An inspiring birdcage
While volunteering as a docent at the art museum of Michigan State University, I noticed the popularity of Tyree Guyton's American flag-painted worker's lunchbox locked inside a birdcage. Adults wrote poetry about the caged lunchbox, and children reached out to touch it.
I wondered then if the story of Tyree's art--complete with antagonists, disappointments, and triumphs--would appeal to a wide audience of children.
A working artist
Tyree Guyton and Jenenne Whitfield, Tyree's wife and the director of The Heidelberg Project, have both been helpful and supportive through all the years of writing. They patiently answered questions such as "What size paintbrush did Grandpa Sam give you?" Jenenne has been my main contact since Tyree is busy producing art and interacting with visitors on Heidelberg Street. But the day I observed him creating a sculpture was a real privilege and thrill.
Paint your world
My favorite passage from the book is:
"Paint the world," Grandpa said.
Tyree dipped into Grandpa's cans of color, sloshing purple, slapping yellow, aiming his brush like a magic wand. Abracadabra! Tyree's shyness vanished.
Sweet apples crunched when he glopped the red. He'd never seen Lake Huron, but now it splashed in a pool of blue.
I sign Magic Trash: "Paint your world" because that goal applies to all people, grown-ups, too.
Setting of Detroit
I've asked people attending book readings to guess the references to Detroit on the pages of Magic Trash. One woman eagerly called out, "Vernors ginger ale!"
When I researched the sixties of Tyree's youth in Detroit, I found that Martin Luther King had marched and spoken of his dream, Motown songs skipped off everyone's lips, and many residents were horrified when National Guard tanks rolled through the city.
Change had begun in the fifties when urban renewal encouraged residents to flee the city for the suburbs. Neighborhoods were bulldozed to build an Interstate, leaving many people homeless. Joblessness had begun to take hold with the infancy of outsourcing.
Heidelberg Street of even earlier decades had bustled with a diverse population of immigrants and folks from the south working in industry. Jenenne informed me that, as a child, the long-time White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, had lived in the same house in which Tyree grew up.
On recent visits to Detroit I have walked along the river, past the Tigers' new baseball stadium, on to the busy Eastern Market. I have seen Tyree's art exhibited at the Black History Museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and Wayne State University. I have enjoyed a restaurant thriving in an immaculate 1894 mansion, and attended a jazz concert with original music dedicated to Tyree's work. Detroiters, like Tyree and Jenenne, are still inspiring others.
What is art?
My mother was an artist who encouraged my three brothers and me to be creative. She once won first place in an exhibit by painting a watercolor using a sponge dipped in dishwater.
I've never stopped enjoying and studying visual art in its many forms. Currently I lead school groups through the Portland Art Museum in Oregon where students can consider the question: "What it art?"
Posted by J. H. Shapiro, author of Magic Trash: A Story of Tyree Guyton and His Art, illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton.