Tuesday, January 31, 2012

African American History Month: Spotlight on Magic Trash

Author Jane Shapiro writes about her latest book, Magic Trash, a picture book biography of African American artist Tyree Guyton, who used his paintbrush to transform the decaying, crime-ridden neighborhood where he grew up into the Heidelberg Project, an interactive sculpture park in Detroit, Michigan.

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, disa
ppointments, 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 six
ties 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.


Carol Riggs said...

"Paint your world" is a great thing to sign your books with, Jane! Thanks for the fun interview post here. I love the playful poetry of this book. :)

Ellen B said...

Fascinating story here. I look forward to seeing the book.

Ruth Tenzer Feldman said...

Thanks for the post, Jane. And thanks especially for Magic Trash, which has an artful blend of words and images. Congratulations!