Tim Burke and Detroit Industrial Gallery

Burke and wife

Tim Burke and his wife, Rosa Castellanos, at the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

In my post the other day about the Heidelberg Project, I wanted to mention Tim Burke, an artist who runs an outdoor installation called the Detroit Industrial Gallery that is immediately adjacent to the Heidelberg Project on Heidelberg Street.

The Heidelberg post got to be a little long, though, so I thought both the Detroit Industrial Gallery and the Heidelberg Project would be better served with their own, distinct posts.

I met Tim when I went to visit the Heidelberg Project.  He was in the yard in front of his house, 3647 Heidelberg St., which he has transformed into the Detroit Industrial Gallery.  He was working on a new object to add to the installation, a wooden cross, which you can see balanced on the sawhorse in the picture above.

The Detroit Industrial Gallery, 3647 Heidelberg St., on an unusually sunny winter day in Michigan.

The Detroit Industrial Gallery, 3647 Heidelberg St., on an unusually sunny winter day in Michigan.


Before Tim bought it, the Detroit Industrial Gallery was the house of Carl Snyder, an artist of the legendary Cass Corridor scene.  Like the Heidelberg Project, Detroit Industrial Gallery dresses up a dilapidated East Side house with a variety of artworks made of unconventional materials.

In particular, Tim likes to use metals, and other scrap materials associated with industry.  He explains: “There’s a sculpture of a flower in there, and a macho guy like me doesn’t like people to see him making flowers.  So I make it out of steel, and it weighs 200 pounds.”

Tim’s current favorite material is Pewabic tile, from the famous studio founded in Detroit by Mary Chase Perry Stratton in 1903.  “People who had money back in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, always used Pewabic.  All the People Mover stops are done with Pewabic tile.”

A portion of the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

A portion of the Detroit Industrial Gallery.

Tim’s newest project is a massive wall constructed of Pewabic tile taken from multiple famous Detroit buildings that are no longer standing, including the J.L. Hudson’s flagship downtown Detroit department store, and the the first YWCA branch in the nation, founded by Lucy Thurman, specifically for black women.

Tim first got involved in the art scene at the behest of his therapist, Ted Church.  At a house on Russell St. near Gratiot, Tim was living with his therapist after a series of personal setbacks.  “I was going  through a rough time in my life,” Tim says.  “I’d lost my job and I was walking away from a marriage with a five year old kid.”

Ted provided constant encouragement to Tim to express himself and, in the process, work through his problems.  Tim describes one day, when he and his therapist were living together, when “He brought home some nails and threw ’em on the table and said, ‘Make something out of this.’ “

This was happening around 1986, when Tyree Guyton first started building the Heidelberg Project a short distance away from where Tim and Ted were living.  

Tim became “sort of a follower of Tyree” in that period, as the combined influence of Ted Church as Tim’s therapist and Guyton’s burgeoning installation inspired Tim to think about art as a means of self-transformation.  For by that point in his life, Tim had come full-circle in the worst way: after vowing in his adolescence and early adulthood never to make the mistakes that his parents had made during his childhood, a combination of substance abuse and sheer neurosis led Tim to become exactly the opposite of what he had always wanted to be.

“I thought I could put a family together and do it better than they did,” Tim says.  “But what I did was the same thing that happened to me.”

Tim entered the recovery community.  But he continued to relapse until he found the right way to integrate the experience of going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings into his life as a whole.

“So I was going to meetings,” Tim says of himself in the 80’s, “but I had one foot in the meetings and one foot in my family.  I had to have the meetings be the main thing in my life, so I could share life with the family instead of trying to be the top dog all the time.”

As a direct result of making recovery and attending meetings the most important focus in his life, Tim eventually realized that it was possible to have relationships with people that were not hierarchical in nature.  Not only as an equal with his wife and children in his family, but also as “a worker among workers, a citizen among citizens,” was the way that Tim decided that he wanted to live.  “I don’t have that now, it’ll take me another couple of lifetimes or so, but that’s the goal.”

Tim Burke

Tim Burke

In my view, Tim’s work as an artist does not address these themes in any literal way.  Instead, the work simply is Tim, in the process of grappling with himself, at a maximum level of emotional intensity and with no end to the process in sight.

