Sam Mackey and the Heidelberg Project

Sam Mackey is a true art hero.  He produced a large and astonishing group of drawings, largely in his last years.  He inspired and encouraged his grandson, Tyree Guyton as regards to the Heidelberg Project and his other artwork.

I got to know him a little in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  He’d always get up and greet any visitors to the project.

My friend, the late Jacques Karamanoukian, helped to get Mackey’s work into the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne, Switzerland and into the Musée de la Création Franche in Bègles, France.  Sam Mackey and Tyree Guyton’s work are in collections and museums all over the world.

In the early 1990’s, I spent a lot of time helping out at the Heidelberg Project.  At some point Tyree gave me one of his own works.  I was also allowed to take a Sam Mackey drawing.  I chose one with good drawings on both sides of the paper.  I’ll share them both here and in the Summer exhibit  at Detroit Mercy.  This exhibit is still on display through August 22.

I used to watch Mr. Mackey while he drew.  It was instructive and interesting to watch him at work.  He had a lot of ideas and personality.  He always was friendly and had interesting things to say.

When I interviewed Tyree and Karen Guyton in 1992, Grandpa Mackey was often there, drawing or resting.  Once, he was falling asleep while sitting up, drawing and Tyree was worried he might fall.  Grandpa Mackey said “My paper fell asleep.”

Verso, the other side of the paper.

Quotes from Sam Mackey

From the August 17, 1988 Detroit News article by Joy Hakanson Colby:

“He’s the one who started this whole commotion.”

“I stick with him and he sticks with me.” (on Tyree)

“I gave Tyree a brush when he was 9 and he helped me paint.  He’s good because he always takes a second look and always gives it a second thought.”

“You take nothing and make something.  That brings people together.”

“It’s an awful deep world.”

From an April 2, 1989 Detroit Free Press Magazine article by Duane Noriyuki:

“This is the younger generation, and they’re weaker and wiser. He’s one of the wise ones. God gave him five senses and he uses them the way he’s supposed to.  … I wanted to be president when I was 9 years old, but I knew there wasn’t a chance.  Still, that’s what I wanted to do.  Tyree wants to paint.”

From a September 1989 interview with Detroit Free Press’s Neil Shine:

“All these things were alive once.  People throw things away when they can’t see the beauty in them anymore.  But we have to still look at it the same as when it was part of some people’s life. You don’t have to be smart to understand that.

You get old, and you’re soon forgotten.  People forget all you’ve done, everything you’ve been.  They forget you’ve had any kind of experience, forget you were once a young boy. But if you’re old, you can never be a baby again; you can’t stay a baby all your life.”


More information:

Tyree Guyton: Sam Mackey was my grand-dad, my best friend. He gave me a paintbrush when I was 9. It was reciprocal. He gave me so much love and affection. He also gave me attention. He and I would hang out together when he was in his 80s and 90s. We would go to art shows, fly to NY for our shows.

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