Dec. 7 2011 12:00 AM

Author J.H. Shapiro salutes famed Detroit artist Tyree Guyton


The Tyree Guyton story has been begging for a lavishly
illustrated and wonderfully written children’s book. Now, J. H.
Shapiro, formerly known as Jane and formerly of the Lansing area and
now living in Portland, Ore., has written “Magic Trash,” a beautifully
told story about one of Michigan’s most beautiful people.

The book is illustrated by Vanessa Newtown, who wisely
used some of the same techniques Guyton uses in his own work to evoke a
sense of merriment in found pieces.

Detroit artist Guyton started painting his Heidelberg
neighborhood 25 years ago. He had returned to his childhood home after
serving in the Army and attending art school, only to find vacant
dilapidated and abandoned houses. Where some saw blight, Guyton saw a
blank canvas, which he turned into an elaborate display of houses
decorated with polka dots, stripes and every imaginable shape, all in
bright colors.

His neighborhood is famous worldwide, but it is still
controversial. In 1991 and 1999, city officials sent bulldozers to
destroy his art, claiming it stood in the way of planned urban
redevelopment projects.

Nowadays, Guyton gets grants from government and
non-profit agencies to install his sculptures. Last spring, he put
10,000 useable shoes and boots on a city block with the intent to give
them away to those who needed them.

You can learn more about the Heidelberg Project at

Shapiro answered questions about her new work:

How did you discover Tyree Guyton and what piqued your interest in writing about him?

“I discovered Tyree Guyton’s art seven years ago while a
docent at the Kresge Art Museum on the Michigan State University
campus. His American flag-painted workman’s lunchbox locked inside a
birdcage inspired adults to write poetry and (inspired) children to
reach out to touch. Then I saw the short film ‘Come Unto Me: The Faces
of Tyree Guyton.’ and I knew that Tyree’s true story had the elements
of a good children’s book including antagonists, crashes and, finally,
a satisfying ending.” 

What was the hardest part for you in writing the book?

“A challenge for me, as with all stories, was to stay
focused and not to try to tell everything. In Tyree’s story I wrote
only about his life as it relates to art. There was much about his life
of which I still know little. For example, several of his brothers have
been ‘lost to the streets,’ but I don’t know details.  This
book was only about his art, so I focused on his relationship with his
grandfather, who gave him the paintbrush and told him, ‘paint your
world.’ I liked this message for all children. Tyree’s Grandpa Sam, by
the way, was a step-grandfather. The two of them just happened to hit
it off.”

What is your observation about children’s reactions to the book and how his art influences those around him?

“Tyree’s art is important because it transformed a
cast-off neighborhood into a multi-colored sculpture park made of found
objects. The neighborhood seemed to grow in strength even as it was
attacked with criticism and bulldozers. Tyree says, ‘Some people get it
and some don’t.’ And that seems O.K. to him, as long as his work is
left standing.

“One day when I visited Heidelberg Street with my husband
and a Detroit friend, Tyree showed us a huge metal sculpture being cast
for installation in downtown Detroit. We were all thrilled to watch the
process and eager to know the results. Later, we were sad to learn that
the city had rejected the piece because of technicalities in the
process of commissioning it. So controversy lives on. However, the
statue has finally been installed at a different location downtown.

“On the day of this visit we watched a dance group create
a performance piece and a graduate student lay bricks for an entryway
monument. People continue to be inspired by Tyree’s work.”

Practically speaking, how did you work with such a busy artist as Guyton?

“Most of my communication during the years of working on
this book has been with Jenenne Whitfield, Tyree’s wife and the
director of Heidelberg Project. Tyree has usually been busy creating
art and often talking with visitors on Heidelberg, while Jenenne takes
care of management. Thus, when I asked Jenenne, “What size paintbrush
did Grandpa Sam give to 9-year-old Tyree?” she asked Tyree, then
e-mailed his answer. Both Tyree and Jenenne have been consistently
friendly and eager for the children’s book, but without Jenenne’s help
this book might not have been published. I’m donating half my author
royalties to the Heidelberg Project.”

Didn’t you belong to a writing group? How did that work?

“Before I moved to Portland, I belonged to the fabulous
Lansing children’s writers group that still meets at Schuler Books. We
each brought work, read it and then gained by all the comments from
other members. One moment that stands out in my memory: Debbie Diesen
reading a rhyming story. Then (another member) commented, “If this
doesn’t get published, nothing will.” Do I need to say that Debbie’s
‘Pout-Pout Fish’ went on to make a big splash? (Diesen is a local
children’s book author living in Grand Ledge.)

This writers’ group is part of the national organization,
the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. If anyone
reading this is interested in writing for children, please join SCBWI.
More information is available at”

Have you started another book?

“Currently, I’m writing a novel with a 10-year-old
protagonist, and two picture books. These may be lucky enough to be
bound as books some day or they may rest quietly in my files of
unpublished stories. Time will tell.”