Sam Mackey and the Heidelberg Project

July 31, 2017

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.


The Life and Times of the Heidelberg Project, a Summer 2017 Exhibition

June 20, 2017

The Heidelberg Project, circa 1991.

The Life and Times of the Heidelberg Project, a Summer Exhibition at the Detroit Mercy Library

For the fourth Summer, we are displaying an exhibit connected with Detroit’s cultural history.  It will be on display at the University of Detroit Mercy Library, on the McNichols and Livernois campus.  Hours are 9am to 6pm Monday through Thursday and 9am to 5pm on Fridays.  It will be on display from June 15 to August 22.


The Baby Doll House, detail. Circa 1989.

The Heidelberg Project started in 1986 and is still ongoing.  Originally, the project consisted of abandoned houses that were turned into art structures.  They were covered in found objects and painted.  The effect was to create impossible, magical houses, like something you’d see in a dream.  There were also installations in vacant lots, in the street and affixed to trees.

The project has often been under attack.  It’s destroyed, then it returns, in a new form.  It was created by Tyree Guyton, along with his wife Karen and his grandfather Sam Mackey.  In 1991 the Coleman Young administration tore down four of the art-houses in one day.

This exhibit includes a roughly chronological history of the project.  This consists of photographs, flyers, newspaper clippings, magazine articles, editorials, letters to the editor, original artwork and other unique material.  There’s an emphasis on the first half, from 1986 to 2001.  Yet the last fifteen years won’t be neglected entirely.

The Fun House, 1991.

Also, this exhibition will try to put the project in context.  How does it relate to Detroit, to its nearby neighborhood, to the Detroit art community, to art history and to the current international art world?

Many people were influenced and inspired by the project.  The project connected with the city, the theatre and poetry scenes and other communities.  In its own way, it often took on social issues and urban problems.

Other related Detroit street art projects will also be given some attention, but the main focus will be the Heidelberg Project.

There were people who influenced Tyree Guyton and his work.  Foremost among these was his grandfather, the artist Sam Mackey.  Then there were also some artists who taught him at art school.  These included Charles McGee, Allie McGhee and Carl Angevine.  Another inspiration was the street artist Rosetta Archie.

Since 1993, Jenenne Whitfield has been the project’s executive director.  She’s worked hard to keep it going and growing.  They have a staff and a board of directors.

The project has often been controversial.  Some love it while others don’t.  There are people who don’t believe that it’s really art.  Yet it’s a major tourist attraction for Detroit.  People come from all over the world to see it.  Throughout its history, it’s had a lot to say about Detroit and about the nature of art itself.

I’ve been going there since 1986.  I helped out as best I could.  I saved copies of a lot of material, and I’m always taking photographs. In 1992, I did an extensive interview with Tyree Guyton.  Sometimes others were present, mainly Sam Mackey and Karen, his wife at the time.  I’ll make some use of that as well.

The exhibition attempts to explore where the Heidelberg Project has gone and what it’s accomplished.  We’ll soon see where it goes next.

Tyree Guyton, 1992.

If you click on the photos, you can enlarge them, then backspace to get back to this page.

web links to some related information.

The Heidelberg Project, July 2013.

“I’ll tell you—I believe that the Heidelberg Project is not dead.  I believe it’s going to revive.  I believe that something greater will truly manifest from all this chaos that has happened.  I keep hearing something—here—and it keeps telling me to look beyond.  And already I’ve begun to think of new ideas—new things I want to do.  Another project must come out of it—something great.”  Tyree Guyton, early 1992

The Bread and Puppets Theatre, May 2017

May 31, 2017

At the Carrie Morris performance space on May 19th.

I’ve seen performances by the Bread and Puppets Theatre several times over the years.

I was glad to see them return to Detroit for a 5-day stand.  They involved the local community into their shows and worked in responses to local issues and problems.

The May 19th performance was an Insurrection Mass with a Funeral March for a Rotten Idea.  It took place at CMAP in Detroit.

It was a bit cold out and there was some rain.  The weather wasn’t bad though.  There was a large and responsive audience. It was an excellent performance, well done, moving and sometimes funny.

In front of the Detroit Institute of Arts, May 20.

The next day, May 20th, they staged the Whatforward Circus! on lawn at the Detroit Institute of Arts. This was especially strange and magical.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and felt really glad to be there.

