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Community Art Project Victimized by Arson Rises from the Ashes

Burned structure of the OJ House at the Heidelberg Project (all images courtesy the Heidelberg Project)
Burned structure of the OJ House at the Heidelberg Project (all images courtesy the Heidelberg Project)

The Heidelberg Project was started as a way to transform the depressing decay of an east Detroit neighborhood, but it has since experienced its own set of devastations. In both 1991 and 1999, parts of it were demolished, and just this past month there was a fire that wrecked its oldest house. Now the Heidelberg Project is working to turn the charred remains of that structure into a new installation, re-imagining it for a second time from dilapidation.

OJ House, pre-fire
OJ House, pre-fire

Artist Tyree Guyton started the project on Heidelberg Street in 1986, and it has expanded into a rambling two blocks of houses covered with polka dots and stuffed animals. The goal was to make a place that was totally unwelcoming into a community center, and it’s worked. The Heidelberg Project has become internationally recognized, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to maintain in a still struggling Detroit.

The fire from arson that started on May 3 blazed through the Obstruction of Justice (OJ) House, although it luckily didn’t spread across the project. While the front façade is still standing, it requires major structural repairs and the whole site needs to be excavated and contaminants removed. The art it was covered with was mostly turned to ashes or seared away. Yet they’re seeking community support to revitalize it through an Indiegogo project called “Art from the Ashes: Reclaiming the Canvas,” which would help Guyton to turn the burned remains into a new work of art, as well as to replace the materials that were stored in there that were essential to the maintenance of the Heidelberg Project. “When we say canvas, we are not only referring to the individual artworks on the OJ House, but to the entire structure itself,” explained Emily Bunder, Program/Project Coordinator at the Heidelberg Project, to Hyperallergic. “The fire has given us a blank canvas, an opportunity for growth and rebirth, and an even stronger passion for continuing the work we do in Detroit.”

Volunteers cleaning up after the OJ House fire
Volunteers cleaning up after the OJ House fire
Tyree Guyton with volunteers at the site of the OJ House post-fire
Tyree Guyton with volunteers at the site of the OJ House post-fire

The OJ House was built back in 1994, and was the oldest of the Heidelberg street houses. Its name was a response to the city’s 1991 demolition that was called an “obstruction of justice.” Its art installation often changed to reflect a different political message, although the waving statue of Mighty Mouse on the roof was a constant. Bunder emphasized that the community response has been strong in support of the transformation project and that their “community is no stranger to hardship and they share the same resilient positive attitude that the world sees from Tyree, confident that Tyree will do something great with the remains of the OJ House.” The arsonist has also been found, according to the Heidelberg Project’s director Jenenne Whitfield, through a tip from the community.

OJ House, post-fire
OJ House, post-fire

The loss of the OJ House was both an emotional and visual loss for the Heidelberg Project, but its cremated life isn’t over. “Tyree’s just beginning to catch glimpses of how the space can be used, how he can transform the structure into something spectacular and funky,” Bunder stated. “Hearing him speak about the potential and seeing the light in his eyes tells me though, whatever it is — it’s going to be incredible.”

The Heidelberg Project’s “Art from the Ashes: Reclaiming the Canvas” Indiegogo campaign is through June 7. 

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