Ralph Fasanella’s monumental landscapes of the urban working-class were his way of raising social awareness and fomenting change. Fasanella acquired his ideology from his mother, an anti-fascist and union activist. Though he spent the early years of his adult life as a union leader, he quickly discovered his skill with a paintbrush. Fasanella was a “working class painter” and by 1948 he was painting almost mural-sized surfaces. He saw these works as public art, and in many ways Fasanella believed he was doing similar work with his art as he was as a union leader. Today his work is both highly-regarded and widely-exhibited; however his visibility was not always so great during his career. From the late-1940s to the 1970s Fasanella was unable to make any sales. This meant that during many of the years in which he was producing his impressive works he simply went unnoticed by the greater part of society.
Fasanella’s story made me wonder about people out there today who are doing socially-conscious public art and I came across Tyree Guyton. After working as a firefighter, autoworker, and serving in the military, Guyton attended the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. He has since been awarded an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts. However, do not mistake Guyton for your traditional artist. As a painter and a sculptor, he has been described as an urban environmental artist. His most famous undertaking is The Heidelberg Project, a two-block area in Detroit that is transformed using everyday, discarded objects to create an environment of “color, symbolism, and intrigue.” Since its beginning in 1986, the Heidelberg Project has received great acclaim and now draws around 275,000 annual visitors as a registered non-profit organization. The site has also caused some conflict with the city of Detroit, who has requisitioned some of the buildings on several instances under the auspices that they were impeding urban planning. However, Guyton remains committed to using his art to improve the struggling Detroit community where he also grew up and continues to live. In his own words, Guyton’s goal is, “When you come to the Heidelberg Project, I want you to think—really think! My art is a medicine for the community. You can’t heal the land until you heal the minds of the people.”
In addition to the Heidelberg Project, Guyton has continued to create art and serve as a visible advocate for urban rejuvenation. In 1999, he garnered attention for the award-winning HBO Documentary, Come Unto Me: The Faces of Tyree Guyton, which examines his work on the East Side of Detroit. Just recently, on April 8, Guyton unveiled “Street Folk”, a display of nearly 10,000 discarded and painted shoes covering a whole block of Detroit. “Street Folk” is meant to highlight the plight of Detroit’s urban homeless. Guyton is quoted as saying, “The shoes are a reflection of people, all going in different directions and yet they are all in the streets.”
Guyton’s continued work in Detroit exhibits a commitment to his hometown and his vision of a better Detroit. Though he has garnered greater attention thus far in his life than Fasanella did, both share the tradition of using their artistic abilities as a means to express their social beliefs and encourage others to action. While we may not all be artists, examples like Fasanella and Guyton can encourage us all to utilize our own talents towards a betterment of the world around us.