A few bits were repeated from the CMAP show, yet a lot of it was different. Again, they used a good group of local performers as part of the troupe. The  dancing horses returned.  They seemed to chase each other, going around and around.  There was also a tiger hunt.

Then a conductor with a baton led a group of Disgruntled Harmonists. First he conducted a group of the performers onstage. Later, he conducted the audience, breaking it into sections. We had fun shouting out howls or hoots of displeasure and disgust.

Like the night before, it ended with a sort of funeral/ celebration parade. This included a flag and a circular ribbon banner that kept moving.  As the show ended, and they served bread, it soon started raining.  It was nice of the rain to wait for the show to finish.

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I also caught part of the Sunday May 21st show.  Due to stormy weather, it was held indoors at the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Rivera Court.  It was similar to the May 20th show. It was harder to see over people’s heads. Also the sound had more echo.  It was hard to make out all of the words.

As I was leaving, I heard a patron say “I don’t see why they have to add all the politics! Why can’t they let entertainment be entertainment and let politics be politics.”

To that I say:

Why do so many politicians these days have to have so much entertainment in their politics?  Why can’t they take real life more seriously?  The White House and Capital Hill aren’t supposed to constitute a Reality TV Program.

If they start leaving entertainment out of the politics, maybe we’ll start leaving more of the politics out of our entertainment.

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The Bread and Puppets Theatre:

The May 17-19th performances were here:

The May 20-21st performances were here:

More information:

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Looking Inside of the World

April 30, 2017

From 2003.

Some of us become addicted to the absolute truth.  We search it out. We try to find it, as best we can.

We see things as we are.  Then we peel off the outer layer.  Inside that, there’s often something surprising and even majestic.  Yet we peel off that layer too.  It’s like a box inside of a box inside of a box inside of a box.

Sometimes, it’s like an insect or animal shedding its skin, again and again.

Phantom skins shield us from the mystery.  They hide things, like layers of clothes.

Some live their lives out deliriously in love with lies and lying. Falsehood, confusion, distraction and stupidity are like sunlight to them, like air.

Art and artists (of all stripes) fight for truth.  Sometimes it’s a magical or strange truth. Yet its roots and its heart are tangled with reality.

We look inside of the world.  There are realities concealed within realities.

We search for deeper truths related to what it means to be a human being, living in this world.

The truest thing ever always fights and struggles to be exposed and revealed.  We hide it and we hide from it.  Some of us are frightened by it. Others long to see it.  It’s the very thing which we most want to see.

Open Your Eyes, Before It’s Too Late

March 30, 2017

It’s a strange and complicated thing, being awake.  When you get out of bed in the morning, when you open your eyes: then all bets are off.

We stumble and go through our morning-time rituals.  Some of us search out coffee or tea and maybe something sweet.  Others ingest healthy things, to better energize their day.

There’s a big difference between being merely awake and being wide awake.  It’s not enough to be not asleep.  Hyper-awareness comes on like a trance, like a broken song.  Sometimes, for the artist, this awareness is more like a dance.

Sometimes it’s a sad dance.  Sometimes it’s a happy dance.

We’re after truth.  We’re after magic.  We try to enter the deepest, secret heart of life itself.  We breathe the air of mystery yet shrug off most puzzlement.

Some people are asleep while they’re awake.  The hate reality and the train it rode in on.  They’ve perfected the use of blinders. They wear eyeglasses which distort everything, then proclaim “This is the way things truly are!”

To that, well “No, no, no (and then) no.”

The electronic fuzz of television, the delirium of dead-end wishing, the death/violence/ finance super-deal, the mockery and the distortion of love itself, the ridicule and disgust directed at the true poet:  all of these things and more.  They’re ready for a swift kick in the pants! They’re ready to be taken care of.

Open your eyes!  Open your mind and your heart.  Open them wide, before it’s too late.

Art Matters More than Ever!

February 26, 2017
From 1978

From 1978 “Invocation of the Forces of Summer”

1800’s poet Arthur Rimbaud talked about the friends of death and the enemies of love.  This has always stuck with me. *

The group to which he referred is now ascendant and clawing, cheating and back-stabbing their way to power.  This is going on not only in Great Britain and the U.S.A.  There are signs of it everywhere.

