Hamtramck 'Disneyland' future uncertain after artist's death

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Posted: Sep 06, 2015 11:17 AM
Hamtramck 'Disneyland' future uncertain after artist's death

HAMTRAMCK, Mich. (AP) — Brightly painted ceiling fans and rocking horses, a kid-sized jet and helicopter, plastic Santas and the rest of a whimsical array attached to two small backyard garages attract visitors from thousands of miles away to the folk art known as "Hamtramck's Disneyland."

But since the death in May of its creator, Ukrainian immigrant Dmytro Szylak (shuh-LAHK), carnival-like music no longer plays over speakers. The strings of Christmas lights are dark, and the fan blades spin only from the wind.

Szylak, who spent about 20 years constructing the artwork after retiring from a General Motors factory, died May 1 at age 92. The future of his colorful canvas hinges on a probate court battle between his estranged adult daughters and a friend named in his will.

A hearing is scheduled this month. In the meantime, the houses and artwork are being monitored by a court-appointed administrator.

Elected officials and art leaders in the enclave of Detroit known for its Polish heritage, polka music and Paczki pastries want Hamtramck's Disneyland preserved — preferably where it is, on the weathered garages behind blue-collar homes on Klinger Street.

"It makes my imagination run," said Christopher Schneider, president of the local nonprofit Hatch Art. "All the moving parts and how he assembled things. His bold use of color. It takes an artist to have the vision to do it. Most people when you see it think, 'I can do that.' But they lack the vision and the drive. He thought possibilities."

Some see the installation as a vivid escape from day-to-day drab urbanism. Yuriy Byega, who befriended Szylak several years ago and was named his beneficiary, said the assemblage pays homage to Szylak's Eastern European and American heritage.

As far anyone knows, Szylak had no formal art training. Born in Ukraine, he was a laborer in Poland during World War II, said Thomas Peck, the attorney for Szylak's daughters. Peck said Szylak met his wife, Katherine, at a displaced persons camp after the war. They came to the U.S. and settled in Hamtramck, a 2-square-mile city dominated by Polish immigrants.

After retirement, Szylak started tinkering and assembling. He got much of the material from local lumber yards or scavenged pieces from curbs on trash pickup days. When one yard became too small, he bought the house next door.

His installation of colors and shapes developed a following, by word of mouth and in a 3-minute documentary posted on YouTube in 2009. There's no tally of visitors, but in a rain-splattered guestbook are names followed by "Italy" and "Germany." Szylak cheerfully greeted the curious and accepted donations when offered.

Musing in the documentary about his art's future, Szylak — who retained a heavy accent — said: "I don't know what happens when I no live. I don't know what happens when I leave my roof. Maybe stay forever ... depends how people like it."

What happens may be decided by a judge, with a pretrial hearing about who has rights to the property set for Sept. 16.

Byega says he wants to preserve the property and would use the "little money involved" from Szylak's will to do so. Peck said Szylak's daughters will listen to offers if they prevail.

What monetary value the installation holds is unknown; Schneider said it's never been appraised. The two homes it sits behind do have some worth. Houses nearby have sold for about $50,000. If sold, the owners could decide to keep the assemblage, or have it torn down.

Szylak's relationship with his daughters deteriorated after his wife died in 2008. He wanted one daughter to move home and care for him. She asked her father to move into her home, but he refused, Peck said.

"He had not been in contact with his daughters for a number of months," Peck said. "They backed off."

Szylak and Byega's mother are listed on a marriage certificate filed in 2013. Until their father's death, the sisters didn't know he had remarried and had never heard of Byega.

"How would you know if you are not home for the past 36 months?" Byega said.

Szylak's bank accounts totaled in the "low six figures," according to Peck, but he left only $100 to each daughter. "Not for lack of love or affection, but for reasons personal to me," he wrote in his will.

City officials hope Szylak's work can be preserved. Kathy Angerer, Hamtramck's community and economic development director, called it "a beloved destination landmark that fully embraces the artistic flavor of our community."

Several neighbors, though, declined to speak about Szylak's yards, and one said no one wanted to know the things she calls it.

Yet, the display has grown on Alyssa Kelley, 24, who lives a few houses away and would see Szylak hammering and adding new items.

"It's a piece of art now. There are no other houses like it," she said.