Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Inspiration from the inner city

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I was all set to write about the anti- inflammatory properties of wild salmon and avocados (which may be next week’s topic), but I had an experience this morning that I thought was enlightening enough to share.  Today we had two hours to spend in Detroit before taking off for home after our nephew’s graduation from the University of Michigan.  We decided to check out the Heidelberg Project, which is an open-air art installation on a street near downtown Detroit. We had no idea what to expect and thought we may spend half an hour or so there before driving to the airport. Two hours later, we had a one-of-a- kind experience that we’ll remember for a long time to come.

We took a right onto Heidelberg street where we were met with a profusion of installations of “found” objects within two city blocks. There were many repeating themes and objects, but some of the most prominent ones were  high piles of shoes and stuffed animals,  and hundreds of actual, or depictions of clocks. There were also many bikes, bike parts, rusty hoods of cars, truck cabs, taxi parts and depictions of taxis and cars, and other modes of transportation. There were statues, paintings, TVs that said “WAR” on them, kiln-flattened liquor bottles embedded into pavers and cement, a type of mandala made of bricks and a polka-dotted house amidst five other houses that still remained on these two blocks.


There was a man we said hello to as we walked up the length of the exhibit and down the other side of the street. He was still there when we took our second lap around to make sure we didn’t miss anything. There was a pair of men, one who walked out of his home and appeared to pass something to the other man who drove up in a car as we walked by. We kept walking, keeping our thoughts to ourselves.

When we passed the first man the second time, he was very friendly and we found out he was the artist and creator of this huge project. Tyree Guyton, an imposing man of about 60, asked us a lot of soul searching questions and answered our questions about his art and intentions. How lucky to happen upon our very own personal curator who could interpret his meanings for us!
He grew up on that very block, but saw many houses on it burn down during the course of a few decades beginning in the 1960s. This left a blighted landscape that he decided to transform through colorful sculptures of discarded household objects, and other items found on the street. There were also additional houses he decorated that were burned down in the 1990’s. He has worked hard to continue creating and making this project endure and evolve.

We asked him to help us understand the messages behind some of his prevalent themes. Herein is a summary:

Ellen: What are you communicating through the clocks, which were set to all different times?
Tyree:  This is your time to be here, right now.  It’s not accidental, you’re here  (at the Heidelberg Project) for a reason.
Jeff: What are you portraying through the trophies?
T: Everyone is a winner, but sometimes people need physical objects to see it, because they can’t feel it.

We noticed an actual burnt-out frame of a house, which had the roof frame turned at a slanted angle, but still attached to the top of the house. On this house were many records of Motown hits, Alan Sherman, and other popular music of days gone by.
In this house frame were old stereos, receivers, and a phonograph.

J: Were you representing the people that used to live in that house through their objects?
T: Yes, the family that lived there loved music, and I do too, and listen to music all the time as I create.
J: What is meaning behind all the shoes?
T: What would your shoes say about you if they could talk? Where you’ve been, what you do, etc.
J: And on top of the shoe pile is a girl riding a horse up to heaven.
T: Yes, that’s where she’s going.
E: There a lot of themes of transport, were you conveying people moving?
T: Yes, we’re always moving forward, and setting our goals to move ahead, even if someone else takes us there, like in a taxi, we’re deciding where to go.
E: There are a lot of gloves in so many places on different pieces. What do they represent?
T: The right hand of God, influencing everything we do.
J: What’s the meaning behind the doors?
T: We are always opening doors to go the next place or phase. You will open the car door, then go through the airplane door to get to your next destination, always moving forward.
J: is there an intention to the art being outside?
T: Yes, the elements affect it, change it, and they are evolving because of the effect the environment has on them, just as we are always changing as we pass our time on earth.
J: Does any piece here bear a warning?
T: The clocks show time and its passing.


Then it was Tyree’s chance to ask questions:

“What do you want to do with the rest of your life/ mission?
Where do you think change has to begin?
Do you believe in God?
What are you doing or can you do to change the world to make it better?”

About judgment: When you saw me with this tattered coat sweeping the street, what did you think? What did you think of the two men in the neighborhood that looked like they were passing something?  We admitted we pass judgment and it’s something we have to look at.  Facilitating discussion and building bridges between people was another one of his goals.

Certain objects also could have served as a retrospective on technology, like the telephones, TVs, music players from several decades. When you see a rotary dial phone next to one with a built-in answering machine and now think how many of us have no use for even a landline, you really can feel the passing of time. This was a major repeating theme.

This evocative dialogue ended with him bringing us to one other object nailed to the side of the polka-dotted house.  It was a mirror. He asked us to look in it and asked what we saw, and said “That’s where it all starts”. He then got another idea, went to his truck and took a can of blue spray paint, handed it to Jeff and said, “Use this square of sidewalk and draw your perception of time or a clock.”

So, our visit was quite thought provoking and complete. We got to observe, interact, donate, learn the intent and meaning behind the art, interact with the artist, and actually become a part of the installation.

To learn more about this project, go to

A few thoughts to contemplate:
What am I doing to contribute?
Change starts with me, what am I doing to build bridges or better myself?
Time’s passing, how can I maximize my time left here on earth?
How can I take blighted places/ situations/ circumstances and make them hopeful or move people to act to improve things?
How can I acknowledge and accept the passing of time while honoring it and making the best of it?

Whether it has to do with your health, life’s mission or goals, maybe taking a few minutes to think about these things is worthwhile. Art has a wonderful way of doing that. I often think of exercising as a means to an end- if I stay healthy, I can best accomplish some of the ideals expressed above.

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