These people are no friend to the true artists and poets.  The creative, aware and alert mind is something which they disdain. Sometimes they may even dread it and fear it.

Art has an important part to play in resisting the dominant and pervasive misery.  If there was an undeniable and vigorous artistic Renaissance which wanted no part of them, it would help to awaken and inspire people.  We need not only to reach out to our own tribe but to the people on the fence.

If someone’s truly brainwashed and frozen within their delusion, it will be hard to sway them  Yet we need to keep trying.  We need to try to thaw or warm the relations in this cold, cold war.  One way to do this is through Art.  Art is a form of communication, among other things.

More Art!  Quality is more important than quantity, yet numbers don’t hurt.

Musicians, performers, singers, dancers, film-makers, actors/ actresses, cartoonists, writers, poets, photographers, print-makers, sculptors, artists and dreamers of all stripes: work hard, talk to each other, take to the streets and go door to door if need be. Renaissance Now!


*When I can locate the precise Rimbaud quotation I’ll append it here.

Here are some of the previous posts and manifestos that I’ve written which are connected to these ideas.

Renaissance Now:

Art Therapy for a Sick World:

Shake Up the World with Art:

For the Encouragement and Strengthening of the Arts:

From 2009:

Tips on making Political Art: 2017-2020

January 19, 2017


Tips on making political art from 2017 to 2020:

  1. Respond to events as they unfold.  Keep your eyes and ears open.
  2. Stick to the most real sort of reality.  The truth hurts but lies can kill.  Artists often dwell in a world of imagination.  Once again though, harsh reality rears its ugly head.  It will be hard to ignore. It may well be dangerous to ignore.  You may need to take a “sanity break” now and then.  Yet try to understand what’s happening and to respond to it.
  3. You need to do more than just preach to the converted.  You need to go outside of your own circle at times.  Some of the conservative citizens also care about the earth, love, human dignity, art, poetry, truth, respect, magic and beauty. Maybe we can change their minds or at least initiate a dialogue. Art is one way to do this.
  4. I’ve made a promise not to mention his name, or to mention it as little as possible.  Mr DT has all the publicity he needs.  He doesn’t need any help from me.
  5. Elsewhere, I’ve taken DT to be a humorless trickster.  If so, he’s one who hates being ridiculed or kidded.  Can he take a joke? That said, humor will have a part to play in any art that responds to these new events and new players.  Some believe that making fun of the man empowers him and even helps him.  Yet there must be something here that we can  make fun of!
  6. In responding to political events: if you’re frightened, if you’re sad, if you’re angry, if you’re enraged , you still need to carry on.  You need to have whatever you create still be an authentic work of art.  You need to speak to people, and to touch people.  Maybe you can move a few hearts and minds.
  7. Making political art may well connect you with the greater tribe of artists.  Dialogue and work with each other and enter into a spirit of solidarity.
  8. Art can wake people up.  It can shake them up.  It can make them more aware.  It can also be a balm or a medicine.  It can be a calmer place amidst the frenzy.  Both of these sides are important.
  9. Watch out!  Watch out for bigotry and the forces trying to make hating normal again.  Watch out for censorship and disinformation. Watch out for violence and incitement toward violence.  Watch out for stupidity and cruelty.
  10. Form the wagons into a circle.  Try to aid and protect the poor people.  Try to assist and protect each other, both through art and through life..
  11. Beside making art and viewing art, try to protest.  Go to marches and gatherings.  Write and phone your elected officials as regards those issues that you care about.  We’ll find out how good our checks and balances are.  Will America be a true democracy?


My old Blog Posts on Political Art:

REVOLTED! A  Political art shows in Highland Park, Michigan from January 21st to February 4, 2017:

The Uninvited, a political art event in Detroit, one day only, January 22, 2017 1-3pm:

Related material:

Political Art in Times of Trouble?

Political Art in the Age of the New Nihilism?


By Tomi Ungerer

More on my Autumn 1996 trip to France

December 30, 2016

Here are more photos from Paris.  You can click on them to enlarge them, then backspace to return to this post.

Paris, 1996.

Paris, 1996.


A two photo sequence: Carousel and Protest March/ Rally.

A two photo sequence: Carousel and Protest March/ Rally.

To be continued/ Watch this Space.  Good Luck in 2017!

