ELMS: Find the beauty in your community

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When Detroit native Tyree Guyton was a kid, his grandfather gave him his first paintbrush and told him, “Paint the world.” He hasn’t stopped painting since.

In fact, his paintbrush has had a lasting effect on his Detroit neighborhood as well as countless individuals across the world.

This year, the artist and activist celebrates 25 years of his public art initiative, the Heidelberg Project. The project fosters open-air art in the heart of an urban neighborhood on Detroit’s east side as a way to draw attention to and foster pride within the under-resourced and overlooked community.

A couple of weeks ago, Guyton stood in the appellate courtroom at Eckstein Hall, enlightening an audience of students, professors and community members about his personal journey and the mission behind the Heidelberg Project. “For me,” Guyton said, “art is everything.”

Guyton’s trademark is painting multi-colored polka dots — on sidewalks, houses, buses, anything he can touch with a paintbrush —
but he has also covered foreclosed homes and abandoned lots with abstract portraits and a wealth of discarded items found lying in the streets of his community. According to its website, the project is “using art to provoke thought, promote discussion, inspire action and heal communities.”

Many residents praise his work, saying it brings life to the dilapidated buildings that line their streets. They also say it shows their youth there are different, more positive outlets for their energy than turning to crime.

Others find it a nuisance, saying art belongs in an institution, not out in the open, cluttering city streets. In 1991, the city of Detroit bulldozed Guyton’s project, destroying artwork on the house and throughout the yard. At the time of the demolition, 30,000 other homes stood abandoned in Detroit.

But Guyton and his initiative bounced back. In 1996, a photo exhibition of the Heidelberg Project traveled throughout Europe and the project was featured in Time Magazine. In 2000, the Heidelberg Project’s documentary, “Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton” won an Emmy Award.

The Heidelberg Project is an amazing initiative and something that every city with slumping or overlooked neighborhoods should have. In fact, many Milwaukee communities would likely benefit from the revitalization that is often spurred by these projects.

Thankfully, Milwaukee is not at a complete loss for community art projects. Though none have gained nearly the amount of recognition that the Heidelberg Project has, they are still making a positive impact in Milwaukee’s neighborhoods.

Take Milwaukee initiative IN:SITE. The organization’s goal is to foster place-responsive, temporary public art in order to spur discussion centered around a particular community. The group’s most recent project, “On and Off Capitol” is its second six-month cycle of art along the corridor of Capitol Drive between 27th and 35th Streets.

A once lively and prosperous neighborhood, boarded-up homes and littered streets are not uncommon there now. I visited the project this summer, and I liked what I saw. Paintings on the boarded-up windows, colorful ribbons tied to chain-link fences and paper flowers attached to light poles towering over abandoned parking lots brought life back into a community in need of reinvention.

And IN:SITE’s work does more than brighten up a community; it promotes discussion. According to its website, IN:SITE has not had to solicit sponsors since 2009 because sponsors have come forward asking for the organization’s engagement with various neighborhoods. “On and Off Capitol” will be up until the end of this year, so go on and check it out.

Milwaukee has several other art initiatives all aimed at bettering our community. ArtWorks for Milwaukee is a nonprofit organization that works to prepare at-risk teens to enter Milwaukee’s workforce by utilizing the arts as a method to teach transferable job skills. RedLine Milwaukee seeks to cultivate the individual practice of contemporary art and stimulate the creative potential of the Milwaukee community through residency, education, outreach and exhibition programs.

Marquette’s own Haggerty Museum of Art even brought art out on the streets this summer with its “Crossroads” exhibition in the windows of various buildings at the corner of 27th and Wells Streets. The goal of the project was to bring attention to a neighborhood on the cusp of reinvention.

I think it’s great that Milwaukee has projects like these — and who knows, there may even be more projects I don’t know about yet. But one thing is clear: There’s always room to do more. While all these are creating beautiful art and dialogue, our city could always use more of both.