A major breakthrough for Tim both as an artist and as a person occurred after he created a sculpture of a bipedal, robotic being that resonated with Tim in a strongly emotional way.  By then, Tim had been doing art long enough that his friend, noted Cass Corridor artist Carl Snyder, had recruited him for a gallery show curated by Jill Cunningham, and the response to his work had been effusive.

“It boosted me,” Tim says of that show.  “I had about fourteen pieces of art in that show and I sold ten of them.  That told me that, people like your art, man.”

The image of the mechanical man is a recurrent theme in Tim's work.

The image of the mechanical man is a recurrent theme in Tim's work.


Tim showed the sculpture of the robotic figure to his therapist.  Tim was so satisfied with the sculpture that he had expected little more from the therapist than a round of applause, but, instead, the therapist told him to stand with his back to the sculpture and say the first words that came into his mind.

Tim didn’t want to do it at first; the therapist offered to leave the room, and Tim did as he was told as soon as the therapist was gone.

Tim stood in the room, empty of all humans but himself, with the sculpture behind him.

The first words that entered Tim’s mind were, “Don’t blink, don’t breathe, or it’ll kill you.”

Pure, violent terror, in other words, was what Tim associated with the robotic-form sculpture that he had just created.  “Anybody who has a little bit of therapy knows that you’re projecting” at a moment like that, he says.

Tim realized that the sculpture had emerged from a recurring nightmare that he had experienced as a boy of ten and eleven, about a figure Tim calls “the iron man.”  

I asked Tim if he was referring to Iron Man, the Marvel Comics superhero, and he said no–in contrast to the grace and athleticism of that character, this “iron man” was “this clumping kind of creature—clump clump clump.”

In the nightmare, “the iron man would be coming down the stairs to kill everybody in my family.  And I tried to protect my sisters, and these were the rules that I made up.”

That is, “don’t blink, don’t breathe, or it’ll kill you,” in Tim’s nightmare, were the instructions that he gave to his sisters to help them avoid being killed by the iron man.

After more therapy, Tim saw that the nightmare had an antecedent in real life.  One night, when Tim was a boy, his stepfather had rampaged around his street, chasing a couple of boys with a gun, and “I thought I was punkass because I didn’t shoot him.”



Since then, Tim has revisited the figure of the mechanical man many times.  There are numerous examples here, at the Detroit Industrial Gallery website.

“My art is a confession,” Tim says. “People ask me what my art means, and that iron man story, that’s what that art means to me.  Now, everyone who looks at a piece of art has their own story that’s valid.  Because you didn’t interpret it as I did, that doesn’t mean that story is not valid.  A lot of people look at a piece of art and think they have to get it, but that’s not true.”

For Tim, art derives its power not from what it means, in any absolute sense, but from what it does for creator and spectator alike in the pure spontaneity of the moment.

That’s what Tim thinks is exciting about making art outdoors in unconventional spaces, like the Heidelberg Project and the Detroit Industrial Gallery: the free rein that non-museal space gives to interpretive imagination of the spectator.


“In a traditional art space I don’t think you have as much dialogue,” Tim says.  “In museums you have docents walking around, but I don’t think that those docents ask the people what that piece of art means to them.  If people are out here and I see them, I can ask them what it means to them.”

Most of the time, the responses that Tim gets from visitors to Heidelberg Street take him by surprise.  But that’s the whole fun of it: “It’s funny because the interpretation is like, wow, ‘I would have not have thought that.’  It’s OK that they’re [visitors to Detroit Industrial Gallery] saying that, but I let them know that they’re making a confession about themselves.  Then people will start to have a conversation among themselves, and you don’t see that as much in a museum.”

And the end of my post about the Heidelberg Project, I envisioned the Project growing until it gradually absorbs the entire city of Detroit, and then the rest of the world.  Talking with Tim and visiting Detroit Industrial Gallery made me think about an inverse sort of process, one in which the practice of making public art penetrates deeper and deeper sectors of an individual person’s psyche.  

Either way, the result is liberation, whether on a mass or individual scale.  I think that my exposure to Detroit’s Heidelberg Street and its artists is going to have an effect on me that will last a long time, but I can’t say how.

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 30, 2009.

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