In Paris, France 1996

November 30, 2016

This is part 2 of 3 parts.


Paris, September 1996. The sunset light.

My trip to France was a game changer.  All thanks are due to my good friend Jacques Karamanoukian.  It’s difficult to believe that it’s been nearly fifteen years since he’s left us.  Thanks also to the Musée de la Création Franche in Bègles.  I’ll talk more about them in next month’s post.

Without their sponsorship and support, I’d have never got to France.  I was working at my fairly awful job at a Detroit department store.  I did everything except for selling and management.  Everything.  I had several mediocre bosses and several horrible bosses there. Luckily at this time the best (or most humane) of the managers was in charge, Mr. Gene DeCrease. He allowed me to go on this trip.  With other managers, I’m sure I’d have had to choose between the adventure and the job.

It was amazing just going around by myself.  I’d get lost now and then.  I loved just wandering aimlessly and feasting my eyes.

I got to go to the Picasso Museum, Halle Saint-Pierre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Centre George Pompidou.

I wish I’d taken more photos.  I did utilize some one-use-only panoramic cameras.  I got a few good vertical shots with these too.


Paris 1996.


This is the next year, 1997, with an oil painting which was inspired by my trip to Paris and by Pablo Picasso.

My Trip to France in 1996

October 31, 2016
Drawn while riding the fast train from Paris to Bègles on September 28 1996.

Drawn while riding the fast train from Paris to Bègles, September 1996.

In late September and early October of 1996, I made my only trip overseas.  I left North America.  Perhaps I will do so again someday.

I was chosen to exhibit at the Musée de la Création Franche in Bègles, France.  Of the seventeen artists, I was the only American.  I was in good company.  I really enjoyed the artwork of the other artists that I exhibited with. Some, like Roy Wenzel and Evelyne Postic, I’ve looked at their work recently.  Others, I still need to track them down.

This was sponsored by my good friend, the late Jacques Karamanoukian.  We traveled together and he was my host, guide and translator.  Thank you, Jacques!

It’s hard for me to believe that this was twenty years ago.  It seems like it was far more recent than that.  So much of this trip is fresh and clear in my mind and heart.

I'm on the left, Jaber is center. Paris, September 1996. Photo by Jacques Karamanoukian.

With Jaber, center. At a Paris art gallery. September 1996. Photo by Jacques Karamanoukian.

I’ll try to have a more detailed history of this adventure next time.  For now, here a a few scattered memories:

The long flight was an experience in itself.  I’d flown to New York but this was different.  I was happy to be flying over Great Britain.  There were clouds and textures in the sky.

I was walking around Paris and Clamart reading Homer’s Odyssey, my travel book of choice.  I was also drawing a lot, of course.

My French language skills are fairly poor.  I know what a lot of  the words mean but I can’t string them all together.  People would translate for me.  I communicated with artists through art or through performance.  By the time I left I’d learned to make change at least, in my intent yet fumbling attempts to speak French.

I had one especially great walk where I just wandered around Paris. One thing that I found was this old store, Deyrolle. I especially loved its drawers full of brightly colored butterflies and moths..  I opened one drawer after another.

There were other surreal chance encounters.  I met one guy who knew the poet Ted Joans and a photo he’d taken of him in his wallet. Joans died in 2003.  I look at his work fairly often.

It was great going from Paris to Bègles.  We took the fast train and things seemed to rush by.  Bègles is in the south of France, near Bordeaux. Showing my work there was a great experience.  Besides most of the artists that I showed with, I met other artists as well.

These included Claudine Goux and Gerard Sendrey.  They’re both wonderful artists and had known Jacques for a while.

Musée de la Création Franche is a wonderful space.  It was a pleasure and an honor to be shown there.  My work was well received.


To close, here are some photos from a bit where I was playing Jaber’s puppet or mechanical man.  He “conducted” me despite the language difference.  He pretended to wind me up as if I had a key in my back and set me off on my action.  Jaber is quite a guy. He and Jacques were good friends.  I still see his work on the internet.  I’ll write more about Monsieur Jaber in the future.


Photograph by Jacques Karamanoukian


Photograph by Jacques Karamanoukian.


Photograph by Jacques Karamanoukian.



Ted Joans:

The Musée de la Création Franche, in Bègles: