Detroit Artist Uses 10,000 Shoes To Bring Together Community, Raise Homelessness Awareness (PHOTOS)

DETROIT -- Tyree Guyton is best known for transforming a deteriorating Detroit neighborhood into a colorful, outdoor polka-dotted art gallery.

Twenty-five years later, Guyton again is using the Motor City as his canvas.

This time, though, instead of applying a paint brush to a series of vacant homes, he's focusing on something much smaller: shoes.

Lots of them.

Guyton and an army of volunteers have painted or hauled in close to 10,000 discarded and donated shoes.

Called "Street Folk," Guyton's latest outdoor art installation populates an entire city block with sneakers, slippers, ski boots, wingtips and many other kinds of footwear.

Guyton's masterpiece, the Heidelberg Project, brought attention to Detroit's many vacant homes. "Street Folk" focuses on the city's homeless population.

"I live around the corner here, and so I see every day this church behind me, feeding people every Wednesday, and I knew I wanted to say something," he said. "And it came to me to talk about the plight of the people right here."

In addition to school kids and others who donated their time and shoes, Guyton said he paid the homeless to help him with various tasks.

He would ask them to work and let them offer up a figure for their compensation.

"It's my way of having them put a value on themselves," Guyton said.

Guyton invited Lamuel Sparks to come by and look around on Thursday. The 47-year-old, who's been without a permanent residence for about five months, has been staying at the Detroit Rescue Mission.

"I think this is very interesting," he said of "Street Folk." "It says there are a lot of homeless people that need to be taken care of."

Guyton told Samuels, who was in need of shoes, that he could take any pair he wanted.

Slipping on a pair, Samuels said, "I think these are gonna work."

Nearly every kind of footwear is represented in "Street Folk," roller skates and roller blades, pumps and stilettos, winter boots and cowboy boots, tennis shoes and high-tops and sandals and flip-flops.

Some faced the same direction. Some sat on their sides. Others were placed to form a large circle.

"I find shoes to be interesting – fascinating – because life is a journey," Guyton said. "It's a tool that helps us to go from one point to the next."

Some of the shoes made long journeys of their own.

People from as far away as Egypt, Italy, Iraq and the United Kingdom sent in samples. Some included a handwritten note to explain their donation's significance.

An area firefighter sent along a pair of boots from his department.

"These boots have seen both the best and worst of what can happen in our lives ... and tell the tales of house fires and births of babies," the note read.

"Street Folk," which will be on view for a few weeks, is part of Art X Detroit, a new arts festival that runs through Sunday.

Art X Detroit features new visual, literary and performing arts at 17 different venues created by each of the 38 Kresge Artist Fellows and Kresge Eminent Artists who received awards from The Kresge Foundation between 2008-10.

Guyton was awarded a $25,000 Artist Fellowship, which he used to put together "Street Folk."

"When they gave me the opportunity, I knew I wanted to do something out of the box," he said.

The street that hosts the installation – Edmunds Place – sits just north of downtown and not far from Comerica Park, which was the site of a lot of activity as crews prepared the ballpark for the Detroit Tigers' home opener on Friday.

In contrast, Edmunds Place and its handful of mostly vacant structures was quiet and still, save for Guyton's last-minute tinkering.

A number of notes that accompanied shoe donations were affixed to a fence that runs along the street.

One, written in a child's script, read: "I had 30 touchdowns with these shoes in football."