guyton. In spite of that, Karen is still able to tell of the exciting moments of life with Tyree and the creation of the project, which Karen herself named. In writing the book, Karen told the Michigan Citizen she didn’t want to paint Tyree as a monster, but “nobody knew about Karen Guyton. I had to tell my story.”

Tyree and Karen Guyton

Tyree and Karen Guyton

She tells stories of exploring abandoned houses, looking for the junk that became famous on Heidelberg Street walls. “His mind seemed like it was constantly clicking,” Karen said. Sorting through massive piles of past resident ephemera, Karen says Tyree would single out objects that spoke to him. “He knew exactly what he wanted,” she says. As the project grew so did its fame. Karen met had celebrities — Ossie Davis, Penn and Teller, the cast of “Stomp” among them — who had come to visit the project. The Guytons were even asked to appear on “The Oprah Winfrey show.” Karen also addresses the project’s controversies including the late Mayor Coleman Young’s disdain for it, in spite of how the project made the neighborhood safer.



The book’s direct prose feels like a late night telephone conversation, replete with plenty of juicy scandal. The narrative, nonetheless, raises important questions: How much of an artist’s work is really theirs and how much credit should be given to the people who drive the artists around, support them financially, take care of the children, and so on, allowing the artist time and freedom to create? Would great art exist without a community of support to make it happen? How do we honor those silent contributors? Additionally, how do we deal with artists whose personal lives don’t match the philosophical aspirations of their work?

Recently, Dylan Farrow accused her adopted father, filmmaker Woody Allen, of molesting her. Singer Chris Brown has a history of violence against women including hospitalizing pop star and ex-girlfriend Rihanna. Separate from how these artists are treated by the legal system, many people are asking how society should think about their artwork. When asked about whether or not the public should discount Tyree’s work because he was abusive, Karen responds, “The art has nothing to do with it.” The best parts of him, she says, are in his art, which she still regards highly.

As for dealing with the human aspect, she advises young lovers, be they infatuated with artists or not, to “understand your feelings about your partner and your feelings about who you are. Love yourself first.” If young people love themselves and can be honest with themselves, they will be more likely to form strong supportive relationships that lead to happier lives.

Like the Guyton’s marriage, eight of the street’s art houses are now gone, lost recently in fires. But Karen is happily living a new life and Tyree keeps working on his art, both affirming the city’s motto that new things do indeed rise from the ashes.

To learn more about Karen Guyton or to purchase her book, visit



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