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The Outsider Artist Who Built His Own Private “Disneyland”

Hamtramck Disneyland, alley view
Hamtramck Disneyland, alley view (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. — Outsider artists walk a fine line between being perceived as inspired or insane. There are those who identify as artists and acknowledge their participation in a wider conversation; but, for the most part, outsider artists seem to run on instinct, conveying a seemingly limitless sense of self-expression that reflects in what they do. Without the legitimizing acknowledgment of their work as “art,” outsider artists are often considered by their immediate communities to be eccentrics under the best of circumstances. This was certainly the case, for a time, with Dymtro Szylak, creator of the outsider art installation known as “Hamtramck Disneyland.”

Hamtramck Disneyland, detail view.
Hamtramck Disneyland, detail view

Jean Dubuffet, the French artist who coined the term “outsider artist,” defined her as such:

[Their] authors draw everything […] from their own depths and not from clichés of classical art or art that is fashionable. Here we are witnessing an artistic operation that is completely pure, raw, reinvented in all its phases by its author, based solely on his own impulses.

If, as Dubuffet would have it, Szlyak’s folk art is drawn entirely from his “own depths,” then his depths are brimming with the American dream as seen through the filter of immigrant idealism. Szylak was native of Ukraine, and came to Hamtramck in the 1950s, following a stint in a displaced persons camp. After retiring from a 30-year career in auto manufacturing in the late ’80s, Szylak began work on his folk art installation, tenuously mounted to the roof of the garage behind his Hamtramck duplex on Klinger Street and that of the adjoining property.

Balancing Ukrainian nationalism against the promise of his new home, Szylak’s piece stands not only as an example of outsider art, but a kind of monument to the immigrant experience — the perfect sort of monument for the municipality of Hamtramck, which has been the first stop for many different immigrant communities over the years, from German, Polish, and Ukrainian, to, more recently, Bangladeshi and Yemeni. Hamtramck recently became the first city in the US to achieve a Muslim-majority city council, and call to prayer can be heard throughout the roughly two-square-mile city within Detroit.

Hamtramck Disneyland, from inside the back yard.
Hamtramck Disneyland, from inside the backyard
Hamtramck Disneyland, from the alley between Sobieski and Klinger.
Hamtramck Disneyland, from the alley between Sobieski and Klinger

Szylak’s installation is hardly noticeable from the sidewalk in front of his former home, but if one approaches from the alley and garages of Klinger and Sobieski Streets, Hamtramck Disneyland looms like a Cubist carnival. The superstructure is mostly wood, strung with lights and painted in the bright Ukrainian national colors of yellow and blue, as well as red, purple, and green. This forms the base for an avalanche of found objects — Szylak was seemingly obsessed with propellers and fans, American idols like Elvis, and particularly the type of blow-mold horses employed in bouncy toys for toddlers. An entire herd of them runs wild across the installation, and two of them rear up inside the arch constructed over the front gate — one of the only indicators on the street side of what lies behind the house.

“At the beginning there was resistance and there was scoffing — is this really art?” said Walter Wasacz in an interview with Hyperallergic. Wasacz, a Hamtramck native, local historian, and freelance journalist, has written multiple stories about Hamtramck Disneyland for The Hamtramck Citizen over the years. He remembers Szylak’s inclusion in the influential 1992 Generators + Transmissions show at the now-defunct 2739 Edwin, which was an important milestone in formalizing the Hamtramck art scene and put Szylak’s eccentric project officially on the radar as a work of art.

“You still see that skepticism in some of the stories about the fundraising we’re doing,” said Wasacz, also a board member at Hatch Art, an art collective and nonprofit that has made Hamtramck Disneyland its passion project following Szylak’s death in 2015. Though not officially open to the public, Hamtramck Disneyland has been a local attraction for years, even while Szylak was still alive; with official tours, numerous unscheduled visitors to the alley, and a percentage of daring art alley adventurers willing to ignore the signs on both the front and back gates, which warn against entering the yard, in order to take a closer look.

Szylak assiduously displayed his accolades within the installation, including his press clippings, a poster from the Generators + Transmissions show, and a plaque commemorating his 30 years at Chrysler.
Szylak displayed his accolades within the installation, including his press clippings, a poster from the ‘Generators + Transmissions’ show, and a plaque commemorating his 30 years at Chrysler.

Rights to Szylak’s property, which he left to his second wife and stepson, were immediately contested by the two estranged daughters Szylak had with his first, departed, wife. “They were hostile to the work and they thought their father was crazy,” said Wasacz. The legal battle stretched out over months, but eventually Szylak’s will was upheld, and the property has been turned over to Hatch for an ambitious preservation and renovation effort, which is seeking matching funds for a $50,000 grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Michigan State Housing Authority. If successful, Hatch’s fundraiser will facilitate some necessary stabilizing of the art landmark, as well as make space for a residency program and museum in Szylak’s domicile and the house next door.

Hamtramck Disneyland, detail view.
Hamtramck Disneyland, detail view
Hamtramck Disneyland, back yard view.
Hamtramck Disneyland, backyard view

“Hatch Art will focus on an artist residency that specializes in artists with an installation art focus or background,” said Hatch organizer Alice Schneider in an interview with Hyperallergic. She was the one who brought the proposal to Hatch when she heard about Szylak’s passing. “We are hoping that the resident will be as inspired as we are by Dymtro’s work. At the end of each residency we will have an artist reception — that way everyone will be able to visit with the unique artwork manufactured onsite.”

Like many people drawn to Hamtramck Disneyland, Schneider responds to the authenticity of the work. “It almost has that innocence still intact,” she said. And even something as simple as Szylak’s use of the word “Disneyland” imbues the installation with a spirit of hope and sincerity. You come to a new world with nothing, eke out a place for yourself, and construct, from scraps and treasures, a palace of your own memory and imagination. High art has its place, but Hamtramck Disneyland is a reminder that, in quotidian terms, making art is also a way of making a home.

Dymtro Szylak (center) with a group of visitors to Hamtramck Disneyland. Photo courtesy of Hatch Art.
Dymtro Szylak (center) with a group of visitors to Hamtramck Disneyland (photo courtesy Hatch Art)

Hamtramck Disneyland can be found in the alley behind 12087 Klinger Street, Hamtramck, Michigan. The Hatch Art fundraiser continues through August 20.

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