Arts & Culture » Visual Art

Art gardening


While modern art has been used, abused and misunderstood, art in public has found itself in an especially precarious position. Detroit enfant terrible Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, for instance, incensed its neighbors, provoked the wrathful bulldozers of at least two Detroit mayors and even found its gritty spirit exported to the residential vales of Oakland County, where it was promptly and unceremoniously dispatched from this earth.

As a result, Guyton has perhaps learned that home is where the art is. A new wave of gratitude and dedication seems to have overtaken the oft-maligned reanimator of abandoned houses and desolate fields, because he’s back in business in his old neighborhood. And this time he’s got a posse of architects, educators and kids with him.

Except that Heidelberg Street per se isn’t the focus, but rather Bunche Elementary School, just a few blocks from Guyton’s postmodern monument to entropy. And his main cohorts are members of the architecture department at the Cranbrook Academy of Art — in particular, department head Peter Lynch and graduate students Marianne Desmarais and Vibeke Schroeder.

The name of this new venture in making art relevant to community needs is “The Bunche Arboretum 2002,” a garden containing vegetable plots, flowers, birdhouses and sculptures. It began with Lynch posing a problem to his students in the fall of 2000 — “In an urban situation like Detroit, what is an architect’s function?” (as Schroeder remembers his formulation) — and the follow-up involved checking out neighborhoods around inner-city public schools that had large adjacent stretches of unused land.

On a tip from downtown-space pioneer Lee Burns, the architects discovered that Bunche not only fit the bill as far as development needs went, but was also just three blocks from Heidelberg’s internationally renowned installations. So they called up Guyton and learned he had been involved with the school for years. The artist introduced them to Principal Violet C. Crawford, who says with a sense of amused wonder, “Things just kind of developed.” The Arboretum project became one dream that wasn’t deferred.

“I went to school here as a kid,” recalls Guyton. “Some of my teachers were Dennis Archer, Trudi Archer, [present judge] Norma Dotson and John Conyers Jr.’s brother. They had an art program here then …”

But Bunche, with an enrollment of 370 students from kindergarten through fifth grade, hasn’t been able to afford art lately.

“When you’re a smaller school, you don’t have the budget resources for an art teacher,” says Crawford.

And the land was just sitting out back of the school, a mix of weeds and scrabble that became an inviting challenge to the Cranbrook imaginations. By the end of April 2001, Desmarais was planting flowerbeds. Then a crew of grown-ups and kids planted some trees that Guyton had gotten with money from a grant (thus the name “arboretum”). Plants were donated by the lush Cranbrook gardens and Pontiac’s Golden Walsh Nursery. Throughout these phases, input from the kids was an integral part of the plan:

“I wanted to teach them,” says Schroeder, “that they could shape and change their environment — so they made drawings of what they would like to see grow in the garden.”

Peas, beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, nasturtium, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, chamomile, parsley, rosemary, sage, thyme, pumpkin and chives were planted, with Desmarais intending the plot as a teaching garden. Cranbrook ceramicist Tom Lauerman installed a “blue bowl” of small glazed pieces in the ground. Lynch put up a dozen dead saplings, each one 15 to 20 feet high, as supports for sky-high birdhouses. The kids drew facades for the little bird hotels and painted them before Lynch built the structures and installed them.

And kids paint the wildest things. Their designs for the Arboretum were key visions for the project’s future. Then they started collaborating with Guyton on a large fresh-air sculpture for the space. Funded by a 2002 Creative Artist Grant from ArtServe Michigan, Guyton’s involvement at Bunche includes two afternoons each week of art classes and interaction.

“I’ve been teaching them how to draw and paint. Actually,” he laughs, “they’ve been more or less teaching me how to paint.

“If you look down the street here, you’ll see several abandoned houses that we got some of the doors from. Then we primed them and fixed them up, to get them ready to be part of this art piece.

“Heidelberg has been talking once again. And when it talks, it makes me react.”

Paintbrushes in hand, watercolors (thank God) smeared on T-shirts and jeans, smudges on cheeks and arms, tongues stuck out in concentration, a bunch of fourth- and fifth-graders is prepping two doors this afternoon. The energy level is way above busting out. As the kids work and play hard, both at the same time, they get to know art as a vital combination of forces.

“We didn’t start this to stop,” says Guyton, who’ll continue his commitment to Bunche after the grant period is over. “The point is to make a presence here and to stay here. The idea is to use art as a catalyst, to open up minds and make kids think. (Shifting his attention to the young color-field painters) OK, you guys did a great job!”

Principal Crawford, however, relates a few incidents of vandalism when some of the trees were pulled out, then replanted by the kids and then pulled out again. After an all-school assembly visited the Arboretum, the problem subsided.

“It had to be older kids from the neighborhood, not from school,” she speculates, considering the investment these youngsters have in the project. “The land was really in bad shape before, but it’s turned into something that the students can use after school and in the summer. We’ll harvest the vegetables growing there, and take science classes out there to study the plants and insects.

“Probably all of the children in school have had a hand in working on what’s out there, putting something in that garden. We’re hoping they can all develop a sense of ownership about the space — that something that beautiful belongs to them.”

George Tysh is Metro Times’ arts editor. E-mail him at

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